Only 15 percent of eighth-grade public-school students in Philadelphia performed at grade level in 2009, one of the worst performances in the country. The city school district was bureaucratic, broke, and seemingly unable to reform itself, while local philanthropists were trying to rescue ill-served children by supporting the local charter schools and Catholic schools. Developer Mike O’Neill was one of these donors, simultaneously active in the group Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools while encouraging charter schools through his board service and donations to Mastery Charter Schools. His attitude, along with many other donors, was that any structure which produced good results for children should be supported.
In 2010, these pragmatic philanthropists and business leaders created the Philadelphia School Partnership. Their intention was to shift the local focus to the quality of instruction that children get, rather than what kind of school it takes place in. The Partnership announced it would raise $100 million from donors to create 35,000 “seats” in high-performing schools, without regard to whether the facility is district-run, charter, Catholic, or private—so long as it gets good results with primarily low-income children. The investment fund was set up to operate with demanding criteria, careful research, and all eyes on results, while remaining agnostic about school structure. The William Penn Foundation pledged $15 million to the effort, and a dozen givers offered at least a million dollars, including the Maguire and Walton family foundations and Jeff and Janine Yass, who exceeded $5 million.
The Philadelphia School Partnership also later became the local sponsor for Philadelphia’s participation in the Gates Collaboration Compact, an effort to break down walls between different types of schools serving the same population of children (see 2012 entry on the Local Projects list). The Gates Foundation granted $2.5 million to the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact, to be used for things like training teachers, and building GreatPhillySchools.org, a website where parents can compare and select all types of schools from a single entry point. Philadelphia’s Compact was the first to include Catholic schools.
- Great Schools Fund, philaschoolpartnership.org/great-schools-fund