74 Interview: ‘The City Fund’ Founders Talk About Their New Campaign to Identify America’s Most Innovative Public School Systems and the First Metro Areas Where They’ll Be Investing

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When Neerav Kingsland announced the creation of The City Fund this summer, he wrote on his blog about the need to scale up proven school reform efforts that had already made a mark at the city level: “While there are amazing public schools across the country, few cities have been able to increase educational opportunity for all children. Over the past fifteen years, this has begun to change,” Kingsland wrote.

“Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans have made their entire public education systems better. Other cities, like Indianapolis and Camden, have taken these breakthroughs, tailored them to their local contexts, and seen promising early results. Because of this work, hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from a better public education. These students are more prepared than ever to further their education, get good jobs, and lead lives filled with opportunity. We are now creating a new non-profit organization, The City Fund, to expand on this work.”

In the three months since the initial announcement, the organization has ramped up its outreach to local leaders in an effort to better identify the most successful and innovative systems of public schools. The group has also raised funds to help cities get there; as reported by Chalkbeat, The City Fund has raised at least $200 million to accelerate its efforts.

The 74 talked with Kingsland and two of his City Fund partners, Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo and Kevin Shafer, about why they joined forces to create the new organization and what city-level efforts have inspired them, and they reveal for the first time what local efforts they’ve already made grants to, in hopes of scaling success.

The 74: Neerav, can you tell us why you all formed The City Fund?

Neerav Kingsland: We formed The City Fund to work with local city leaders to help all students get a great public education. It’s an injustice that if you’re born to a low-income, minority family in America, you’re less likely to get access to a great public school than your wealthier and whiter peers. We want to be a part of changing this reality.

We think there’s reason to be hopeful. Over the past decade, a few cities have made big improvements in their public education systems. New Orleans and Washington, D.C., used to be considered some of the worst public school systems in the country. Now they’re amongst the most improved. Cities like Denver and Camden are getting more students a better public education than ever before.

All of these places still have a way to go, but their rate of improvement has been remarkable.

We don’t think this is random. All of these cities gave more power to educators to meet the needs of the students they work with every day. All of these cities helped families find a school that met the individual needs of their own children. We formed The City Fund to help these cities continue to sharpen their approaches, and to support other cities who are interested in using similar strategies to meet the needs of their own communities.

Kameelah and Kevin, both of you recently worked in other cities that were doing some fairly innovative work – Kameelah in Indianapolis and Kevin in Camden, New Jersey. Can you share with us why you left your posts to join The City Fund, and what you each hope to accomplish?

Kevin Shafer: I was fortunate enough to spend the last five years as the chief innovation officer for the Camden City School District. I worked with city leaders to create new public school models, new public facilities, and support talented educators. Working with so many amazing colleagues and community members was a privilege that I’ll always be incredibly grateful for.

I joined The City Fund because I’ve come to believe deeply in the potential of local leaders giving more power to educators and families so they can meet the needs of their students. My hope is that I can share some of the lessons from Camden with leaders across the country.

I think we learned a lot about how to work with families to both meet their most pressing needs and find solutions that can make a real difference. One of the first things we did in Camden was work to make our schools safer. No child should be scared to go to school, and it was critical that we found ways to try and address that challenge right off the bat. Down the road, we also took some pretty significant steps to transform some of our most struggling schools through partnerships with proven nonprofit organizations. It’s still early, and there’s a lot of work left to be done, but there are real signs of progress throughout all of this work. I’m proud to have been a part of a great team that made that effort and eager to work with other cities so that they can find solutions that work for their families and communities.

Kameelah Shaheed-Diallo: For the past six years, I led strategy and community engagement for The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis nonprofit working to ensure all kids have access to high-quality public schools. Indianapolis now has innovative partnerships where educators are empowered to launch new schools with the school district and educators have the freedom to design schools to best meet the needs of students. But it’s messy and complicated work, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.

