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74 Interview: NewSchools Venture Fund’s Stacey Childress on 20 Years’ (and $300 Million) Worth of School Breakthroughs & What She’s Learned About Supporting Education Innovation

By Kate Stringer | August 13, 2018

NewSchools Venture Fund

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Too often, education advocates divide themselves into two camps, said Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund. On one side are those who think schools should stick to research-backed practices. On the other are those who think only unexplored, innovative ideas can save struggling schools.

But as the leader of NewSchools for four years, Childress has been trying to merge these two camps by encouraging leaders with new ideas for schools to balance their creativity with what the research says already works.

One example is a school in Nashville that is experimenting with integrating social-emotional learning into the school day. Another is an all-girls elementary school in Texas that encourages young students to develop confidence in STEM subjects.

In total, NewSchools has invested nearly $300 million in 350 education ventures over the past 20 years. Childress spoke with The 74 about what her nonprofit philanthropic organization has learned about what it means to create innovative schools.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The 74: Looking back on its 20-year history, what has NewSchools Venture Fund learned about cultivating innovation in schools?

Childress: A couple of things we’ve learned about starting and supporting innovation in schools is that No. 1, if you’re really thinking about how to change outcomes for kids, it’s really great to back educators who know what they’re doing. When we support teams who are starting new schools, they’re teams of educators who know how to produce better results for students. It’s a big part of how we think now on evaluating proposals and opportunities to invest in innovation. Who is the team? What do they bring to the task? How do they understand the problem they’re trying to solve?

Another thing we’ve learned is it’s often a combination of investment in schools, tools, and people. That bundle of things together matters a lot.

The other things we’re always balancing is proven practices that work for kids and trying new things. … Having room for both of those things in the education sector seems as important as it’s ever been. Sometimes we get caught up in debates over whether or not it should only be what we already know … or it should be … everything’s got to be new and shiny and disruptive. From our perspective, it’s the balance of the two things that over time will actually get us to real sustained change for kids.

Have you found a good way to balance that innovation with research-backed practices?

I can tell you about how we think about evaluating proposals or opportunities from teams of educators that are either trying to start a new school or redesign an existing school. We rarely will look at a team and a proposal that says, “We’re going to start a new school, we’re going to serve three grades, and we’re not going to do anything that anyone’s ever done before.” It’s not a thing we would support. What we do is say, OK, here’s a team that has an idea for middle school. They want to take high-quality curriculum from other contexts that has good results behind it … and the thing they want to innovate on is perhaps how they want to support students’ social-emotional learning in a way that’s integrated in the school day. We’re not going to throw both [academics and social-emotional learning] up in the air. Let’s take some proven curriculum and practices on the academic side and let’s try to take what is starting to be put together on the social-emotional-learning side, and try to push that forward.

If you look at what Valor Collegiate has done in Nashville. … The [founders are] twin brothers. One had been a school leader in high-performing charter networks before; the other is a clinical psychologist for adolescents. They tried to put their best expertise together: “Let’s put all our creative and innovative energy into this challenge of research-backed social-emotional learning practices that come from the academic literature but that have not been translated at scale into a school environment for middle schoolers.” They had very clear expectations with themselves and with their funders that said, “We may not knock it out of the park on academics this year. If not, we will catch up on that in the next couple of years, because what we’re really going to focus on is social-emotional stuff.” They went a long way that year in creating a more portable, defensible approach to social-emotional learning, and they were also the highest-performing middle school in Nashville on academics. That’s innovation: How do I take the best of what’s known and try to do it the best I can while using my willingness to take a little risk with things that aren’t quite proven yet, but improve them as I go?

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What are some good practices you’ve observed and supported about how to cultivate and find educators who have experience and know what they’re doing?

We are always interested in other people’s ideas about this one. For us, we try to push out our funding opportunities as far and as wide as we can. One shift we made at NewSchools when I came in four years ago was to say, “We’re going to start batching some of our investment processes so we can be considering lots of teams at the same time.” Before, we would just have an open rolling process and evaluate each [proposal] one at a time. But as we were moving into this new phase of our investments in schools, we said, “There are a lot of people who have new ideas for new kinds of schools … We are quite confident we don’t know them all and and we are quite confident they don’t know us.” So the first thing we do is try to push out our funding opportunities so they get as close to the ground [to reach] these educators who are currently in a school somewhere and are frustrated by how much they can or can’t do. Or they have a new idea but the context they’re in is just not going to allow them to put it into practice. Or maybe this is a group of folks who have started a school together before, it’s gone well, and they’re ready to move on and try something new. We’re trying to let them know that perhaps NewSchools is a good source of initial funding for them as they try to get their new school off the ground.

I think we’re getting better and better at that. For example, the first year we launched this strategy was 2015. I think we were able to get funding proposals from 30 or 40 teams that first year. That’s when we said, “Hey, we have to work a lot harder to reach communities to let them know about us.” We worked hard to get our names out into those communities. So this last round, which we’ve just recently closed, we had about 170 applications from teams in 46 states, cities all over the country, who had ideas for schools in their communities. … Teams need to understand the community. We want to see evidence of that, including their engagement with families. Our preference is, someone on that team has led a school before. Then we can see a track record of results from the past. And that at least one, if not more, in that team have been classroom teachers so they understand what it’s like to create schools that work for kids.

