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Interview with Jeremy Nowak

By the Notebook on Jul 23, 2012 01:25 PM

This is an edited transcript of Benjamin Herold's interview with William Penn president Jeremy Nowak.

Benjamin Herold: What is William Penn trying to do right now?

Jeremy Nowak:  William Penn will stay in many ways in some of the traditional areas it’s been involved in, and that’s education with children, that is culture and creativity, and that is the environmental protection with particular interest in watersheds. I think what we care about is trying to be as smart as we can and effective as we possibly can with the limited resources that we have.

Herold: And my understanding is that part of your charge as president is to give William Penn a new standing in the region.

Nowak:  Well, I wouldn’t say new standing in the region. It was time for us to do a new plan that was going to happen whether I was here or not. We had come to the end of a planning cycle. So you get time for reflection. You get time to think about where you want to go. But you also bring with that, if you’re responsible -- and this is a family, the Haas family, a philanthropy that’s very responsible -- you bring with that a sense of urgency, given the nature of what’s changing out there. And given the nature of the changes that are in front of us, changes in public policy, changes in the marketplace, changes in demography, changes in technology, it’s good for us to take a fresh look at things and try to be smart about how we do what we do.

Herold: When you look out at the city and the region, where do you see Philadelphia right now?

Nowak: Philadelphia in some ways is a big city [in the] middle of the pack. If you look at different kinds of indicators, there is some very, very good news. We have a great downtown, neighborhoods in great shape, [and] tremendous cultural assets, including great universities and hospitals. But we’re an extraordinarily poor city, the core city, and we are a city with very, very low educational attainment. And if we don’t address poverty and low educational attainment, it will be very difficult for us to maximize the value and the potential of the city going forward. The city was once the most dynamic part [of the region], the place where the demography was, the place where all the economic value was, the place where the majority of jobs were. But that’s shifted over the last 40, 50 years because of communications, because of technology, because of cost structure. And so, Philadelphia in some ways is both in competition with other parts of the region, and at the same time, it also has to compete as a region with other regions around the world. To do that, it has to be smart. It has to become a city with people who are competitive, with neighborhoods that people want to live in. And it has to be a great steward of the assets that it has. It’s got, you know, there’s a scenario where this becomes one of the great cities in America. And there’s a scenario where we keep going in decline. And I think this is a critical time for us to decide which direction we want to go.

Herold: What are the opportunities and the challenges for William Penn in helping determine which path is taken?

Nowak:  Even a large philanthropy, like the William Penn Foundation, is just a small amount of money. The real money out there, if you think money, it’s private sector and public sector, right? Philanthropy is the money of civil society, right? It’s that third sector. And at the end of the day, that money isn’t able to be decisive. It can’t change the way government does things. It can’t change the way the marketplace moves. But what it can do is to decide to be catalytic in certain areas and decide where it can have the greatest leverage. From our perspective, there are a couple of different places where we think we can have leverage. One way is to have leverage related to schools and trying to help, in particular, low-income kids, what we would say is clos[ing] the achievement gap. Another way is to help make this region one of the most environmentally sustainable and successful regions in the nation, in the world. And a third way is to make sure that we are — and we have a good head start here — one of the most creative and culturally vibrant regions in the world. And Philadelphia actually does quite well in most indices in things like creative vitality. 

Herold:  And this is really your life’s work, all three of those fields. 

Nowak: For years I ran The Reinvestment Fund, where we invested over a billion dollars in Philadelphia neighborhoods, both in the city and also in the region. I’ve done a lot of public policy work around that. So, I’m a Philly kid. I’ve lived in a few other cities. But this is my town, and it’s the town I care about, and it’s a town that I want to see make it, and thrive, and be one of the great cities of the world. 

Herold:  What are the obstacles to that?

Nowak: There are a variety of obstacles.  One is that we’re an older, industrial city with [an] old [costly] infrastructure. [Another is that] during a 50-year period, where we lost half a million people, [leaving] thousands and thousands of vacant lots and buildings. We’ve got the cost of all that, and we’ve got to figure out how to be smart and efficient in the way we use space. One of the great obstacles, I think, is very high poverty rates, because high poverty rates are a problem … Obviously, they’re primarily a problem for the people that are poor. And what that means is we don’t get all the value we can get out of our people. So, high poverty rates, aging infrastructure are huge things. 

I’d say we also have a legacy in Philadelphia which is unfortunate. … Philadelphia has had a legacy in many ways over the past decades of not being a great center of innovation. That’s beginning to turn somewhat. By innovation here, I do not just mean innovation as it relates to the private sector, to technology and the like. I mean innovation as it relates to being willing to try doing things differently, try thinking about solving problems differently. You know, I know we’re going to get it sometime soon, but we’re one of the last big-city transit systems that doesn’t have a smart card. If I can go to Vietnam and use a smart card in Hanoi, I ought to be able to use one in Philadelphia. This is a city that’s going to have to figure out whether it wants to be captive by its past or whether it wants to lean toward the future. And I think that’s what the city’s grappling with right now.

Herold: At The Reinvestment Fund and at William Penn, you have developed a reputation as being unafraid to put out big ideas and push them forward.  Why is that important? 

Nowak: I think that this city, in order to move forward, leaders, whether it’s William Penn or any of a number of institutions — civic, public, private — have got to sometimes be willing to take risks. But by take risks, I don’t mean shoot in the dark. I mean take risks based on what they think is good information, what they think is real data, what they think is something worth trying and something worth producing. But they have to be willing to look at things and try things and do things in ways that are a little bit different. Sometimes you get it right; sometimes you don’t get it right. 