At The Mind Trust, we learned some critical lessons about the importance of engaging communities and families in conversations about how to best deliver public education. In 2011, for example, The Mind Trust put out a report with solutions for how to improve public education. The focus of the report was to push more decisions to the school level, give teachers and principals more autonomy, and hold schools accountable for results. While there were some good ideas in the report, we didn’t do enough to understand the perspectives of the people the proposed changes would affect the most. That experience taught us a lot as an organization, including the fact that those closest to the problems are often best positioned to voice and design solutions to solve them.

Tough lessons are often the best teacher. We spent the next five years correcting those mistakes. We worked with community stakeholders, and listening to parents and families to better understand how schools were and were not meeting their needs.

I joined The City Fund to continue to support city-based efforts to improve public education and invest in the types of educators, leaders, and community members I saw making change in Indianapolis. I’ve seen firsthand how solutions designed by local people closest to the challenge are the most sustainable. My hope is that more cities are able to dramatically transform their school systems to better serve students who have historically been left behind, and that parents and families are at the center of this change.

Kameelah, each of you have talked about a few common things — namely increasing the number of high-quality schools and ensuring all students have equitable access to those schools — can you tell me some more specifics about what you mean by this?

Shaheed-Diallo: I’m inspired by the educators across the country creating new amazing public schools. There is something special about walking into a school that was once just an educator’s dream and now is doing great things for kids. We’ve seen this in traditional district schools — which have been a big part of the transformation in Indianapolis — and public charter schools. At The City Fund, we want to help more educators create innovative public schools.

But it’s not enough to have a city with great public schools. We also need to make sure that families have equitable access to these schools. That’s why we are also focused on helping local leaders design systems that establish common definitions of quality and make school services and enrollment fair. We believe, in the cities where progress is being made, it’s not just about improving quality but the collaboration between city, district, charter, and other nonprofit leaders that help ensure that the best opportunities are available to the children who need them most.

That makes a lot of sense. Can you talk more about what this looks like in practice?

Shaheed-Diallo: In a number of cities, there is a local organization or a network of individuals focused on increasing the number of high-quality schools. In Washington, D.C., for example, Education Forward D.C., a local education nonprofit, has worked alongside multiple chancellors and mayors to support and sustain the significant increases in student achievement across the city.

When we talk about empowering educators to create new schools, in many cases these schools are charters. But leaders around the country are creating new models and approaches that give educators the same freedom and flexibility and have seen great results — such as the Innovation Network Schools in Indianapolis.

One example that comes to mind for me is Cold Spring Academy, which was a successful district magnet school with a strong track record of academic success in Indianapolis. Due to the school’s environmental focus, the principal wanted freedom and flexibility to extend the school day to allow more time for STEM-based instructional blocks and real-life job-shadowing opportunities for students. The principal applied to the district and converted her school to an Innovation Network School, which granted her freedom over curricular and academic decision-making, budgeting, and staffing. The principal built a local nonprofit board, which contracts with the district to oversee the school. The school expanded on its successful partnership with Marian University to offer even more opportunities to students and staff. Cold Spring is now governed by a nonprofit board with additional oversight by the district’s elected school board. This creative district partnership empowers educators to design schools to best meet the needs of their students.

We are seeing many of these schools, districts, and nonprofit partners work in creative ways to ensure that when these schools are created, that they are accessible to students who need them most, either by implementing enrollment systems that give all residents access to these schools, zoning them to prioritize neighborhoods or populations where the need is great, or even creating rules to ensure that students from high-need backgrounds are being prioritized in admissions for high-demand schools. We want to work with local leaders to build on strategies like these and to learn more about how they can be employed to make sure students and their families are finding schools that are best for them.

Kevin, what do you say to the critics who contend that increasing the number of charter schools hurts the traditional public school system? What did your experience in Camden teach you about this issue?

Shafer: That this wasn’t my experience. In my time serving Camden City Schools, one lesson became incredibly clear — parents tended to focus less on what type of school their students attended. What they did care about, deeply, was that their students were able to attend a school that was safe, warm, welcoming, and prepared their students for success.

