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NewSchools Venture Fund CEO on Education Philanthropy During Coronavirus

As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we'll be looking to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Stacey Childress is CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit that raises charitable funds to invest in education initiatives. Prior to this, Stacey led the Gates Foundation's K-12 Next Generation Learning team, taught at Harvard Business School, and was a high school teacher in Texas. I reached out to Stacey to see what she's hearing from funders and how NewSchools is responding to coronavirus. Here's what she had to say.

Rick: NewSchools Venture Fund is a kind of middleman between funders and the folks being funded for the different type of work they're doing in education. I'm curious, what have you noticed that is similar and different about the reactions to coronavirus from those two groups?

Stacey: The main difference between the two groups is the altitude and timelines they are focused on.

School, system, and nonprofit leaders have been working mostly on responding to the immediate, on-the-ground needs of students, families, and teachers—spinning up meal programs, trying to fill tech gaps, adapting instructional materials and practices for distance learning, and so on. In the last couple of weeks, districts and schools have started to think through various scenarios for reopening schools.

National funders have been mostly focused on longer-term, top-down issues. Things like supporting advocates to influence public dollars to address the digital divide; coordinating experts to develop instructional guidance that states can hand down to districts, which will in turn roll it out to schools; providing additional money to curriculum and technical-assistance providers they've previously supported so they can beef up their capacity to serve more districts next year. Things like that.

Rick: Have you seen any national funders rethinking their strategies in light of the new challenges the sector is facing?

Some are trying to, but they acknowledge that their regular processes make it hard to do rapid-response funding on a timeline that matches the evolving situation. Schusterman has been a bright spot here, and Walton has moved some responsive grants pretty quickly.

But honestly, folks in some foundations are quietly expressing frustration that they've been cautioned to stay in their lane and only fund things aligned with their pre-COVID strategy, using their normal decision rules. If I were working at one of those institutions, I imagine I'd feel similarly.

Rick: How is NewSchools thinking about funding initiatives going forward?

Stacey: Three things we're thinking about now:

First, for new district and charter schools we fund, we'll now evaluate their instructional models for their ability to provide a coherent learning experience for students whether they're in classrooms or at home.

Second, we're exploring if it makes sense to create a grant portfolio of tools and services that can help integrate parents and caregivers more seamlessly into students' learning paths—not just during crises. We're in the very early days; we'll see where it goes.

And third, we're about to kick off a scenario-planning exercise across our entire team to think more broadly about how things might unfold in the coming year or two and what that might mean for our investment strategy.

Rick: Are there any new initiatives underway that you're supporting as a consequence of coronavirus?

Stacey: We're distributing about $4 million in additional grants to some of our existing grantees who have unexpected expenses due to coronavirus response (mostly schools) or who rely on earned revenue and are likely to see a big decline this fall. We want to make sure promising organizations don't go under in the next few months before they've had time to assess the new reality and adjust accordingly.

We also made two rapid-response grants to Oakland education nonprofits, The Oakland REACH and the Oakland Public Education Fund. Both are making direct cash payments to vulnerable public school families in our hometown of Oakland, Calif. Similar initiatives are popping up in a bunch of cities and regions—it's a great way to support families.

Rick: NewSchools has long supported efforts around alternative delivery models. Can you talk a bit about how some of that has played out in the current crisis and school closures?

Stacey: We have a mix of district and charter schools in our portfolio, and 70 percent of the students they serve are from low-income families, so the challenges they are tackling are reflective of some of the macro issues. Schools with instructional models that prioritize developing student ownership of their learning, strong student/teacher relationships, and using digital learning tools to support instruction in and out of school have had a smoother transition to distance learning.

Rick: What ed-tech investments have you made that seem particularly valuable in light of what we're seeing and dealing with now?

Stacey: We've supported a number of quality digital learning tools that have seen a big uptick in usage. ST Math and Zearn for math, Newsela and CommonLit for ELA are prime examples. For social-emotional learning, we invested in Sown to Grow last year and are really impressed with their student goal-setting and reflection tools, which they've tuned up for distance learning with a simple morning check-in and afternoon checkout.

And, shortly after I joined Gates 10 years ago, my team made the foundation's very first grant to Sal Khan. Before the coronavirus, Khan Academy had already become one of the most used digital math programs in schools, and its usage is up threefold now. Saturday I was talking with my niece who is an 11th grader in the little Texas town where I grew up and taught. Her statistics teacher is using Khan Academy videos to introduce new concepts, and she was explaining how helpful they are. It was a full circle moment on several levels!

Rick: How do you think the current situation and school closures are likely to change conversations around education and innovation going forward?

Stacey: Honestly, I'm not sure if it will. The crisis amplified and compounded a bunch of performance and equity issues, and educators will continue to face massive challenges when schools reopen. I hope we will be more skeptical of top-down prescriptions that require standardization and compliance, which didn't have a strong track record when the situation was more stable and predictable. Now that the context is unstable and unpredictable, it seems important to consider more flexible ways to support quality instruction for students whether they are learning in classrooms or somewhere else.

Rick: OK, last question. What have you seen that is most heartening in all of this?

Stacey: The creativity and resilience of kids, teachers, and parents. When 55 million kids moved from classrooms to living rooms in March, the ingenuity of the folks closest to the action was on full display in those early days. If we could reorient the system that surrounds this core of learning away from compliance and control and toward strengthening and supporting it, it might be a really powerful way to unleash the full potential and energy of those tens of millions of relationships.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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