But I think one of the problems in this town has been for many years that the cost of taking risks has been too high, that it’s very hard to mitigate those risks. And I think what we want to do — and by we here, I don’t only mean the William Penn Foundation, I mean many of our civic partners that I talk to all over the city, civic leaders, business leaders, people in the public sector. The best of those are looking for ways to reposition their institutions, reposition their practices, and figure out how to adjust to the radically different environment that we’re in. And that means sometimes taking a risk, and it means sometimes saying and doing things that are uncomfortable. And guess what? It means sometimes being wrong, too. Right? So, some of the fear that people have in taking a risk is that they might get it a little bit wrong. Well, we all get it a little bit wrong. It’s a matter of being willing to get out there and try. 

Herold:  If I’m understanding correctly, part of the role that you see yourself playing as the head of William Penn Foundation is how can you catalyze the other civic leadership in the city to move in the same direction.

Nowak: No, I think there’s great civic leadership here. Sometimes in Philadelphia, the parks are … there are extraordinary parks. But it doesn’t come together. The whole doesn’t come together in quite the right way. So I think there’s actually great civic leadership here. And I think that you don’t want to lead as a lone voice. You want to lead in relationship with others. And so, we look forward to doing that in relationship with those organizations and people who are working toward common goals.

Herold:  What would you like to see the foundation accomplish during your tenure?

Nowak: Well, I think the best thing the foundation can do is say that … it established some goals for not only itself but for the region around very specific things that were measurable goals. And it was able to carry out and fulfill those goals.

I’ve never been in philanthropy until I took this job. And there are great things about philanthropy. It gives you a great opportunity to try things, to support outstanding organizations and outstanding leaders. But it’s also a field where you can afford to be pretty exact. You can afford to not accomplish things. You don’t go out of business if you don’t accomplish things in philanthropy, right? It’s a very funny field in that way. You don’t have customers in the traditional sense.

When I first came here, I said to myself that this is the easiest field in the world in which to get a B. It’s very hard to get an A, right? To know whether you would do that. To get an A, it means, I think, you have measurable results that matter, and you got to those measurable results. Now you’re not going to do them yourself. You’re going to do them in relationship with others, in relationship with public and private and civic institutions that you’re working with. So, as long as I can look back and say maybe we got an A on a few things, so as long as I can look back and say maybe we got an A on a few things by getting to some measureable goals, I’ll feel great about it. 

Herold:  When you took the helm here, what did you see in terms of the foundation’s role in the education system?

Nowak: What I saw was that we have an opportunity now to come to terms with the fact that we have to function in what I’ll call a post-ideological framework. And that may sound funny because schools can be quite ideological in terms of different perspectives and different stands. What I mean by that is that I think we’ve come to a point in a city like Philadelphia where we know we’ve got to do better than what we’ve done for our kids in terms of making certain that they have safe and productive and effective schools in which to learn and grow. And that kind of pragmatism means that whether they are District schools, whether they are charter schools, or whether they’re contract schools, whether they’re parochial schools, we’ve got to make sure that the supply of great schools is greater and greater and greater than what it has been before.

Given all the difficulties we’ve had recently since the end of the Arlene Ackerman period, what I saw was a terrific yearning out there from all different kinds of people to get it right in terms of our kids, number one. To see this as an issue for kids, not simply an issue for adults. Number two, I saw that there was … the opportunity for lots of people who don’t always agree on these things, [to] come together around some agreement on how it is that we would measure whether a school is great for kids, and how we would decide whether these schools are worth investing in, or schools should be shut down and we should not invest in them.

The perspective that William Penn has taken … is that we have to increase the supply of high-quality schools so that low-income kids in Philadelphia can move forward. If there are great charters that we can help increase that supply, that’s terrific. We’ll be there. If there are charters that are not doing well, they ought to be shut down. If there are great District schools and District innovations that are moving in the right direction, then we will be there to work with those District schools. We’ve also done some planning grants recently with some of the people who are doing the mission schools, which are parochial schools. I just visited one, a terrific one on 22nd and Lehigh.  At the end of the day, we have to say to ourself, how to we make sure every kid in this city is in a safe and productive environment?

Herold: Talk about William Penn’s last 10 years of grant-making compared to where you are heading now.  You've talking before about moving from platitudes to results.

Nowak: No, I think the great thing that William Penn did in the last 10 years, as it related to education, is [around] terrific funding and public policy, both for early childhood education [and] K-12. It played a terrific role in trying to make some changes in the state formula for funding, which I think resulted in a more equitable distribution of resources, not everything that we want, but I think it played a great role. It’s played a great role in early childhood education. We have done everything we could to make sure that the state has a program which, if you compare it to other states, it is in some ways ahead of those other states in terms of evaluating the effectiveness of early childhood centers. I think the work that we did in advocacy and policy work for early childhood education and K-12 are terrific. I think it’s great.

I think there’s two ways to look at change.  One has to do with a policy perspective.  And by the way, the two ways of looking at change, they’re not either/or, they’re both/and. And I would say, what William Penn did in the previous 10 years is, it concentrated heavily on the policy side, very important, good stuff. I’d say that now we’re not going to abandon policy. Of course, we’re still going to look at things that have got … the opportunity for systemic change, but sometimes people that work in policy think that [if] they just change the policy, that everything on the ground will change. And it turns out that that’s not always true.

What we have to do is figure out how to move the supply of great things. So, how do you make sure you’ve gotten better and better and more and more great child-care centers for low-income kids?  Who does it well? Who needs the resources? And who can support the innovations to get more of that done? Who can make sure that the next … you know, we were a big supporter of the Mastery Charter schools, and this is a school group that I personally was involved in before I came to William Penn. They’ve done some terrific things in terms of closing the achievement gap for low-income kids. Whether it’s Mastery or anyone else, how do we make sure that there’s another 20 of those in the next few years, another 30 of those?

Whether it’s done through the District management, or done through charter management, or contract management, in some ways, the increased supply creates demand for excellence. And, you know, the people who always work from the perspective of policy assume that if you shift the policy, you’ll get the supply. And there’s sometimes truth to that and often truth to that. I think we also believe that if you shift the supply, you will create the demand which will begin to shift the policy. And so, I think if there is a difference in emphasis at all over the last couple of years, in terms of going forward, it’s the difference between the way we look at a demand-based perspective. By a demand-based perspective, that is, we want to shift the supply of great things so that people in neighborhoods, people in Philadelphia, families will come to expect that there will be great resources for them.

