NewSchools Venture Fund Summit Showcases Charters, Ed Tech, Change

Associate Editor

San Francisco

A mix of stakeholders in charter schools, education technology and the investment community convened here near the airport Wednesday to talk about how education is changing, and how to change it faster.

It was the 16th such summit convened by the NewSchools Venture Fund, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit venture-philanthropy firm that invests in changing public education for low-income children. It was the first under the leadership of new CEO Stacey Childress.

The sold-out conference had 1,000 attendees, with almost as many on a waiting list, according to Childress.

While clearly a gathering with the agenda of increasing the presence of charters and choice in public schools, it also explored issues of race and equity.

Ben Jealous, the former president and CEO of the NAACP, was asked in the closing session what the path forward looked like.

“You have to be able to create a ‘strange bedfellows’ organization,” said Jealous, who is now a partner at Kapor Capital, the venture-capital investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, based in Oakland, Calif.

Jealous talked about the need to strive for dreams large enough that they inspire diverse audiences with different agendas to action.

The education reform movement, teachers’ unions, and parents’ organizations need to find the one thing they want to get done in education within a year, and do it, he said. “Nobody will be able to stop you,” said Jealous.

After the conference concluded, Childress said that message resonated with her.

“We’ve gotten just about all we can out of schools designed and built for a different time and different purpose,” Childress said. “What’s it going to take to reimagine what schools look like?”

While decrying caps on charter schools and the facilities issues many face, Childress said she also believes in district schools. Educational leaders in both charters and districts have trouble transferring their “lessons learned” for success beyond their classrooms to other schools, she said.

Investments in Education

Kicking off the event, Childress pointed to the fact that NewSchools’ investments created more than 170,000 seats in 442 charter schools across the country since the nonprofit was founded in 1998.  

She also referred to what she said was validation of charters’ ability to deliver results from a study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, which showed that urban charters out-perform their district counterparts in reading and math. She did not mention the other aspect of the study, which is that researchers found pockets of poor performance among charters across the country.

To put a face on the success stories, Childress invited three students who are excelling in environments where NewSchools has had investments for an interview in front of the audience, which had been given pennants to wave with the students’ names on them.

In an interview after the session, I asked each student what kind of ed-tech product he or she would create if given the opportunity.

Sofia Canela Torres, a senior at Redwood City, Calif.-based Summit Preparatory Charter High School who is headed to Mills College in Oakland, said she would make an app or a program that could help students prioritize and schedule the steps to completing a project, with short- and longer term deadlines.

Edgar Ventura, who attends M.S. 88 in Brooklyn and spoke about the Teach to One math program he uses, said he would create an app so kids and teachers could collaborate in any subject when they weren’t in school. And Kasai Rogers, a 7th grader at D.C. International School who has been studying Chinese since he was 5, said he would just make Google Classroom available to every student.

NewSchools also showcased ed-tech products they have invested in, and the entrepreneurs behind them. The organizations’ Seed Fund invested $12 million from 2012 through this year, when it launched as a for-profit. Among the companies the seed fund helped start are eSpark Learning and Newsela, she said. (As of Jan. 30, the seed fund wound down its operations, and a for-profit seed fund took its place. NewSchools Capital, LLC is a joint venture between NewSchools and the Seed management team.)

The event started on a somber note, as Childress paid tribute to Dave Goldberg, the CEO of SurveyMonkey, who died last week at the age of 47 while on vacation in Mexico. Goldberg had been a NewSchools Venture Fund board member, and had meetings scheduled throughout the event. Goldberg shared the organization’s passion to improve education, she said.

Looking ahead at the next 10 years, Childress said a focus “will be about building on our successes with great academic expectations,” while recognizing that that’s not enough. She said students will have to know how to persist, and advocate with adults to get what they want and need to succeed in college, or whatever they choose to do after high school.

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