Venture Fund Project Backs ‘Early Stage’ Schools, and Social-Emotional Growth

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The NewSchools Venture Fund, a self-described “venture philanthropy,” is launching a new grant program to support the design of charter and regular public schools from the ground up, a project that will place a big focus on encouraging alternative ways of measuring students’ success.

Called NewSchools Catapult, the effort seeks to support early-stage schools intended to open in the fall of 2016. For charter operators, “early stage” means they currently operate no schools, or one at the most.

The NewSchools Venture Fund, based in Oakland, Calif., says the effort is the first step in a new national strategy to rethink “time, talent, and technology” in schools, so that instructional approaches and school design are focused on helping teachers and meeting students’ specific needs.

One of the more intriguing criteria the venture fund will use in judging applicants for NewSchoolsCatapult is requiring that they come up with an “expanded definition of student success.”

That means that while schools will be expected to set goals for improving academic proficiency, graduation rates, and other measures, they will also be asked to show how they’re focused on cultivating other skills. Those skills could include advanced cognitive ability such as creative and cognitive prowess; deep pursuit of knowledge in specific subject areas like science, math, and foreign languages; or social-emotional competency and perseverance, sometimes known as “grit.”

The role that schools play in students’ social-emotional development has received increased focus from researchers and policymakers in recent years, as have academic models that seek to engage students while also cultivating independence and critical thought. (See my colleague Evie Blad’s reporting on schools’ interest in promoting social-emotional health.)

“We’re trying to really conceptualize what these features are, and what they look like in schools,” said Scott Benson, managing partner for the innovative schools team at the NewSchools Venture Fund, in an interview.

“Habits of mind” and a “broad-based definition of student success,” Benson added, “is something we’re trying to elevate as an area of priority.”

School developers will also be judged on a number of other criteria, including their intent to concentrate on the needs of minority and traditionally underserved students; their focus on innovative school designs that emphasize “personalized learning,” or instruction tailored to individual students’ needs; their school leadership teams; and their desire to replicate their model and grow.

The deadline for applying is August 14.

Only nonprofit operators of charter schools, along with operators of traditional, district-run public schools, are eligible. The NewSchools Venture Fund would like to fund 10 to 15 applicants for the project, and plans to provide them with amounts of about $100,000 each, Benson said. 

Winners of those initial awards will then be eligible to apply for larger awards to support their expansion, which will probably average about $400,000, he added. The NewSchools’ Venture Fund’s goal is to make a new set of Catapult awards every year, Benson said. 

Founded in 1998, NewSchools raises money from individuals and institutions, which it then invests in school efforts that the organization sees as potentially transformative. To date, the organization says it has poured more than $150 million in over 300 charter schools around the country, and put $9 million in ed-tech startup companies through the NewSchools Seed Fund.

CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to give the proper deadline for applying for for Catapult funds. It’s Aug. 14.

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