Herold: When I hear you say the supply of great things and shift of demand, my head starts to spin a little bit.

Nowak: Sure. So let me give you an example. Let me go back to my previous world. I used to run The Reinvestment Fund. And one of the things I got involved in there with the state — worked with the state, worked with the federal government, worked with lots of banks — we got involved with trying to make certain that there were high-quality grocery stores in the inner city. So what I noticed is that once you create a great ShopRite at 52nd and Parkside — my friend Jeff Brown’s got a ShopRite that we financed — the expectation now is that in an inner-city neighborhood, there can be a produce department that is managed like a produce department in a Whole Foods in the suburbs. You’ve begun to shift the expectation of what is possible, right?

Similarly, if I go to a high-quality school, whether it is a District or charter again, or a parochial, and it is clean, kids are not running around the hallways without something to do. I go in there, and kids are learning. The parents are informed about what is going on, and the kids are learning at grade level and beyond, and they’re doing well on proficiency tests, there’s a kind of an expectation now that that’s the way school ought to be. I would say that in this city, our expectations have been too low, that you can’t have great grocery stores in some neighborhoods, that you can’t have great schools in some neighborhoods, that you can’t have a public transportation system that is as reliable as we’d like -- not to get on the public transportation system, just my favorite thing to argue about sometimes. But I’d say we need to shift expectations. And you shift expectations not simply by shifting policy. You shift expectations by supporting great practices, whether they’re in civil society, the public sector, or the private sector.

Herold: And so, the piece of this that’s going to be a new point of emphasis for William Penn  is the latter part of that?

Nowak: I’d say that there will be more of that than there has been before.  And I’d say the other thing is you have to, at the end of the day, say, 'Let’s figure out how to measure it to find out if we did it right.' I mean, you can’t assume you know until you go back and figure it out. And you may be wrong. But you go with what you’ve got, the best you can do. You learn from experience, and you make shifts. So the best thing you could do is have a smart framework based on data and experience. Try some things, figure out whether those things worked or didn’t work, make the adjustments accordingly and move.

Herold: Why are people so skeptical of this whole kind of "great schools" notion, and the idea of breaking down ideological divides between District and charter and parochial?

Nowak: Well, I think there’s a lot of reasons. And some of them are perfectly understandable and I appreciate. So one reason is that people have been very, very disappointed over many years about what’s come out of the District. … Why wouldn’t they be skeptical, right?

There’s a second thing right now, which is very hard. No matter what, no matter where you think the SRC is taking things (we supported, as you know, and other funders, the information that was put together about the Boston Consulting Group) ... no matter whether you think that’s a good framework [or] you argue that it’s not a good framework — it doesn’t matter — there’s not as much money as we would like. There’s a shortfall of money. We moved from a $3.1 billion to $2.5 or $2.6 billion district. So there is pain, and the pain is everywhere. And because of that, people are going to understandably be upset and be nervous. And there’s good reason for them to be. I do not blame them. That’s just there. That’s reality. And I think sometimes, we don’t give voice to that. That’s the truth. And it is… It’s not like if you’re at the School Reform Commission that you’re giving anybody good news. The news, for a long time, has been cut, cut, cut, cut. Now they have no choice. You could argue where the cuts come, do it this way versus do it that way. But that all has bad news attached to it. And because it has bad news attached to it, you know, given the suspicions historically, that will be there. 

I think there’s a third point though, and the third point is that education, which has a very, very long and very complex history, public education, in this country, has taken on, like lots of institutions, particular forms, particular ways of doing things. And in those ways, some would argue that the basic framework for the school that was created, that framework of a high school created 70, 80, 90 years ago, in many ways hasn’t changed all that much. And, you know, societies in general are relatively resistant to change no matter what’s happening around them. So part of what we’re going through right now is an enormous, very frightening moment of change. It’s just enormous. And all of us are nervous about what that means. The institutions that were reliably here… they’re not the same institutions. Whether that institution is banks -- banks are completely different than what they were when I grew up. Let’s think of retail. I walked down the street for years, and one of my favorite things to do was to go to a bookstore. And then all of a sudden, some of the bookstores started disappearing. Right? And the bookstores went away, and I would complain about that and then I looked down at my iPad and all the damn books were on my iPad. It’s shifted, and it shifted really quickly. Right? The same thing has happened with transportation. Same thing’s happened with the way we communicate. It naturally is happening with all kinds of institutions. So the third thing is we’re nervous because the form of familiarity is shifting. And as that form shifts, you know, whether again, it’s an orchestra. This is a city that’s had an orchestra in bankruptcy for a long time. So we have to ask questions moving forward, given the way people receive information, given the way people receive entertainment, what is it to be an orchestra in the 21st century?

We’re asking those same questions about schools, especially given the impact of technology.  Charters are …  public schools, but they are managed, usually by civic institutions, but by private institutions, but they are public. They are nondenominational. They’re free, they’re open to everyone. And they are a great opportunity to experiment because you’re given flexibility. 

When charters first emerged 15 years ago, had the School District done what I think would have been a great thing and seen charters as a great opportunity for them to try new things and to integrate -- the same way an organization would have the innovation part of the organization, and figure out what works and what doesn’t work, and they try to shift the organization itself through that -- had this District seen that right in the beginning and embraced the innovation or the innovation opportunities, we wouldn’t have had separate worlds of charter and District. But over 12, 15 years, we got the two separate worlds, and they became frozen ideologically.

