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Great Schools Compact asks Gates Foundation for $2.5 million

Photo: Benjamin Herold

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

By Benjamin Herold for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Seeking to create a “pipeline” of principals and teachers who are better equipped to deal with the real-world challenges found in Philadelphia’s toughest schools, city education leaders submitted a three-year, $2.5 million grant proposal this week to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The request is the culmination of several months of work by the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, a coalition representing more than 300 District, charter, and Catholic schools that has jointly pledged to eliminate 50,000 “low-performing seats” over the next five years.

“We have different types of schools in this city. We can either aggressively move to have them work together, or we can pretend [the diversity] doesn’t exist and hope everything turns out all right in the end,” said Lori Shorr, the city’s chief education officer and the chair of the committee overseeing the Great Schools Compact’s work.

Philadelphia is one of eight finalists across the country competing for more than $40 million in grants and related investments that the Gates Foundation plans to award for district-charter collaborations. The compact’s 16-page proposal to the foundation outlines three major initiatives designed to increase “schools’ access to the talent, resources, and tools they need in order to improve their capacity to prepare students for college and work.”

  • The Philadelphia School Partnership would help establish – and possibly run – an “urban leadership residency program” that would eventually train and certify up to 50 prospective principals a year;
  • Mastery Charter Schools would expand its existing teacher coaching and induction program, with the District pledging to have all its teacher coaches participate; and
  • The District, charters, and Archdiocese would pool resources to develop new benchmark tests aligned with new Common Core state standards.

Mastery CEO Scott Gordon said that his organization, now the city’s third-largest provider by student enrollment, would look to both give and receive if the Philadelphia compact is awarded Gates funding. Gordon described it as the sign of a “new day” in cross-sector collaboration among city schools.

“The walls that separated the District from charters from the Archdiocese are disappearing,” he said.

Both Mastery and the District have already expressed interest in having principal candidates participate in a new residency program, which would be modeled after similar efforts in New York, Chicago and other cities.

The Philadelphia School Partnership, which has been facilitating the compact, would either run the residency program itself or engage an external partner, such as New York-based New Leaders for New Schools, to do so. An initial group of 12-15 principal candidates would begin the residency program next summer.

The focus would be on preparing, and eventually certifying, principals capable of serving in Philadelphia’s “turnaround schools” – low-performing schools that are targeted for intervention by either a District team or an outside charter operator as part of the Renaissance Schools initiative.

“We plan on continuing to do turnarounds, so building [human] capacity at this juncture is very important,” said the city’s Shorr.

Principal candidates who participate in the residency would receive intensive training in leadership and management skills. While serving as assistant principals for a year, they would get hands-on experience with concrete tasks like developing a school budget, designing and implementing an Individualized Education Plan for a special-needs student, and evaluating teachers.

“Rather than tests and papers, participants will have crucible experiences in their field work,” the proposal reads.

“The city is rich in graduate education schools, but some school operators report that candidates from these schools’ leadership programs are not well-prepared for the challenges of urban schools.”

That real-world emphasis is also a major part of Mastery’s Teacher Effectiveness Institute, an existing “train-the-trainers” effort already funded by the Gates Foundation that would be scaled up if the compact received new money.

Teachers who go through traditional colleges of education tend to get “great conceptual knowledge and understanding,” Gordon said, but they often lack the “hands-on skills and strategies that [they] need every day.”

Well over a dozen local and national charter operators have taken part in Mastery’s program, as have representatives from school districts including Baltimore, Detroit, and New York. The District has already indicated that it will send all of its instructional coaches through the three-day institute.

“We have focused for the last six years on teacher quality,” Gordon said. “Why wouldn’t [the Philadelphia compact participants] take advantage of that work?”

Gordon stressed, though, that Mastery’s teacher training model is “not intended to be the solution for every single teacher” in the city, nor is it the only resource that will be made available to Mastery’s own teachers.

“There is other great work being done elsewhere,” he said. “Mastery is going to take advantage of that.”

The final piece of work that the grant request sought to fund from a possible Gates Foundation grant is supporting city schools’ efforts to implement more rigorous state standards, part of a national effort known as the “Common Core.” The goal is to develop a list of questions that can be used on benchmark tests beginning next fall – and to save school providers’ money by allowing them to pool resources.

“Instead of having the Archdiocese, the District, and individual charters [each] purchase [test] questions, we would purchase them together,” explained Shorr.

The District has already issued a Request for Proposals to get that effort underway, she said.

The Gates Foundation is expected to announce the grant winners in October or November of this year.

The compact’s request represents a dramatic scaling-back of the group’s original proposal to the foundation, a copy of which was obtained by the Notebook/NewsWorks through a request made under state Right to Know law.

In that proposal, the compact requested $7 million and outlined a dozen major initiatives, including big-ticket items like creating a universal application system that would cover every District and charter school in the city; making vacant District facilities more accessible to charter operators; and overhauling the District’s Office of Charter Schools.

Shorr said those efforts are still ongoing, but they were not things the Gates Foundation expressed interest in supporting.

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