Sometimes we’ll see teams that have some but not all of that. If their idea is compelling, if they really understand the community and have touched a few of those bases, we’ll go ahead and invest in them for a year of planning with some milestones about filling out the rest of their team.

A big part of what we try to do is … diversify the leaders that we’re seeing so that we’re not just re-funding the usual suspects that have gotten a lot of philanthropy in the last 10 or 20 years. We’re happy to look at those teams too, and fund folks like that, but we’re also trying to broaden the network and diversify the pipeline.

That first year, in 2015, 21 percent of the founders in that cohort were black or Latino. This last group, where we had 170 applications and ended up funding 23 or 24, 61 percent of those founders were black or Latino. That’s been a big focus for us, because as we see what’s going on demographically in the country, 40 percent of students in our public schools generally are black or Latino. We think the folks who are creating, leading, founding, and teaching in schools that serve this most diverse generation of kids we’ve ever had in our country ought to reflect that.

Part of the problem U.S. schools have faced when it comes to attracting diverse teachers is low teacher pay, as seen recently in the wave of teacher strikes. What are some solutions NewSchools has seen?

While we’ve certainly been following the efforts that teachers in various states have been undertaking to raise their voices for fair pay for themselves and more resources for their kids, the schools that we fund in general are matching up with whatever the pay for teachers is in their local markets, so they’re not competing directly with local schools that are already open by trying to pay their teachers more. What we see is trying to create new schools that work differently or have different themes or different focuses than the schools or the neighborhoods that they’re opening up in, but not come head-to-head in competition for teacher talent by trying to pay more. What we’re asking schools that we fund to do is to be sustainable on the local public school dollar that they get by the time they’re fully enrolled. We believe that if we’re encouraging people to create a school that is so innovative or that pay teachers more than the local schools can pay teachers, then we’re not actually helping create innovations that are sustainable in that local community or in schools more generally.

Could you share some specific examples of some of the most promising innovations coming out of NewSchools’ work?

NewSchools has long been known as a funder of charter schools. But back in 2015, we said this broader definition of success and all the ideas we need from folks about how to create schools that can really help every single kid … that work is going on in schools of all kinds, not just in charter schools. We began for the first time in our history to say, “We’re willing to fund teams in school districts, too.”

One we’re really excited about is in Dallas, where they have created this innovation zone, where all kinds of interesting school leaders and teachers inside the school district are creating new schools that speak to the hopes and strengths of the communities that they know so well. We have funded a great school leader named Nancy Bernardino to start a vision that she had gotten approval from her district for, called Solar Preparatory School for Girls. It’s a single-gender, STEM-focused school inside a district for elementary school girls. They are really doing amazing stuff. They are finishing up their second school year. One challenge here is, kids are still young, so next year they’ll be taking state tests [for the first time], so we don’t have that kind of data on them just yet, but we’ve got a lot of internal data on student growth from other kinds of assessments. They really are taking to heart this expanded definition of success and ensuring that girls are building their agency, their self-confidence, their view of themselves as scientists and engineers and mathematicians.

Other districts in Texas are trying to get Nancy to come to their districts and start Solar Prep schools. The district in Dallas is super smart, and they’re saying, “Actually, there are more families here that want that kind of school, including for boys.” So we just funded in the last few weeks the second Solar Prep school in Dallas for boys, which will launch this fall. We’re confident there are going to be more Solar Prep schools in Dallas, and depending on Nancy’s appetite, to flesh out into other cities the model she’s been creating.

We’re super excited about how to get great people with great ideas that come with the autonomy and flexibility they need, a little bit of support from us and a lot of support from their local communities to create one school for sure, but potentially to create a number of schools that work really great for kids.

For schools that are considering transitioning to a more personalized learning approach for their students, what are the most critical components to implement?

The first important step is for a team of educators to really understand what they’re trying to accomplish for kids and why an approach like personalized learning is a good fit for that. I know that sounds basic, but that’s really important, and oftentimes when an idea like personalized learning becomes incredibly popular and gets out ahead of implementation and good practice, sometimes folks are just grabbing it because their schools are struggling and they’re just trying to serve their kids better and it sounds good. Who doesn’t want to make sure you meet the needs of every kid? Our first advice … is, go through a process and identify what outcomes you’re actually looking for for your kids that you’re not satisfied with now. … What are those aims? What would it mean for kids to meet them? What are you actually doing now that seems to be working toward that? As I said earlier, throwing everything out and trying everything new is very rarely the answer. What are the things you’re doing now that are already working with some of your kids? What are those gaps, and how might an approach like personalized learning really help you meet the needs of every kid?

It’s not one tool you bring in like an adaptive piece of software. What are the mix of things that support your teachers, that are coherent with each other and with your goals for your kids? It might sound basic, but it’s what we find folks are missing about defining goals and objectives.

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