Now, however, I think we’ve come to a point where we’ve said we can’t afford it. We can’t afford it for a variety of reasons, right? Either financially or in terms of the great work that we all want to get done. And so, we are saying this is one District. … I think people in Philadelphia are ready to say this is one District. The District manages both its District schools and its charter schools.  And what it needs to do going forward is to figure out how to do the best with both of them and figure out how they work together.

Herold: Even in the charter sector, how do we take that thing that works and make 20 or 30 of them? Where’s the evidence base that leads you to believe that’s possible?

Nowak:  So I think the evidence base is all over, actually. If I looked at the charter world, I’d say that among the highest-performing charters, many of them are charter management groups with several, right? I used the example of Mastery before. You just look at the data. You look at the Renaissance data. It’s moved in the right direction right now. You then have to ask the question why. Why was that? Was our data good data? Was there something in the way they’re training teachers? Might be. Is there something in the way they’ve been able to set school culture? Might be. Is it something in the way they’ve used information and data and analysis?  And then you have to ask yourself the question of why, if you can answer affirmatively to that, or if you find the other attributes. 

And you can say the same thing about [successful] District schools. You have to ask yourself the question of, ‘Why can’t you replicate it in other places?’ It can’t be idiosyncratic. Nothing works that way. You’ve got to be able to do great schools over and over and over again. It doesn’t just happen because there happened to be a few good teachers in a place or a good principal in a place. So then you have to ask the question, what’s the constraint? What are the great constraints? And if the great constraints are that we are not able to train or that we don’t train teachers or select teachers in a particular way, that we don’t give them the supports they need to do, that we don’t use information and data effectively, whatever you decide those things are, you then have to go over those constraints. And you have to make teachers and the teachers' union a partner in going after those constraints.

Herold: You mentioned the data on the Renaissance Schools. It seems like one year’s worth of preliminary data on K-8, not even high school, is the most solid piece of quantitative data upon which a lot of these tectonic shifts are being based. And I think that’s part of what makes people nervous. Should we be making such a large bet on strategy based on --

Nowak:  I’d say no. But I’d say we had evidence that there were some great schools doing things even prior to Renaissance. The great innovation in Philadelphia, in the charter world, potentially, where I think we can become nationally known, and it will be cheaper to do it this way, is the turnaround schools, is the Renaissance model, where you are not having the  [individual] charters go out and buy a building and just having kids move out of the District buildings, which is a much costlier way to do it. What we’ve got the opportunity to do is figure out how to have people do turnarounds of schools and take schools over, whether again, it’s initiated by teachers in the District, through new groups that emerge within the District, or it’s done by charters. The real issue is to identify the attributes that are working and figure out how we support those attributes. But to do that, you’ve got to be able to take on the constraints to that scalability. 

Herold: But you feel like, both from William Penn’s perspective and from the city’s perspective, it’s a good bet to make based on the somewhat limited data we have right now?

Nowak: It’s some bet. You’ve got to make some bet somewhere. You often have imperfect information. You know? And you go with imperfect information, there’s a bet. But of course there will be issues, sure.

Herold: Some charter operators, like Walter Palmer, feel really skeptical of a lot of this work now. They say the charter management organizations looking to go to scale will restrain that innovation role that charters have directly played. Do you think there’s a tension between what the charters are being asked to do and going to scale?

Nowak:  There is a tension. … I spent a lot of time in my life thinking about innovation and what works and what doesn’t work. And I have two interesting points about innovation. One is that it often is a larger organization that’s got the balance sheet [and] has got the resources and the talent to be able to enable innovation. It’s not just because you’re new and small that you can innovate. Sometimes we confuse those two. Sometimes you can, right? But in our minds, we have an image of Bill Gates in a garage someplace. So it’s never that simple, right? It’s done within a broader framework. And genius is organizational and not just individual. So often innovation requires something different organizationally.  So I’m not sure innovation happens only within the small organizations, would be number one. 

Number two, and maybe paradoxically -- you know, it depends on how you argue it — is it’s very hard to innovate from the perspective of certain kinds of large institutions, too large of institutions, whose culture is in such a way that the DNA of that culture makes it hard to do anything different. So, that’s why what you get a lot are organizations that create their own little innovation labs. It was my idea that if we could think of great charters as the innovation labs of the District, that would have been a better way to do it 15 years ago. So I won’t presuppose who’s going to be the great innovator moving forward, whether it’s going to be a small charter, charter management organization or the District. But I won’t presuppose that because you are a one-off charter or because you are a charter management organization or because you are the District that you can’t be a great innovator. So I would be very careful about that.

Herold: One of the phrases that is really driving this dialogue right now is this whole notion of a high-performing seat. What does that mean to you?

Nowak: High-performing seat means that we can look at the school, and we can say that x percentage of kids in that school were proficient or above in state tests.

Herold: So how much of this is really about test scores? Is that really what’s driving this as the measure of success and quality?

Nowak: I think test scores are one of these funny things. And I myself have got some mixed feelings about it. So I think test scores are inadequate, but the best we have.  You know, it’s what we’ve got. And the most important thing is the growth of scores, the growth of test scores, right? If you go around this country, and you say, ‘What are kids’ test scores,’ I can tell you pretty much what their income is. But if you say, what is the growth of kids’ test scores from the base of where they were to where they went the next year, I can tell you an awful lot about their teaching and their school. The most important thing is the growth of test scores. However, I think we are wise to look for indicators that take test scores and take other data points about school and about a variety of other things, and bring those things together. 

Herold: How does that impact your thinking about the achievement gap?

Nowak: We’re going to look at a variety of things. And this isn’t all worked out at William Penn, but we’ll look at … The [District] has got its own [School Performance Index] system. I’m sure they’ll have others. We’ll look at PSSA. You can look at the [National Assessment Educational Progress] stuff that normalizes. We’ll look at a variety of things. … None of it is perfect. But you have to go somewhere.

It’s very, very complicated. I want to be able to evaluate teachers and students on things that are not just reducible to test scores. At the same time, I want kids in North Philadelphia to be competitive with anybody in the country and anybody in the world because, guess what? In the kind of world that we’re in right now, they’d better be, or they’re going to have a hard time.

