Below is a series of breakout session recaps from the National Forum on K-12 Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. Scroll through the dropdown menu for audio clips and write-ups of primary themes and takeaways from each session.
The First Five Years: Emerging Opportunities for Impact in Early Education
“Early childhood is like the Wild West. It’s like arriving in Arizona in 1880.”
That’s how Katharine Stevens of the American Enterprise Institute described the research and policy space within early childcare and education. Because the early childhood research and policy space is still new, Stevens described it as the “Wild West,” meaning research aims to establish quality as opposed to retroactively fixing problems that already exist. She also went into the importance of making neural connections during a child’s early years.
Madeleine Bayard of the Rodel Foundation led a discussion with Stevens; Jessica Sager of All Our Kin; and Jack McCarthy of the AppleTree Institute at the 2017 K-12 National Forum.
“A lot of times we talk about preK it gets confusing because pre (before) kindergarten can mean anything before kindergarten but often what we’re talking about is three and four year-olds in a structured setting like [AppleTree],” said Bayard. “And we were talking before about how childcare has this old connotation of babysitting or warehousing and we’re really trying to change that and make it about quality.”
McCarthy shared the story of Kayla, who was an AppleTree scholar on the autism spectrum, and lived in a homeless shelter with her mother and brother in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. She attended the local AppleTree campus where along with her brother, was able to receive the special education services she needed to do well in the classroom.
“It was a great experience for Kayla who was on the autism spectrum; she really needed more. And because we have this freedom and we’re a research-based organization, we’ve developed a three-tiered response to intervention model for early childhood education,” said Jack McCarthy, president and CEO of the AppleTree Institute. “You identify what the children’s needs are and the teachers have multiple ways of trying to teach the same lesson or the same concept and children don’t progress unless they master that. And so it gives teachers a lot of extra tools and extra flexibility and it’s really a competency-based system.”
Sager works with caregivers in Connecticut, many of whom are themselves low-income, and provides them with business resources and licensing so they can deliver high-quality service to families most in need of something stable for their children.
“When you have a family whose life is in tremendous disarray, either they’re struggling with homelessness or drug addiction or other challenges. Sometimes, that childcare is the one stable, consistent place where that child and that parent can go everyday and they know exactly what they’re going to get and be treated with love and respect,” said Sager.
McCarthy sees a viable role for schools like AppleTree that specialize in early education providers to partner with districts and networks that offer high-quality education at the elementary level.
“If we can do this well, we can be a feeder program for other schools…regardless of governance model,” said McCarthy.
McCarthy reinforced Governor Jeb Bush’s remarks from the night before on philanthropy being the “research and development” arm of K-12 education.
“You’re sort of the research and development arm in education. And the things that really are needed are better measurement. We [AppleTree] have developed a number of measurements that provide really useful data for teachers, for instructional leaders, and also for accountability purposes.”
Building the Farm Team: How School Networks Create their Own Talent Pipelines
Districts and school networks face a litany of challenges in finding the right teaching personnel for classrooms. Different learning methods and school design, staffing turnover, changing student demographics, and the millennial workforce are all factors in why district leaders are establishing wholly new human capital pipelines.
To review all of these challenges and how schools are adapting, Jimmy Henderson, CEO of EdFuel, led a discussion with Jennifer Blaine of Spring Branch ISD; Brooke Buerkle of the Relay Graduate School of Education and; Stephanie Kapsis of KIPP DC.
“It’s also particularly relevant that we’re having this conversation here in D.C. where in the next five years, there’s a forecast that 15,000 new public school seats are going to be opened because of the demand and increasing population in the city,” said Henderson to open the discussion.
Teacher personnel growth and school staffing in general has far outpaced student growth over the past 40 years, has been steadily increasing. Even still, the pace of growth is still not enough to meet demand.
“And what that means is an acute shortage of teachers to the tune of 1,000 new teachers to the profession are going to be required every single year for schools to continue to provide education,” he said.
An overarching theme of the panel was the distinct perspective of millennials on their career priorities. Millennials tend to be open to career change and value work culture. Schools are also trying to foster a more diverse workforce that reflects the student population.
“We really haven’t had to try all that hard to recruit so our own teachers were recruiting for us. But to Jimmy’s point, because the landscape has changed we’re not in that situation anymore,” said Blaine.