The other thing we saw in Camden was that existing traditional public schools improved right alongside new renaissance and charter schools. Thanks to incredible hard work by teachers, school leaders, parents, and so many others, we saw district and charter schools improve together to the benefit of an entire city. There are other examples where this has been the case as well. In Washington, D.C., for instance, the traditional public schools and the charters have both made significant gains on state and national assessments over the past decade. Our hope is that this trend continues and that creating new schools continues to make all public schools better.

Neerav, there’s been a wide mix of reactions to the initial announcement that you posted to your blog back in July. In your opinion, what is the best argument against The City Fund’s approach? Do any of the criticisms resonate with you — might you be wrong?

Kingsland: Our public education system is incredibly complex, and making it better is very hard. One piece of research I always come back to is Roland Fryer’s review of 196 education studies where he found only four things that seemed to consistently work at scale — pre-K, tutoring, high-quality curriculum, and charter schools. Clearly a lot has been tried and not a lot has worked. We try to keep this in mind.

I think there are many reasonable arguments against our work. Some point to the fact that most countries with very high-performing public school systems haven’t taken the approach of the cities we hold up as successes — except for the Dutch, whose approach has much in common with these cities. This is true, and I think it should make us cautious.

It’s also fair to argue that other reforms are better bets. It’s possible that personalized learning, early childhood education, increased public funding, or a deeper focus on integration could be the best way to make public education better. Or perhaps the best way to increase student learning is to address poverty directly by giving poor families more money.

While I don’t think our strategy is at odds with any of these approaches, it is possible that our effort is just not the right focus. I don’t think this is true, but it could be. Lastly, I do think one check on our efforts is that they can only really work if parents want them. A new school, be it district or charter, can only thrive if families send their children to the school. I think this is a really important aspect of our work.

Regarding that preliminary announcement, can you tell me a bit more about the fund’s preliminary plans? Which cities are you going to be supporting in the immediate term? When do you plan to launch?

Kingsland: We can tell you a bit more about that now. In addition to the continued investments that we’re supporting from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we’ve also made some initial grants to support the work in some additional cities: Atlanta, Indianapolis, Newark, Denver, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Nashville. In each city, we’re supporting some combination of local nonprofits, community and parent advocacy organizations, and high-performing schools. We’ve chosen these cities because we believe they have a real chance to increase educational opportunity for all their students.

On an organizational note, members of our team are also now doing some work as part of an organization called Public School Allies, a new 501(c)(4), that supports local leaders in advocating for the positive changes they think matter most to their communities.  And finally, we’re excited to be officially launching our website early in the new year, where information about the cities we work with — and the grants we’re making — will be available in one transparent place.

And what about your funding? We’ve talked a lot about local solutions, but you’ve shared that your funders are primarily the Arnold Foundation and the Hastings Fund, who are national family foundations. How do their priorities play into your decision-making?

Kingsland: We want to be transparent about our funding as well. We’re a nonprofit working for the public good, and we’re OK with scrutiny. Along with the Hastings Fund and the Arnold Foundation, we’ve also received funds from the Dell Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Ballmer Group.

But our strategy doesn’t come from them. It comes from the cities that have made public education better, and it will be improved in the coming years by working with local leaders, parents, community organizations, and business leaders to find solutions that do right by their students.

Kameelah, tell me more about the organization’s plans — what’s most important to you over the next few years?

Shaheed-Diallo: The most important thing for us is to identify a small group of cities that already have local leadership aspiring to drive changes aligned with our core beliefs. We want to see if we can help them make their public education systems much better for students who have historically been underserved.

Over the next decade, we’d love to see 10 or so cities show that there might be a better way to deliver public education. And I’m personally excited that Indianapolis continues to be one of them. So much good has happened there over the past decade, and the work isn’t finished yet. But we have bipartisan and community support, and I’m confident the work will continue.

At the end of the day, public education is one of the most important foundations for success in our country. We’re inspired by the idea that city leaders across the country might show us that there are new ways to make that foundation stronger for their students. That’s why we exist.

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