Herold:  I understand that the Boston Consulting Group looked at the charter question and the issue of high-performing seats, trying to get at the heart of whether you’re creating new high-performing seats, or just shifting kids from one high-performing seat to another.

Nowak: I don’t want to say anything about what will come out because that will come out, and you’ll see it. Again, we were partially responsible for funding it, but not what is in there. I think a lot of people, when it comes out, will be surprised, because I think some people have put them all in the perspective of being only pro-charter. And I think you’ll find, when it comes out, that it is a much more complicated picture.

Herold: I guess my question, though, for William Penn is how important is it for you to know that it’s not just shifting high-performing kids from one school to another?

Nowak: It is very important. And the only way you can do that is with school-level data, and the state of Pennsylvania allows us to have school-level data. And the question is, will we use it? That’s one of the big issues. We have the ability to use high-quality, not school-level data, [but] high-level, quality, student-level data with a very, very good value-added system of evaluation. And we’ve got to decide to really use it and to train teachers to use it, and to train teachers to understand that this is not something that is punitive, that, in fact, this is something that is professionalizing. 

Herold: What role do you think those teachers, parents, community-based organizations who are the most concerned and nervous should be having in shaping the direction that the District is taking right now?

Nowak:  Look, it’s a public district, and it will be a public district. And I think citizens have not only the right but the obligation and responsibility to speak out and to say what they think is right, say what they think is not. What I do think is important in all this is to make sure that we do it in a way where we can not only say what we have to say, but we can listen to others that think differently than us. You know, I’m a great believer in a public sphere, in the public marketplace of ideas. And one of the ideas that I thought that was so terrible at the end of Dr. Ackerman’s tenure was that some of those SRC meetings really devolved into something that didn’t allow people to say what they felt. And we lost a great opportunity, I think, to exchange information to move forward. And this happens sometimes still at SRC meetings. It happens sometimes in the way people write things. 

I think that if we’re going to solve these problems, we have to not only speak, but we have to listen. If we’re going to solve these problems, we have to assume that we don’t have the answers, but we have some ideas, hopefully. If we’re going to solve the problems, we have to be willing to look at information, and we have to be willing to have our mind changed occasionally with things. None of us have all the answers.  Some of us have pretty good information about one thing; others of us have good information about something else. We all have great experiences that are important here. I have to say that one of the things I’ve noticed is that many of the parents I know that go to some of the charter schools, they may not even know that they’re going to a charter school.  All they know is that they’re taking their kid to a place that is safe, and they’re taking their kid to a place where they think their kid has a shot, an opportunity to learn something. 

When I first came here, I took a trip over to Camden, New Jersey. When I was at TRF, I did a tremendous amount of work in Camden. I still care a lot about Camden. There are five parochial schools left in Camden. And I went to Holy Name, which is in North Camden. Holy Name is in a very, very difficult part of Camden. And I went there, and these were 4th graders and 5th graders, and the kids are doing great. Everything I could see in terms of information and data was terrific. And I spoke to not only some of the kids, but I spoke to some of the parents, and they were largely not Catholic, by the way, they were largely, at least in this school, largely African American, some Asian, some Latino. And when I spoke to them and asked them why they were there, for the most part they were there because their experience in a school down the street was that the level of disorder, the level of violence, the level of … the inability to learn was so problematic that they had to find another place.  And here were these parents, very poor, who were trying to scrape up $1,500 to send their kid to a parochial school. And they tried to subsidize the rest. I don’t know what the total cost of the school, of educating a kid there, was. 

And so, when I walked out of there, I thought to myself, we’ve gotten ourselves to a place in society where we can’t deliver a high-quality public good. Now Camden is a place where you can’t make the argument, and you can in many places, perhaps in Philadelphia, that there’s inadequate money. Camden’s a place where there’s twenty, twenty-two thousand dollars per kid because of the Abbott decision. But there’s a place where you couldn’t, for a variety of reasons — we can talk about what they are — where we can’t deliver a high-quality public good for that parent. And so that parent then has to take money out of their household, which, none of these people were rich, and send their kid there so their kid can make it and has a chance.

I walked out of there, and I was sick. I said to myself, my God, how can that be? How did we get to a place where so many schools got into that position and that situation?  And from my perspective, we’re failing those kids. And I could say those stories over and over. There are many bad charter schools where I can say the same thing.

Herold: In Philadelphia, do you see it the same way?

Nowak: I see it in the same way in many schools in Philadelphia. We are failing many of those kids. And the question is, how do we stop failing kids? And a lot of the food fight around this stuff is about adults. And I understand it. They’re real things, including people’s jobs and livelihood. I understand that. I appreciate it. I have empathy for it, especially given the budget situation.  But at the end of the day, we have to ask the question, how do we make sure we don’t fail these kids?

Herold: Let me go back and quickly close the loop on the public sphere issue. There’s a network, or smaller network, of student organizing and parent organizing groups that William Penn has supported over the past few years.

Nowak: Yes.

Herold: And you’ve indicated to them that they likely will not be a priority area as you move forward.

Nowak: So, what I indicated to them, I actually … we actually funded them, I think with the exception of one group, probably six months ago, eight months ago. Made grants to them and said that the perspective we would have would be a perspective around closing the achievement gap. We would figure out over the next year -- we still are -- what exactly that meant and what the strategies were behind that. And that if their work got us to that, they were still welcome to come in. That’s actually what I said.

Herold: And so, what’s your thought, as it stands now, on the role that student and parent and community organizing  can play in the work that you want to support and the goals you want to --

Nowak:  It’s too early to say. I have to wait and see, and see what the strategies are as they emerge. And I have to wait and take a closer look at the groups and the organizations. But we’re going to stay agnostic and pragmatic and take a look at it.  And we’ll see what makes sense.