Blaine also pointed to Spring Branch’s shift to personalized learning as well as postsecondary goals for students as reasons for requiring a different skillset in teachers and teacher leaders.
Buerkle explained the Relay model of doing master degree level work while teachers work within schools as residents, and how this onboarding process is conducive to what millennials value. Teacher residents feel part of the school culture and community as full-time personnel, while working under the guidance of a teacher mentor.
“We have been running an alternative certification program and what we’re seeing is millennials, new people to the profession want a gradual on-ramp into the profession. They’re not excited to be a full-time teacher right away in the same way that you may have seen a few years ago,” said Buerkle.
Kapsis explained KIPP’S capital teaching residency and how it functions as an internal talent pipeline for the charter network in the D.C. area.
“That internal pipeline has been so huge for us, and we’ve made mistakes along the way. Our program has evolved to a place where we now feel pretty good about the results that we’re seeing knowing that we can always grow more. But that is something that has been really unique for us and the folks that finish our programs fill about half of our unique teacher vacancies,” said Kapsis.
Through a master teacher program, the Spring Branch district is adapting to the challenge of instilling “opportunity culture” so high-quality teachers who don’t want to leave teaching need not leave the classroom to obtain leadership roles.
“How do you extend the reach of your most impactful, very best teachers? What we traditionally see is probably what Stephanie and Brooke see is that your very best teachers want opportunities to lead. They don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom but the only way to get an opportunity to lead past being like a department chair or a team leader is really to leave the classroom and become an administrator,” said Blaine.
According to internal surveys and exit interviews conducted by school networks, pay/compensation is not the driving factor for why teachers ultimately leave the profession.
The panel closed by fielding questions from donors on topics that ranged from incentivizing teachers to stay within their districts and networks, finding candidates with “soft skills,” and the common attributes of highly-effective teacher preparation.
What Role Should Donors Play in Successful Coalition-Building?
What are the differences between coalitions, networks, and organizations? Why do advocates form coalitions in the first place? What is the role for donors in forming coalitions?
All of these questions and more were asked and answered during a well-attended breakout discussion titled, “What Role Should Donors Play in Successful Coalition-Building?”
Suzanne Tacheny Kubach of the PIE Network led the discussion with seasoned activists and policymakers from around the country: Myles Mendoza of Untapped Potential Project; Jamilah Prince-Stewart of FaithActs for Education; Jamie Woodson of Tennessee SCORE and; Maura Marino of Education Forward D.C.
“What’s different about coalitions versus say, a network, or say an organization or say a campaign?” asked Kubach to kick things off and set context for the discussion.
“Organizations are longer term, they’re built around structure. The leadership structure looks a lot different. Coalitions can be shorter term, they’ve got one very specific tactical purpose or could evolve into multiple tactical purposes but they’re a little different,” said Woodson.
Mendoza spoke to the fragility of campaigns as opposed to coalitions when there are organizations in the group that aren’t taking ownership over policy objectives, and are there simply for political reasons. He uses an example in Illinois of school choice advocates enlisting various unions to join the tax credit scholarship policy coalition as a way to neutralize attacks from teacher unions.
Prince-Stewart shared a story of a coalition that aimed to open two charter schools in Bridgeport that required approval from the State of Connecticut.
When a group of Bridgeport-based pastors within the coalition wanted four charters instead, the rift reflected individual interests that weren’t representative of the coalition goals but percolated to the top nonetheless. Approving two charters may have been the coalition’s goal as a collective, but individuals within the coalitions in struggling communities like Bridgeport were more adamant about the four charter schools that were slated for approval.
This prompted the Bridgeport pastors within the coalition to, “go rogue” and withdraw support for the sitting governor if he didn’t get all four charters approved. Her story underscored the importance of pre-planning principles and being on the same page when it’s time to act publicly.
Woodson says coalitions and establishing bipartisanship have both been critical to the achievement gains that have taken place in Tennessee according to the Nation’s Report Card. It’s also critical to empower the right organization depending on the objective.
Marino discussed the importance of “ecosystem” investments in the District of Columbia, and the necessity of a coalition to make that happen.
“The basic strategy was that schools are the unit of change, we all believe that, and in order to have more kids have access to great schools, we needed to build an ecosystem of supports for those schools,” said Marino.
