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NewSchools Launches $100M Innovation Fund

In its biggest effort yet to influence education reform, the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund is launching its fourth fund, a $100 million investment to spur innovation in teacher preparation, school turnarounds, and charter-school management.

The new fund is meant to help advance a new, federal agenda that's focused on innovation. In fact, just yesterday we learned about the 49 applicants who won $650 million in Investing in Innovation, or i3, grants. The i3 program is a new competition created by the economic-stimulus package and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Ted Mitchell, the CEO of NewSchools, told me in an interview earlier this week that the Obama administration's emphasis on innovation, from the i3 competition to the president's Social Innovation Fund, has provided a good opportunity to further push a national innovation agenda.

"That idea that innovative practice and innovative structures can change the life chances of kids, that has gotten into the public dialogue in a really powerful way. It has become a public policy priority," he said. "There is a moment in time for us to capitalize on the innovations that have proven successful and to catapult the next wave of innovation. Our innovation fund, we hope, will be that catapult."

NewSchools, which has been an especially big player in establishing nonprofit charter-management organizations, will focus its Innovation Fund on four specific areas:

  • Teachers and education leadersSpecifically, NewSchools wants to shake up the field of teacher preparation by investing in programs that hold themselves accountable for the performance of their graduates. (Think Capital Teaching Residency in Washington.)

  • School TurnaroundsThis area of reform, which targets the most-struggling schools, will continue to be a focus for NewSchools. (Think Mastery Charter Schools.)

  • ToolsNew products and platforms that enhance teacher productivity and help customize instruction will be a focus here. (Think New York City's School of One.)

  • Charter management organizationsNewSchools wants to grow high-performing traditional charters, but also focus on "second-generation CMOs" or hybrid charters that mix in-the-classroom learning with online content. (Think of something like Rocketship Education, which was founded in 2006 to create a national network of urban college preparatory elementary charter schools.)

And, NewSchools has a fifth, wild-card category that will fund other innovative ideas that hold promise.

These are all education-reform areas that NewSchools has worked in during its previous three funds. Its first fund, of $20 million, begun in 1998, supported nine organizations focused on standards, accountability, and choice. Its second, $50 million fund, begun in 2002, zeroed in more closely on charter schools and the management organizations that run them. And the third, $75 million fund, begun in 2006, focused on entrepreneurial solutions to the challenges facing at-risk populations in New York City; Chicago; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Oakland, Calif.; and New Orleans.

The difference this time, Mitchell said, is that NewSchools is looking for solutions in these areas that are even more cutting-edge.

"The work itself will look quite different, because in each of these areas we've kind of climbed up to a plateau and we can see farther now," he said. For example, "We're looking for charters 2.0, that are using technology and people in innovative ways. We're looking for new turnaround strategies to build on what we've learned."

The new fund's life cycle is four years, and NewSchools already has made its first investment. Earlier this year, NewSchools invested $345,000 in the Denver School of Science and Technology (a public school for middle and high school students), which opened its second school site this fall. This investment, NewSchools says, is an example of a new model of charter schooling, where technology is used as a learning tool, as an assessment platform, and as a platform for monitoring student progress and instructional practice.

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