You can have multiple choices. You can have a multi-provider universe, and there’s still a role for equity, still a great role for the organization of people in that. Right? Absolutely. So we’ll take a look at that.

Herold: The big $15 million grant to the Philadelphia School Partnership -- why give such a big grant to such a new organization, particularly given the kind of focus on results?

Nowak: So if the grant was to the organization, in that sense, I would say that that’s exactly a great question, right? So the grant’s to a fund that that organization manages. And that fund and our money is $5 million a year for three years. So it doesn’t go to that organization for that organization. That organization becomes the intermediary to distribute it to other organizations. So from that perspective, we feel good about the organization’s perspective, the organization’s leadership, the organization’s investment committee. So, you know, I think people are used to … If [the money] was simply [for] the operations of that organization, I would be with you. I would say how can you do that for such a new organization? But it’s not. Think of it as a re-granting program, right?

Herold: And so, with the re-granting, how do the results get tracked through the re-grants?

Nowak: Well, they’ve got an investment committee. Their investment committee and their staff have got a good set of management and outcome criteria that everybody buys into, that we felt pretty good about, from what we’ve seen. We looked at what their initial grants were last year. We know that some of the things that we’re looking at now, they will continue to track it, and let me tell you, we will continue to track it. And it’s not the only thing we’re going to be doing in schools. I mean, we’re going to be doing many other things, but that will be one of the things.

Herold: So it was the only school-related grant among those recently approved by William Penn's board?

Nowak: In the most recent board, right. And what we wanted to do then was to also send a signal to encourage other philanthropists out there to either put money in a fund like that or to put money into other things at a larger level that would support schools and the School District and some of the great things happening in the city.

Herold: And was it meant primarily as a signal to other philanthropists or to other sectors of the city as well?

Nowak: I think a little bit of all of that. And what’s unusual for the Philadelphia School Partnership is that it’s a tri-sector approach. And by tri-sector, [I mean] District, Catholic, [charter]. I realize the first grants were all to charter schools. We want the grant portfolio to be much more diverse. But I think there’s great opportunity, and I would love to see Philadelphia become the innovation center for the tri-sector. You know, to think of itself as a community in one way for all three of those sectors.

Herold: I’m sure you’re aware that in some sectors of the city, people are quite skeptical of PSP, largely because of its board, folks on its board who have been closely associated with the voucher movement …

Nowak: Sure.

Herold: Was that a source of concern at all?

Nowak: No, if I look at the board, and maybe I’ve been … I’m … Some of my best friends are on the right of these issues, and some of my best friends are on the left of these issues. And some of my best friends that think one thing about this, I argue with them about one part, and I have another conv … you know, I think we’ve got to get over that. I mean, there are people on there who are quite pro-voucher. There are people on there who are not pro-voucher, who think of it in a different way. It’s a very, very mixed board. And I think it will become more diverse. 

Herold: And I think the more tangible concern with the whole “high-performing seats” strategy and the types of grants that PSP is going to be doing through the Great Schools Fund is just encouraging charter growth, even for good charters, is financially detrimental to the District.

Nowak: So it can be unless we’re shutting down problematic charters, and unless we are encouraging the good charters to take over buildings that are being left by the District. So it can be. You have to put it in a broader perspective of all the other things, all the other moving parts, but it absolutely can be, and therefore, we have to be very careful.  One of the things the District is talking about wanting to have, I think the term du jour is, portfolio management system, right? Portfolio management system, of course, if a multi-provider system, ought to be based on performance and not politics.  And you make choices based on that. Now to have a great portfolio management system, you need to have a lot of data. And the data has to be not only about performance, you have to decide what data you want to use for performance, and what the timeline is, and what you’ll give something to perform or not perform. But you also have to have really good data about costs so that when you’re consolidating from one school to another, or if you’re shutting down a school, or if you’re moving on a Renaissance, say the Renaissance track, you can be, as you’re doing that, understand the financial implications and understand what that is balanced against, how you would balance that with other decisions. 

So I look forward to a time when there is a real high-quality portfolio management system in the District with that kind of data. I think the beginnings of it are there. At least we have the information. I have to say I went to the District and talked to Pedro Ramos in November or December of last year. And it was when Pedro first got appointed. And I spent a lot of time talking to people there and looking at what kind of information they had and didn’t. It was just myself. It certainly wasn’t a professional exploration. And I could see, though, the position they were in was pretty frightening for a $3 billion institution. And they needed something. They needed somebody to get in there and to start putting together the kind of analytics that would make decisions.  That can’t stop. They have to be a knowledge-driven organization that is going to make decisions, not only based on what they think are the right things for the kids but are they going to be the right things — and that’s paramount — but are they also going to be the right thing for the long-term health and sustainability financially of the District?

Herold:  One of the pieces of the compact that’s related to this is overhauling the District’s charter office so that decisions could be made. And part of the idea has been fund that with private philanthropy. Is that something you’d be interested in?

Nowak: I don’t know. I don’t know if your readers or listeners know this, but when I first came to the William Penn Foundation a little bit more than a year ago, though it seems like five years ago, the first thing we did was to actually pull a grant out of the District. We had a million dollars in the District. So there had been a million-dollar grant in the District to help create the charter management. So that wasn’t a grant under my tenure; it was a grant that happened prior. And because we were so nervous about what was going on with the District, we pulled the money out. And frankly, [former interim superintendent] Lee Nunery was great about saying, 'I understand your nervousness,' and sent the check back. And we held back another million dollars that we were going to give to the District because we couldn’t get the kind of information that we needed. This was right at the point when Dr. Ackerman was leaving. So we actually funded it once and took it back.

Herold: And that money was for the operations of the District’s charter office.

Nowak: It was, the one million. The other one million that we never funded was for something else. It was something in HR, leadership-related, and I forget. I could get it out for you and find it. But we held those back because the District wasn’t in the situation to do anything with that. And they were quite honorable and great about it.

