Growing Smart Cities By Networking New School Champions

The three year Smart Cities investigation cataloged innovations in learning in America’s great cities. The meta finding was that ecosystems matter–most innovations occur where there is a confluence of knowledge creation, talent, and incentives. Innovations are successfully implemented where there is sustained leadership, incubation capacity, and impact-focused partnerships.  This post recognizes a half a dozen organizations contributing to building better learning ecosystems.
Portfolio. For 20 years, the Center on Reinventing Public Education has been the intellectual driver of portfolio theory of provisioning public education–multiple operators providing options for families. Founded by Paul Hill and affiliated with the University of Washington, CRPE advances 7 elements of a portfolio strategy:

  1. Good options and choices for all families: District ensures quality options through student assignment policies and improving options.
  2. School autonomy: School leaders should have as much autonomy as possible and should be held accountable for results.
  3. Pupil-based funding for all schools: Funds follow the student to schools.
  4. Talent-seeking strategy: Nationally recruit and develop local talent.
  5. Sources of support for schools: Provide a diverse set of providers.
  6. Performance-based accountability for schools: Effective schools get replicated, struggling schools get support, and chronically low-performing school are closed.
  7. Extensive public engagement: Portfolio strategy creates significant change for all stakeholders and, as a result, requires high engagement.

CRPE inspired a 2004 white paper I wrote with Jim Shelton,  Good Urban Schools: A Portfolio Approach. Over the last decade, most urban areas adopted a portfolio approach–not always with the full support of the urban school district(s).
With help from a growing web of external partners, districts and charter networks have been making a digital conversion–using new tools to create new school models. (See the Blended Learning Implementation Guide or Project 24 from the Alliance for a roadmap.)
Harbormasters. Many urban areas benefit from a nonprofit or foundation that takes ownership of citywide results, sponsors new schools, develops talent, and advocates for productive policies. Education Cities is a nonprofit that builds the capacity of these “harbormasters” organizations and leaders committed to growing the number of great public schools in their cities.
Incubated as CEE-Trust by The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, Education Cities convenes and supports 28 city-based organizations in 22 cities working to dramatically increase the number of great public schools in their geographical area.
Next gen schools. In the first decade of this century we learned how to open good new schools. More than 5,000 schools (both district and charter) were formed–most around the tried and true formula including a college prep curriculum, talented teachers, and a supportive learning environment. Sponsored by NewSchools Venture Fund and a dozen national and regional foundations, it became apparent that it was easier to open a good new school than to dramatically improve a struggling school–especially a high school.
With cheap devices and improving broadband coverage, this decade will be marked by the shift to personalized learning in blended environments. The most influential group packaging promising strategies into new school grants is Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC).
We tracked 14 of the 45 teams that have received an NGLC grant and told their story in Lighting the Path to Personalized Learning (featured image).  Each of these teams embrace high expectations for college and career readiness and personalized learning.  They are approaching their work in a way that is scalable and sustainable.
Learning together. Last September, with support from Gates, Broad, and Dell, NGLC launched $25 million effort to support six regional incubators starting with Washington D.C. and Denver.
Earlier this month, 10 city-based education nonprofits and foundations across the U.S. were selected as members of the Emerging Harbormaster Network (EHN) by NGLC and Education Cities. Through the EHN, local organizations will bring personalized learning practices to more schools, educators, and students in their cities. Participating EHN members are:

  • Battelle Education (Central Ohio)
  • Center for Collaborative Education (Boston)
  • Choose to Succeed (San Antonio)
  • Excellent Schools Detroit
  • The Marshall L. and Perrine D. McCune Charitable Foundation (Santa Fe)
  • The Mind Trust (Indianapolis)
  • New Schools for Baton Rouge
  • Project Renaissance (Nashville)
  • Rhode Island Mayoral Academies
  • Schools That Can Milwaukee (STCM)

With support from the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, each group will receive a $20,000 stipend, a dedicated expert consultant, and access to a  range of online and in-person convenings and resources. Some, like CCE in Boston, have been at new school development for 20 years.  Some, like MindTrust, have had success catalyzing talent development. Some, like STCM, have deep “no excuses” roots and are learning about next gen opportunities. NGLC director Andy Calkins said, “There are differences in these ten organizations — and yet they are all connecting around the idea of developing school-level experiments in next gen, personalized learning.”
In the conclusion to chapter 6 of Smart Cities, I noted that a city with a harbormaster will gradually increase the number of high-quality schools, but “A city with a harbormaster, an incubator, a talent development strategy and collective impact funding alliance will see transformational results.”  It takes an ecosystem.
Next Generation Learning Challenges is a Getting Smart Advocacy Partner. 

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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