“So it wasn't enough to invest individually in district and charter schools although that's a very important part of the work but we also had to make sure that human capital and advocacy work and public engagement work was being tended to.”
Mendoza stressed the importance of bipartisanship and discomfort within a coalition, saying the ideal scenario is to have a “Kennedy and a Koch brother sitting next to each other.” Causes such as special education, school choice, and rural education can transcend ideology as long as the issues are framed correctly and are donor-supported.
Back to Basics: Setting the Stage for Effective Family Engagement
D.C. parent JoAnn McCray finally found a public school in D.C. that would best serve the needs of her son, who was diagnosed with autism. Soon after transferring her son, Lakisha Scarlett, one of the school's special education teachers, reached out to McCray to set up a home visit.
At first, McCray was skeptical, thinking “what are you going to do at my house that can't be done at the school?”
Ultimately, McCray allowed Scarlett to visit, and what followed was a wealth of information about her son's goals, school services around Individualized Education Plans (IEP), and interventions to help him excel.
McCray is one of many parents who has benefited from effective family engagement between educators and parents in D.C. public schools.
Diana Suarez of the D.C. based Flamboyan Foundation led a discussion with Vincent Baxter, deputy chief of parent engagement of D.C. Public Schools; Heather Hairston, principal of C.W. Harris Elementary; Lakisha Scarlett, a special education teacher of D.C. Public Schools; and JoAnn McCray, a parent facilitator with Flamboyan.
“Family engagement is this really important lever and everybody knew that it wasn't going well in the District but nobody really knew what exactly needed to happen to change that,” said Suarez.
Hairston spoke about family engagement at the school level, and the challenge of fitting family engagement in with other “competing priorities” along with the long-held perception of brief, 15-minute parent teacher conferences.
Baxter sought to build on D.C.’s already strong human capital pipelines, by equipping incoming educators and principals with family engagement training on top of their other skills.
Hairston spoke to the power of positive family engagement, namely conversations that are constructive, sustainable systems that outlast school leaders, teacher feedback, and thoughtful use of student data.
“The power of the home visit is really in the conversations that happen at home. The conversation is not about, ‘Amanda didn’t do her homework,’ ‘Amanda didn’t do this and I want to know if you have running water and running lights.’ That is not the conversation. The conversation is, ‘what are your hopes and dreams for your child?’”
The key is having visits on “neutral ground” and off campus, as opposed to being at school where the conversation turns purely academic and formal, as opposed to something more organic and positive. Flamboyan and educators also try to get word-of-mouth going among parents to engage those who might be skeptical.
Baxter said that Flamboyan’s professional development and teacher training is available to teachers who may not be at a school where family engagement is ingrained within the school culture.
“That’s cool that at [a teacher’s] school the principal isn’t ready to do [family home visits] because this is like changing your reading program, [it’s] real link elbows kind of work, but [teachers] could grab a bite,” said Baxter.
He added the philanthropic partnership between DCPS and Flamboyan has allowed him to be acutely tuned in to the state of school cultures and communities across the city.
Ultimately, the most crucial components to this work is establishing trust between parents and educators, and having both principals and teachers who are willing to make family engagement an integral part of their school’s culture.
Career-Focused: Creating Pathways in High-Demand, High-Growth Industries
How can donors alter the perception of career and technical education as something for ‘those kids’ not on the path to college? How can schools, employers, and philanthropists effectively partner with one another to create enticing job prospects and skillsets for young people?
Marty West of Education Next led a discussion on initiatives that are bridging secondary education with postsecondary employability. Panelists included Scott Bess of Purdue Polytechnic; Eric Chan of the Charter School Growth Fund; and Jade Grieve of America Achieves.
“The organizing principle of education policy and philanthropy has arguably been this notion of college and career readiness, that we need ensure that all students leave high school prepared to succeed immediately in college or in a career,” said West to kick things off.
“If we’re honest, however, I think we’ve paid a lot more attention to the college ready part of that aspiration than the career ready part.”
Bess claimed that college and career readiness can’t be an either/or proposition for high school students.
“The skills you need to be successful in college and a career are essentially the same things. You have different levels of academic preparation, or technical skills, but you can’t separate the two. You actually have to start looking at that as a holistic model,” said Bess.
