New Schools Venture Fund Offering $7M More To Education Entrepreneurs

It’s still mid-summer, but in some districts where school starts in only a few weeks, teachers are already digging out their lesson plans and preparing to resume their classroom routines.

But some of them would rather toss those lessons in the bin, and in fact, scrap the whole design of their schools and build new ones from scratch.

These closet insurgents are often teachers, but there are even some principals among them. Rather than seeing these educators as malcontents, the New Schools Venture Fund wants to give them thousands of dollars to unleash their revolutionary urges.

The Oakland, CA-based non-profit, a venture philanthropy fund, has been sprinkling seed money across the country for 18 years to encourage experienced educators and entrepreneurs to try out their ideas for better serving students. New Schools announced its latest round of 2016 funding opportunities this week—-$7 million to be spread among creators of alternative public schools, as well as inventors of educational technology products, and organizations that want to support a new and more diverse class of school leaders. The $7 million in funding just announced is part of about $20 million that the fund will distribute this year.

The long-term aim of nurturing brand-new schools isn’t just to offer innovative alternatives for kids at a few humdrum elementary schools and high schools across the nation, New Schools CEO Stacey Childress says. The idea is to test out fresh concepts that could broadly rejuvenate public K-12 education in the United States.

“We hope to help catalyze a shift more generally in the way schools work,” Childress says. The fund only supports schools that charge no tuition to families because the cost of education is covered by state and local governments. These include public charter schools and new schools created within public school districts. The venture fund doesn’t take an equity stake in the projects it funds.

While American society and technology have changed dramatically, Childress says, most students still go to schools like the ones their parents or grandparents attended. But educational technology now expands the possibilities for both kids and teachers, she says. And schools can focus not only on academic goals, but also on social and cultural factors that hold back many students.

Educators with ideas for 21st Century classrooms usually start by asking New Schools to supply funding for a year of learning, planning, and hunting for additional donors to support the launch of a school. New Schools usually devotes about $150,000 to those planning phases. Later, teams that are ready to launch their schools can apply to New Schools for further funding of about $250,000 to $400,000 over a couple of years’ time, Childress says. That would cover about a third to a half the amount needed to get a school started, often with an inaugural class at a single grade level. More grades can be added as students in the first class move up a grade, she says.

Fledgling schools with a state-approved plan can receive government support on a per-student basis as soon as they open their doors, Childress says. But the funding from New Schools and other donors helps the founders meet the full expense of running a school before it can scale up and become self-sufficient, she says.

Submissions are due in November for the current round of funding. Winning ideas are often quite different from each other, and the teams learn from each other in a joint process shepherded by New Schools, Childress says.

Meanwhile, four new schools funded by New Schools in an earlier round this year are getting ready to launch. For example, Brooklyn Laboratory Charter School in Brooklyn, NY, which has already created a middle school, plans to establish a high school by 2017. All students at the school get a Google Chromebook to use in class. They study traditional subjects such as math and writing, but they also learn about coding, robotics, and visual media. Each child receives two hours of individual or group tutoring a day, during a school day that runs from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm.

The other new schools preparing to open are Solar Preparatory School for Girls in Dallas, TX; Detroit Prep in Detroit, MI; and Gem Prep in Nampa, ID.

In addition to the four school launches funded, ten applicants received funding for planning phases early this year. Two Bay Area teams were among them: Oxford Day Academy in East Palo Alto, CA and The Ipso School in San Rafael, CA. In all, 52 teams applied in early 2016, and 14 were funded.

So far, New Schools has invested a total of more than $250 million to help found nearly 470 schools.

In the current $7 million funding round, the venture philanthropy firm is also looking for as many as 15 entrepreneurs, teams, or companies that are developing tools to help students who are not native speakers of English to strengthen their English language skills.

New Schools will devote about $1.5 million to $2 million to this effort, Childress says. There are very few edtech products tailored for use by English-language learners themselves, rather than by teachers or administrators, she says. Successful applicants for the funding might offer authentic and culturally relevant content for non-native English speakers, for example. Or, Childress says, they might find ways of personalizing English language learning; create social platforms that engage family members, classmates, or teachers in the learning process; or translate class readings in social studies, math, or other subjects into other languages.

Submissions are due Aug. 29 for the English Language Learners challenge. Winning teams stand to gain about $50,000 in funding to develop a promising idea or prototype. For a more developed product, the funding could amount to as much as $200,000.

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