Charter and district schools sharing innovations: how philanthropy can help

Jane Martinez Dowling, Executive Director, KIPP Through College New York with two recent KIPP graduates

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Philanthropy New York, in collaboration with The Philanthropy Roundtable, hosted an in-depth discussion on innovation sharing between charter and district leaders in New York City. The event gave philanthropists an opportunity to learn what is unique to charter schools and how innovations are shared between charter and traditional public schools.

Panelists included:

  • Jane Martinez Dowling, Executive Director, KIPP Through College New York
  • Verone Kennedy, Executive Director, Office of Charter School Partnership and Authorization, NYC Department of Education
  • Samantha Tweedy, Chief Advancement Officer, Uncommon Schools
  • Emary Aronson, Managing Director of Relief Fund and Education, Robin Hood Foundation (moderator)

Martinez Dowling and Tweedy shared the proven track records of KIPP and Uncommon, respectively, in lifting student outcomes in New York City, and how the charter governance model has facilitated the ability to innovate.

Tweedy shared Uncommon’s history since the opening of its first campus in 1997 in Newark, New Jersey. Uncommon now serves approximately 18,000 scholars across the tristate area.

“One of the things that Uncommon has thought about since its first year is about how to build replicable systems so that we can scale and make sure what’s working in one school is working in all 52 schools,” said Tweedy.

“And so I think this innovation question is a really interesting one because how do you balance this idea of wanting to build school models that work and that are scalable with making sure that you are never sitting on your laurels and you’re always asking yourself what can we do differently, what can we do more of, and what can we do better?”

Innovations developed by Uncommon include an internal summer teaching fellows program for aspiring educators.

Uncommon had such a “laser focus” on academics to the point that students were academically proficient once they got to college, but the college experience, being away from home, financial challenges, being different from the rest of student population, proved overwhelming. Consequently, Uncommon began a partnership with Colby College in Maine to give first-generation students the opportunity to become acclimated with being on a college campus.

Martinez Dowling believes chartering has allowed the network to innovate and better prepare students for the future. KIPP’s innovation revolves around the culture of high expectations at each campus. It also has developed its own program to build a pipeline of high quality teachers and aspiring school leaders and principals. Character formation is a critical component of preparing students for college and beyond.

Both charter networks shared philanthropy is critical to getting a program to scale  versus sustaining the school once  it is at capacity.

In the panel’s second half, Verone Kennedy described the multi-layered dynamic between the New York City Department of Education and charter networks such as KIPP and Uncommon. Engagement occurs within a three-tiered system at the school, district, and system-wide levels.

Kennedy said district schools are “seizing the opportunities” to learn from neighboring charter schools, and vice versa.

“For one of the first times in history, we’re finding that district superintendents are starting to look at their districts as a district geographically, understanding that the charter schools are in those districts and that if there are any resources that they have, anything that they can do to support those schools, they are willing to do that,” said Kennedy.

The Department currently has a partnership with Uncommon around professional learning and leadership development, in which nearly 200 educators participated over the past year.

“Sharing is in Uncommon’s DNA,” said Tweedy. “Parents don’t care about the vehicle through which you’re providing a great education. Call it charter, call it district, what families want is for their kids to get a great education that prepares them for success in life.”

On a school-to-school level, leaders have been able to visit campuses to get a sense for different school cultures. At the district level, network superintendents come together to discuss topics they’re interested in addressing collaboratively, such as special education and family engagement.

KIPP has partnered with the Department to bolster college access, launching a pilot program with 25 KIPP and 25 district students for a college readiness, “boot camp” so kids know what to expect when they arrive on campus. Through an online information portal, KIPP has avoided taking a proprietary mindset by sharing best practices around college readiness with other schools in New York.

Kennedy underscored that district professional development and instructional resources are available not only for CMOs but also independent charter schools that are looking for new ways to thrive.

“We have a research and policy team that is following the work every step of the way. And so all that we’re doing, all of the questions that speak to implementation, the questions that come up with regards to how do we sustain this work and how do we grow this work, they are all asking the qualitative questions and they’re accumulating the qualitative data, as well as any quantitative data,” said Kennedy.

The panel closed with the panelists sharing their own upbringings in New York City, and how they were inspired to take on this work of providing every child a quality education regardless of background or zip code.

New York City opened its doors to its first public charter school in 1999. Since then, the sector has grown to include 216 campuses serving over 106,000 students in all five boroughs. Each campus adheres to their unique missions and deliverables of their charters, while being held accountable to state standards. Charter schools continue to provide children from underserved backgrounds opportunities to attend public schools with distinct curriculum, pedagogy, and school culture.