Nearly 350 graduate students and career professionals will join the leadership staffs of some of the nation’s largest urban school districts and charter operators this summer, thanks in part to a $7.6 million grant announced last week by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Education Pioneers, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that funnels academic and professional talent into short-term leadership positions in K-12 education, has partnered with the Seattle-based foundation to continue two fellowship programs targeted to schools or districts in need of improving academic achievement.
“We’re bringing together those who have deep education experience alongside people with professional and private-sector experience,” said Scott Morgan, the chief executive officer of Education Pioneers. “We’re getting them to talk to, learn from, and communicate with each other.”
The grants mark a growing—and sometimes unwelcome—trend of placing professionals and scholars with little or no education experience in leadership positions in school districts. But Mr. Morgan said recruiting highly skilled professionals for such jobs in public education systems and charter networks is just as important as attracting high-quality teachers.
Founded eight years ago by Mr. Morgan, a former Catholic-high school teacher and legal counsel to Aspire Public Schools, a California-based charter network, Education Pioneers places its fellows in a range of education organizations, including the New York City-based Uncommon Schools, KIPP DC, the Chicago public school system, and the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Currently, the group operates two fellowships: a three-month-long graduate school fellowship that typically draws students from law, public policy, and education and a 10-month-long analyst fellowship that debuted last year and attracts early-career business analysts from the private sector.
The new crop of fellows will be placed in district-level positions where they’ll most likely work in district or charter-network headquarters as opposed to being placed in a school, Mr. Morgan said. They will take on a range of projects based on the school organizations’ needs that may involve data analysis, teacher effectiveness, improving curriculum and instruction, or other tasks. Mr. Morgan said his group will also send fellows to state education agencies.
Partnering organizations have a range of needs, he said, but requests for professionals with experience in data and analysis are common.
Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, said the program gives districts an opportunity to take advantage of leadership talent that is often hard to attract to urban and rural districts.
He said programs like Education Pioneers can be effective if their fellows are trained to work in school districts and have appropriate skills.
Richard A. Flanary, the senior director for leadership programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in Reston, Va., said leadership skills and other specialized skills like data analysis are important, but fellows must understand how schools operate. “Turning around schools has become a very complex business,” he said.
But Mr. Morgan said professional work experience and specialized skill sets, combined with an eagerness to learn and humility, will make up for a lack of education experience.
The Gates grant is the largest donation in the nonprofit’s history, and it will be used in tandem with support from other philanthropies, including the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation of Austin, Texas, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation of Los Angeles, and the New York City-based Robertson Foundation. The Gates Foundation also provides grant support to Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the May 18, 2011 edition of Education Week as Gates Grant Will Help Group Add Expertise to Central Offices