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Philadelphia wins Gates Foundation recognition with compact pitch

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A compact promising to support and try to replicate the highest-performing District, charter, and even parochial schools has earned Philadelphia a long-awaited chance at Bill Gates’ millions.

In a Tuesday ceremony held at Renaissance Charter Stetson Middle School, representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation added Philadelphia to a list of 14 other school districts already eligible to compete for $40 million in grants the foundation will make available next year.

Don Shalvey, deputy director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College-Ready Programs and a Philadelphia native, said the foundation took special note of Philadelphia’s intention to collaborate with parochial schools. Shalvey said Philadelphia’s Great Schools Compact is the only one among the 15 approved to bridge a partnership with parochial providers.

Though the foundation passed over Philadelphia’s compact a scant two weeks ago, a recent re-submission included a more detailed timeline and a more ambitious plan to convert 50,000 seats in low-performing schools into seats in high-performing schools through closings and charter conversions by 2016.

“It got bolder and more specific,” Shalvey said of Philadelphia’s plan. “It’s more than just intention, it’s moving intention into commitment.”

Philadelphia will receive a $100,000 implementation grant, with more to come if the District can sell Gates on the breadth and ingenuity of their compact. Should Philadelphia win a Gates grant more public schools could go the way of Stetson, a public school handed over to the charter provider ASPIRA through the Renaissance Schools initiative.

Mayor Michael Nutter, SRC Chair Pedro Ramos, and Interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery attended and spoke at the ceremony, held in Stetson’s cafeteria. All three offered high praise for the ccompact and for the Gates Foundation’s school reform efforts.

Addressing a uniform-clad fleet of students, Nutter called for new thinking on education policy.

“We have to be less handcuffed by tradition, structure, and the way we used to do things,” Nutter said.

Nutter also took a moment to praise the new SRC he helped assemble, saying, “This is quite possibly…the best five people that have served together on the SRC in its 10 years.”

The students and media also heard from Global Leadership Academy Charter School CEO Naomi Booker, ASPIRA CEO Alfredo Calderon, and Philadelphia School Partnership Executive Director Mark Gleason.

Philadelphia School Partnership has an expressed interest in strengthening parochial schools and a goal of raising $100 million to invest in high-performing schools by 2016.

The plight of the city’s Catholic schools has come into focus following Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent announcement that the archdiocese will recommend school closures in January. Parochial schools in the five-county Philadelphia archdiocese educate 49,000 students, down from a high of 208,000 in 1965. Parochial school advocates hoped a proposed voucher bill would bolster those numbers, but the legislation’s defeat in the Pennsylvania State House puts those hopes on hold.