Grieve commented on the incredible “traction” the work of career mobility has gained in recent years, but there are no quick fixes.
“When we [Bloomberg Philanthropies] started this there was a hope that we could find a silver bullet out there and create thousands of opportunities for young people. I think there’s an understanding and a recognition now that we’re still at the point of creating the right proof points in this space,” said Grieve.
Purdue Polytechnic educators have received a positive reception from Purdue University alumni in Indiana, and have received curricular and mentoring input from industry partners to ensure students are acquiring skills that are desired by employers.
“There’s a very large, not just looming but current skills gap in terms of what the economy of Indiana is driven by and the skilled people to fuel it,” said Bess.
Chan says there’s been too much emphasis on outcomes that have little-to-no bearing on evaluating the long-term success and career earnings of students. There should be more measurement in things such as college matriculation and establishing relationships with corporate mentors.
“I think what we’ve noticed on the career and technical side, and frankly on the college prep side is there’s a lot of short-term, vanity metrics around results,” he said.
Grieve outlined the initial investments of Bloomberg Philanthropies in the career and apprenticeship space, to include a partnership with KIPP, Opportunity at Work in Rhode Island, YouthForce NOLA in Louisiana, and CareerWise Colorado.
According to Bess, it’s hard to break out of the static public school model to make career education such an integral part of the student experience, as opposed to tacking on supplemental courses. It’s more effective to rebuild and start from scratch with a school model, knowing that it’s going to be difficult.
The panel agreed the best things donors can do is continue to fund innovation and establish proof points in a space that’s still rather nascent.
“I feel like the policy, research, and philanthropic community are probably ahead of where the market is right now in terms of proof points. I think the most useful thing philanthropy can do is fund innovation. Fund school model innovation, Scott being one example, innovation around how school networks, organizations, networks, and districts can start to change the messages and emphasis on college versus career,” said Chan.
Federal School Choice: Opportunities and Cautions for Nationwide Expansion
Sensing the political makeup of Congress and the White House in their favor, school choice advocates feel the opportunity exists to pass a tax credit scholarship program at the federal level. However, policymakers, donors, and activists disagree over how to go about implementation, and whether to pass anything at all.
A short drive away from Capitol Hill, donors and advocates discussed the merits of school choice at the federal level and the role of philanthropy in making it a reality.
Darla Romfo of Children’s Scholarship Fund led a panel discussion with John Kirtley of the American Federation for Children, Robert Enlow of EdChoice, Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, and Tom Carroll of the Invest in Education Foundation.
Currently, a number of states have tax credit-funded scholarship programs, in which individuals and businesses can claim tax credits against donations made to state-approved scholarship granting organizations (SGOs). The panel provided an overview of how such a program might function at the federal level.
Kirtley stressed the importance of making a federal program apply to all states so families in states with limited school choice policies such as New York and Illinois would have access to scholarships. This is in contrast to a program that would allow state executives to opt out of the program, thus cutting off access for families depending on where they live.
Carroll said that any federal tax credit would have to prioritize protecting religious liberty so student could utilize scholarship funds to attend parochial schools, as well as protect private school autonomy.
Enlow said the return on investment with respect to private school choice advocacy space has not yielded the same kind of results as the incubation and startup of charter schools.
“There’s a philanthropic misalignment here that we need to have a conversation about,” he said.
Politically, Kirtley believes any tax credit would have to be part of a broader tax reform package as opposed to being a standalone piece of legislation.
For his part, Bradford spoke to the divide within the education reform space on whether to implement a federal tax credit at all, and how some charter school advocates are against any form of private school choice, particularly on a national scale.
“There are a lot of charter school people who like choice…as long as it’s them,” said Bradford.
As far as oversight, Carroll believes a federal tax credit would be subject to tax accountability already on the books, and accountability provisions around testing and school autonomy need not apply since nonprofit organizations are already subject to a litany of tax and transparency regulations.
Bradford says donors can engage the charter school leaders who they fund and urge them to stop railing against other forms of school choice. The panel as a whole agreed on the importance of coming together in both principle as well as because the opposition is so well-organized that choice proponents can’t afford to splinter.
“One thing donors could really do, in addition to making calls, which I don’t disagree with you should do that, you should get your folks on the ground to start talking with each other. Make those conversations happen in any way you can,” said Enlow.