At the end of the day, you know, as I said to you before, philanthropy doesn’t have the big money. The big money comes from the public sector and the marketplace, right?  And at the end of the day, the role of philanthropy is not to fill in the operating costs for that District. We can’t do it. And why do one part of it versus another part of it?

So could we do what we just did, which is fund information and data, like we did with a private consultant? Sure. Could we look at some experimental things that are going on in training teachers, something, and maybe with some other funders do that? Yeah, sure, maybe. But I think we would look at any of those things carefully, and I think we would tend to ask a lot of questions about whether we should be funding anything that is sort of the operations of the public sector. Do you know what I mean? It’s just … It isn’t really where … because what’s the end to that, right? I mean, there’s always going to be more than what we can do, so we would only do it if it was some initial amount of money, to maybe help figure it out, get it started. But the ongoing funding of that is really the responsibility of the public sector, and we would want to stay out of that. 

Herold:  As I’m sure you’ve experienced, there are folks in this city who are skeptical of private philanthropists, private dollars.

Nowak: Sure.

Herold:  I want to  go back to this idea of you going over and talking with Pedro when he was appointed, and being able to have access to the books and so forth. 

Nowak: We didn’t have access to the books. We just talked. He showed me the publicly available information.

Herold: Is that cause for skepticism?  

Nowak:  I understand it. I think people should ask questions. Whether you should be skeptical is a different thing. So people should always ask questions. I would say that it would be more worrisome if philanthropy and business and civic leaders didn’t want to go over and talk to Pedro and say, ‘What can I do to help?’ That would be more worrisome, A.  B, there’s been a role of philanthropy in the private sector, nonpublic parts of civil society, in schooling and the creation of the public schools for a long time in America, going back to the early 19th century when public schools were being created state by state unevenly.  So, you know, whether it was the role of some great foundations in America in making sure that there were African American schools in the South after Reconstruction in the early part of the 20th century. Some of the things that were done were really extraordinary.

There’s always been some involvement. You want that involvement. Why would you not want it? Involvement is different than control. At the end of the day, it’s a public system. If we fund an analysis of something, if we fund an analysis that the Boston Consulting Group or somebody does, whoever it is, whoever the consulting firm is and does it, it’s up to the District to decide how they want to use that or whether they want to go forward or not go forward. They’re the public representatives appointed by people who get elected.

From my perspective, that’s where the point of accountability is. But I would think you’d want philanthropy and business and others to care about this. I think our problem is if we don’t care about it. I mean, the people I talk to say if we don’t have a great school system, where’s the city going to be? So I’d say the last thing you want to do is push us out of the … I think it’s great to challenge us, do it in a way that’s civil and respectful and where we listen and talk back and forth to each other, but you want us in there. You want us to be part of that dialogue.

Herold: On that spectrum between support and control, that’s part of why the issue of William Penn funding communications and public relations work on behalf of the District raises some questions.

Nowak: Sure.

Herold: So you’ve given about $160,000 …

Nowak: Right, correct. A little bit more actually if you look at some other things, but yes.

Herold: So how much money have you …

Nowak: I don’t know exactly. It would be in the hundred and sixty to hundred and eighty thousand dollar range.

Herold: And what has that money been for?

Nowak: We put money through the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce -- they each are a different group — to do work with the District, to get the story out about what the District is doing. The District largely doesn’t have a communication staff anymore. And here they are in this huge transformation going on with all kinds of information, all kinds of tough decisions going on. And they’ve got very few communications personnel. So they literally had nothing. I don’t know how to tell you this. There was nothing there.

So what did we do? What we did then was we funded people to work with the District to tell their story. But they worked with the District. They didn’t work for William Penn; they worked for the District. The District, whether it was funding BCG, or giving them some help with communications, the District asked us to do that.  And we said we’ll … go do it.

Herold: Who are the communications groups that …

Nowak: Sage was hired by United Way, and the Bravo Group was hired by the Chamber of Commerce.

Herold: What types of things have they been doing?

Nowak: So, it’s a little bit of everything.  It’s been both -- not lobbying. But it’s been everything, from helping to respond to questions, to putting out Q & A’s, to prepping people. I think they’ve done some prepping of, and putting together press releases, done some prepping of people before… They’ve had meetings at the SRC. They do what a communications firm does before you go to City Council. They didn’t have the people to do that. Now, I wasn’t sure what… I’ve known Pedro for many, many years.  I’ve known his family well, I know his older brother well. This is way back. It has nothing to do with the School District. I believe Pedro Ramos. If Pedro Ramos comes to me and says we have no communications staff.  We’re going to go through this where we have only a few people. They’re doing everything that they can. I need some assistance with that. Well, I’m glad that we’re able to respond to that.

Herold: What’s been your role in directing the work?

Nowak: I have not directed the work.  I sign lots of things—checks.  I look at what’s going on.  I make sure it’s accountable the way that somebody that oversees a contract would because it’s our money there. But we do not direct the work. We do not put together the work plan of what the work is. That work plan is put together in a negotiation with the School Reform Commission, and there you’d have to ask them more exactly who does it, and the Boston Consulting Group, and the communications people. I will then see that. If I have questions, I will ask questions. I will get clarifications. We will go back and forth, but at the end of the day, the negotiation is there.

Herold: So, the City Paper did a story that talked about a meeting in May around this communications where … And so, two lines of questioning…

Nowak: Sure.

Herold:  Did this meeting take place?  

Nowak: I’ve been involved in many meetings. They called it a pro-charter meeting. It certainly wasn’t just a pro-charter meeting. I mean, my problem in that article was I wasn’t sure which meeting they meant. I had a lot of meetings in May that dealt with the School District. But I’ve been involved in many meetings talking about communications. And the major issue, including in May, and the major issue always, was how do we make sure, how does the District make sure they have the resources to make sure that they’re getting their message out? And that’s the major and most important thing for the District to do. Now you can decide that you disagree with the message. That’s a different issue. But I think getting their message out is really important.

