CNJG: How not to read ‘The Prize’

November 20, 2017

Not Read Prize.GFE Conf. Wash DC full group

At last month’s Grantmakers for Education Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., we presented a workshop called “How Not to Read the Prize” to a standing-room-only audience of national, regional, and local foundations.

We did so not to dispute the findings in Dale Russakoff’s book, “The Prize,” but rather to expound upon the progress and challenges that have occurred during the period since Mark Zuckerberg’s $100-million-dollar gift was announced in September 2010 and to paint a fuller, more nuanced picture.

The process of putting together the panel was a learning experience for all of us who participated. It helped us to clarify our own thinking about what the gift enabled Newark to accomplish, how we as local funders have come to work together more effectively, and how we might advise national foundations interested in place-based impact to engage with the community and with local funders.

In September 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million gift, to be matched dollar for dollar, to transform education in Newark in five years. The Foundation for Newark’s Future was created as a local foundation that would manage a then-undetermined portion of the gift.

The Prize, by Dale Russakoff, documents the first five few years of this reform effort. As Russakoff illustrates, there were strong personalities involved in the reform effort who had or have now moved to new positions. Also, this was the donor’s first foray into philanthropy and despite efforts at community engagement, many community leaders and activists felt that district and state leaders and national foundation representatives did not invite or respect authentic community participation in its decisions. The book and subsequent book tour largely focused on these themes.

The narrative in philanthropy is that “this bold effort largely failed.” With the benefit of time, we would write a different narrative: there were missteps along the way, and some philanthropic overreach, but Newark is moving forward, education outcomes are improving, and some of the work that was started because of this initiative has had sustained positive impact. Most importantly, there is a robust education dialogue in the city that has moved from vigorous disagreement to an agreement to collaborate even when we disagree. So, the hashtag for this work seven years on might be: #notfinishedyet or #needapart2.

Not Read Prize.GFE - Panel in Action
Photo at top: From left, Michele Mason, Kevin Callaghan, Tai Cooper, Robert Clark, Dale Anglin, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf at the Grantmakers for Education Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. Above: Robert Clark, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf, and Dale Anglin present “How Not to Read the Prize.” Photos courtesy Council of New Jersey Grantmakers

Recently, two studies by Harvard and MarGrady Research show evidence that educational outcomes for Newark students are improving. High school graduation has risen to 77 percent, as have standardized test scores, especially in the English Language Arts (ELA) category. African-American students in Newark are three times more likely to attend a school with test scores above the state average than they were in 2009. Controlling for poverty and English Language Learner status, Newark students show significant gains in Math and ELA between 2009 and 2017.

These improved outcomes stem from students moving to higher performing district and charter schools as well as systemic changes within schools and the district at large. Those in Newark also recognize that despite progress, the district still has improvements it needs to make, especially in special education, community engagement, and post-secondary matriculation.

Too many families still feel like a quality school is not available to them or they must leave their neighborhood and travel too far to access one.

Another contributing factor to Newark’s education progress has been the continuing and deepening partnerships among the city’s education funders. What is not common knowledge is that before the Zuckerberg donation was announced, local funders had already started to work together in 2007 by creating the Newark Philanthropic Liaison position, supported by nine foundations to work with philanthropy and the city to support Newark. Public-private partnerships were already underway to create new schools, create longer school days, continue Newark’s innovative public pre-school education program, and increase afterschool programs.

The large gift catalyzed, even more, local funders to come together and pool their resources to ensure that they continued to have a voice at the table since no one local foundation could match the magnitude of the Zuckerberg gift. And in fact, the Foundation for Newark’s Future joined these pooled funds and efforts that were already underway. For example, Foundation for Newark’s Future joined the effort to open new district schools and several of the schools opened have been highly successful, including Bard High School Early College and Eagle Academy for Young Men.

The “collective impact” concept took hold nationally right around the time of the Zuckerberg gift, and this strategy was adopted by local foundations, including Foundation for Newark’s Future, as a way to tackle issues where there was broad-based support. This was especially useful at a time of such community rancor.

These initiatives paved the way to what is the new normal today in Newark. Newark now has eight active collective initiatives focusing on a range of issues, including post-secondary education, STEAM, out-of-school time, arts education, youth employment, early childhood development, public safety, and workforce development.

Foundation for Newark’s Future’s grants to our post-secondary initiative, the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, and the city’s highly successful Summer Youth Employment initiatives remain the largest single grants they have ever received and catalyzed both.  And Foundation for Newark’s Future helped launch the new South Ward Community School’s Initiative that is working with over 3,000 students and their families.

And many people are not aware that Foundation for Newark’s Future brought high-quality talent to Newark that has remained, Kim McClain, the former CEO is now the president of the Newark Alliance, and Kevin Callaghan, a former program officer is the city’s philanthropic liaison.

For national and local philanthropy, there are key lessons from the Newark reform initiative.

  1. National philanthropy should respect, listen to and engage local stakeholders including local philanthropy as it shapes places-based efforts. This includes the local foundations they establish or local staff that they hire. Local staff must have the ability to be the “experts” and push the thinking of national donors.
  2. Reform initiatives require attention to process, must include some measure of transparency, and need time to show results.
  3. Stakeholders must engage in honest dialogue about the tension between building trust among stakeholders and urgency to solve the problems.
  4. For system change, stakeholders should work to find a balance between moving quickly to make needed changes and taking the time to listen to community voices.
  5. Education reform that involves school closures must ensure that there are higher performing receiving schools for students – before schools are closed.

If Newark could accomplish improved educational outcomes with the community unrest that ensued, could we have improved even further if community voices had been heeded more? We believe the answer is “yes.” But what is exciting about this moment in time is that Newark is in a hopeful place.

Our panel, with a community-focused mayor and the state-appointed superintendent, would not have been possible three years ago. We are returning to local control. Civic dialogue on education is robust and our community is now having deep conversations about the direction of their schools, curriculum, and programming. We have thriving collective impact initiatives and a community schools effort.

In short, do not be dissuaded from joining us in Newark. We are ready to welcome you with open arms. The table is set to make sure of it.

This essay reflects the work of the Newark Funders Education Committee, a subcommittee of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers Newark Funders Group.  The members of this committee wanted to share lessons learned from this reform initiative with other funders. While the Zuckerberg donation was in play, 10 of these funders collectively awarded over $75 million additional dollars in a wide range of education initiatives. That work is documented in a commissioned report that was published in 2016, authored by Reginald Lewis, former President of the Chad Foundation, and now founding Executive Director of the Newark City of Learning Collaborative, housed at the Cornwall Institute at Rutgers University-Newark.

The Council of New Jersey Grantmakers is the statewide association of more than 130 funding organizations working in and for New Jersey. The Council is the center for philanthropy in the state, serving the leading independent, corporate, family and community foundations as well as public grantmakers of our state. CNJG supports its members by strengthening their capacity to address New Jersey and society’s most difficult problems.