Education Funding

Chicago Fund to Raise $15 Million For Leadership Projects

By Jeff Archer — May 05, 2004 3 min read
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A Chicago philanthropy that has modeled itself after venture-capital firms has pledged to raise $15 million to strengthen leadership in some of the city’s most challenged schools.

In announcing the drive last week, officials of the Chicago Public Education Fund said the money would pay for financial incentives and other strategies aimed at deploying teams of highly skilled principals and teachers to the schools that need them the most.

Launched in 2000 by a group of local business and civic leaders, the fund already has solicited and spent $10 million, largely in support of nontraditional training programs aimed at recruiting more teachers and principals to the 434,000-student system. The new fund-raising effort seeks to build on that work.

“It’s great to get the right people on the bus,” said Janet Knupp, the fund’s president. “But the logical next step has to be, how are you going to use and support leadership to be effective?”

The fund is part of a small but growing number of philanthropies that emulate the ways of venture-capital firms, which put up money to help new business enterprises get off the ground.

Like their private-sector counterparts, venture philanthropies act as go-betweens, researching viable projects to support and raising capital from benefactors to back them financially.

Such funders tend to be more explicit than traditional foundations about what results they expect their grantees to deliver. They also lend considerable technical support to the initiatives they finance, sometimes putting their own officials on the boards of the groups they give money to.

“If one of the programs we put money behind is not reaching a benchmark, it is as much our responsibility as the grantee’s,” Ms. Knupp said. “Our staff works hard to make sure the grantees are successful.”

Other venture philanthropies in education include New Profit Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., which supports youth-related programs, and the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, which has funneled millions of dollars to charter school management organizations. (“Venture Fund Seeds School Innovations,” April 24, 2002.)

A similar venture philanthropy focused on the District of Columbia schools, called the Public Education Partnership Fund, plans to announce its first “investment” by the end of this school year, organizers say. Charles Hiteshew, the executive director of the fund, said organizers looked closely at the Chicago group in planning their efforts.

‘Entrepreneurial Spirit’

The Chicago Public Education Fund put its first $10 million into 13 initiatives over the past four years. Among them:

  • New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit group with headquarters in New York City that is piloting a model of principal preparation based on a yearlong internship in several cities, including Chicago;
  • The Golden Apple Teacher Education Program, a highly selective Chicago- based initiative that trains teachers, mostly in mathematics and science, for the city’s schools; and
  • Support programs and financial incentives to help and encourage Chicago teachers to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a privately organized group that recognizes accomplished educators.

The fund also has convened a task force of business and education leaders to help plan an overhaul of the way the Chicago school system prepares administrators.

Arne Duncan, the district’s chief executive officer, said he values the fund’s technical advice as much as its money. The group works closely with district leaders to make sure the initiatives it supports fit in well with the system’s improvement efforts, he said.

“There’s really an entrepreneurial spirit to it,” Mr. Duncan said. “It really enables me to do some things, and take some risks, and push some priorities that would be tough to do without their support.”

Already, the fund has raised $8 million toward its new, $15 million goal. The plan is to use the money to form new leadership teams at schools serving large numbers of students deemed at risk of academic failure, but the specifics of how that would happen still are being hammered out.

Mr. Duncan said the idea holds great promise.

“Putting in teams of people to really help transform an entire school culture is a very, very exciting opportunity,” he said.

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