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What does the crowd think? Investing in educational entrepreneurs

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

City Councilman Bill Green is co-organizer of an event Wednesday to bring together education entrepreneurs and spur innovation. From the lineage of the Sunday Soup movement, which has manifested in Philadelphia as PhilaSoup and Philly STAKE, comes Philly SEED (Supporting Entrepreneurship in Education). PhillyCore Leaders and the Spruce Foundation are also helping organize the event, which uses a crowd-funding model for prizes and crowd-sourcing model for ideas.

I have participated in PhilaSoup so it is interesting to see another take on the model. The first thing that stands out about Philly SEED is the amount of the prizes. Unlike the few hundreds of dollars that many of these types of eat/present/award events give away, Philly SEED is offering some serious money: $5,000 for the winner of a group of “emerging entrepreneurs.”

Applicants are split up into two categories:

  • Emerging entrepreneurs are relatively new, with small staffs and less than $25,000 in revenue, and
  • Expanding/established entrepreneurs have a longer track record and more than $25,000 in revenue to-date.

Winners in the expanding/established group receive in-kind services from local firms including six pro-bono hours of service from legal, accounting, consulting, and communications groups. Perhaps even more valuable will be access to some of Philadelphia’s prominent foundations, including the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Foundation. Both of these foundations have given sizeable donations to schools and the School District over the years.

With prizes of such value, the cost of attending the event is significantly higher than other events in the same mold. Tickets are on sale online through Wednesday afternoon: $40 entry or $70 for a ticket for yourself and the sponsorship of a teacher, principal, or parent. Tickets will also be available at the door.

Along with ticket proceeds, PECO and the Knight Foundation provided $2,000 each toward the event. When discussing why this model for fostering educational entrepreneurship is important, Green spoke of preferring a democratic selection process. The best idea is more likely to be picked by many engaged people than by a panel of “expert judges,” he explained. The organizers of Philly SEED do realize that the ticket price puts attendance out of reach of some people, however.

Audience members will hear from and vote for 12 applicants between the two groups. Over 40 applications were submitted. Of those, six presenters were selected for each group.

Emerging entrepreneurs presenters:

Expanding/established presenters:

Something I find very interesting about this event is discovering who will be the engaged audience.

Before Philly SEED came onto my radar, I was unfamiliar with the PhillyCORE Leaders group. Green staffer and PhillyCORE Leaders member Rachel Meadows explained that the group formed only in January.

Comprised of “young entrepreneurs, parents, executives, and practitioners,” PhillyCORE (Coalition of Rising Education) Leaders come from a of mix of the public and private sectors, though skew more toward the charter/ed-reformer crowd. While there are educators amongst the group, only two hail from traditional public schools. PhillyCORE Leaders have done “targeted outreach to ensure education entrepreneurs, principals, teachers, venture capitalists, and heads of education-focused foundations are in attendance” at the event, explained Meadows.

The event also provides Green a platform to engage with and promote education. Green has been a vocal critic of Philadelphia’s education system while serving on council. As the keynote speaker at this year’s EduCon, Green described his education policy as to “urgently expand and replicate what works and shut down what doesn’t.” Philly SEED looks to be an event to spotlight what is worth growing.

When I asked Green about what specific academic results he hoped would come out of Philly SEED, the discussion turned toward how to reliably measure student success. With Philadelphia, and seemingly the rest of the country, roiled in a cheating scandal, reliable data is hard to come by. Green wondered if the release of student reading level scores based on the Woodcock, MacGinitie or WRAP tests would be better data. He also guessed that people would be “outraged” if they saw how many students are reading below grade level.

Two of the Philly SEED applicants, Springboard Collective and Investing in Ourselves, have literacy-based proposals. Though no specific academic goals were stated, Green trusts the event to select innovations that will move the needle on student success.

In our conversation, Green came off as genuinely interested in Philadelphia education. He knows a lot of the charter players well, and can cite programs he thinks are working like Success Academies at Renaissance Charter Schools and test score gains at a number of turnaround schools. Much like the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, he has less to say about expanding what works in traditional public schools. This could have more to do with his loathing of bureaucracies than disinterest in District schools.

Philly SEED seems like it could be the type of event that broadens the perspective of Green and all attendees on what could work throughout Philadelphia. I look forward with cautious optimism that events like this can change the tide from the top-down, privatizing ed-reform Philadelphia has grown used to, toward a grassroots and democratic innovation movement.

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