Herold: So, who is involved in those meetings, and what is your role?

Nowak: The only meeting that I was … I’m just there as a participant, but the only meeting that [inaudible] was a meeting with somebody from Sage with somebody from the SRC, myself, I don’t know who else was at the meeting. 

Herold: Some have read a sinister dynamic into this: Private foundation, head of the SRC, and these private communications folks having what appear to be side meetings, talking about the future of the District and how to message the plan and so forth. What do you think the public should make of it?

Nowak:  Well, I don’t think of this foundation or myself as being particularly sinister. I would start with that perspective. I think of us as caring a great deal about the citizens of Philadelphia. That’s why the Haas family has put millions and millions of dollars into this community and will continue to do and has made a decision to make sure that they continue doing this in the future. It’s why I’ve been involved with schools and kids for so many years. So I never … I just can’t read it that way. How do you read it that way? 

But I, you know, this is the highly charged moment that we’re in. And it’s hard-charging, and it’s difficult, and people have those opinions, and, you know, I think it’s a matter of just talking to each other, speaking, trying to speak what we know, trying to listen to each other and move forward with it. But you know, you would expect the head of a foundation who just put $1.5 million to help fund, at the request of the School Reform Commission, a plan and an analysis of the School District situation, both financial and student performance-wise, to want to occasionally talk to somebody at the District. It doesn’t mean that I’m directing it or saying, ‘This has to get done.’  But you would assume that in the same way that if this foundation funded an environmental group, or of this foundation funded one of the advocacy groups you were talking about, that you would occasionally talk to them. It’s what we do. What we do as funders is we fund things based on what we think are smart outcomes. Sometimes we get it right; sometimes we get it wrong.  And then we ask questions and we meet with our grantees, and we meet with people who are involved with that.

Herold: And so there’s a piece of this also where…

Nowak: Let me go a little further. Part of what is going on here, which I think is an interesting issue at the moment in history, is that civic, public, and private spheres, those lines have gotten more blurred, and for historic reasons, very complex reasons.  And they’re likely to get even more blurred in the future. So part of it is we’re thinking and acting, at least, out of a framework that is a little bit different now than it was 20 or 30 years ago and may be different 20 years from now, right? So, even list the term private. When you say the term private, private can mean the marketplace — it’s usually what it means, a business — or private can mean simply not public, which can mean civic or civil society. Most of those charter schools are not private in the sense that they’re business. The overwhelming majority of them, overwhelming, certainly anything we’ve ever funded, are civic. They’re civil society, they’re nonprofit organizations in the same way those advocacy groups you just talked about we’re going to fund going forward are. They’re no different in that way. So, you always have to say to yourself, you have to have a certain precision with terms. What do we mean by private and what do we mean by public?

Secondly, when you say public, if public pays for it, if public regulates it, that is one thing, and that is an important thing in education. It’s a great tradition. It’s one of the traditions that made America so strong in the 20th century, was free, public education. But paying for it doesn’t mean [inaudible], and making sure everyone has access to it doesn’t mean that you manage every part of it.  I mean, for God’s sake, for 200 years, you’ve had examples of public payment of things but private management of various things. I mean, that’s the complexity of it. So, part of it is, I think, we’re using very, very simple language sometimes, and simple accusations about public and private that I just think the historical record and the present reality doesn’t speak to.

Herold: And with that blurriness piece, certainly the media is a part of that now, too, in that with the rise of nonprofit journalism, particularly in Philadelphia. With this particular issue, William Penn Foundation is funding the reform effort, helping to support the communications around the reform effort, and helping to support some of the media outlets, including my employers, who are covering the reform effort.

Nowak: Sure.

Herold: What kind of flags does that raise for you?

Nowak: What it means is that we have to have a thi[ck] skin. We have to fund things that we think are great things that are not going to agree with us on many things. And all we have to ask of them is fairness and balance and integrity. We don’t have to ask if they agree with us. Our funding of, whether it’s the Notebook or WHYY, is because we think it’s important to have great news out there, to get it out there and to give people an opportunity to do it. It’s not part of a conspiracy to manipulate and control things. If it were, we’re probably not doing a very good job, right, in that sense.

It’s the public purpose of the institution. When I got here, I spent a lot of time trying to think of what are some of the great things in Philadelphia? And one of my favorite things in Philadelphia is new things. It’s an old park, but it’s new. It’s one of the oldest things, is Franklin Square, right near where you work when you go to WHYY. So, you go to Franklin Square. In 1961, when Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she used the example of Franklin Square as something that didn’t work, and she counterposed it, if you remember, to Rittenhouse Square. You go to Franklin Square now, and it’s this extraordinary place. The whole city uses Franklin Square. Frankly, I don’t know how they get there because the parking is so bad and there’s no public … I mean, it’s ridiculous. They’re there. On a nice day there are thousands of people somehow in Franklin Square, right from all walks of life, all types of people. It’s tremendous. And you look at Franklin Square, and it is a public piece of land owned by the city’s park department. It is managed by a separate, civic institution, a nonprofit organization that is separate from the public sphere. And then it has a private restaurant on it that pays a fee that helps pay for the maintenance and development of the park.  So, you have all three templates of American social life--public, private, and civic--that work together.  And what they end up doing is producing a high quality public product, which in this case is that park. 

To me, from my perspective and the perspective of William Penn, we care about high-quality public products, like those schools. The question of exactly how do you manage it, the question of who’s got the best ability to innovate, the questions of, you know, can we measure things and what are the right measurements, we can argue all that. We can figure that out. We’ll be right sometimes, we’ll be wrong sometimes. The question is, do we have high quality public goods, so that low-income people and working people in this city can move forward and thrive and compete in ways that will work for them?

Herold: Two quick factual questions. There was also an additional $82,500 to United Way to support kind of staffing work.

Nowak: It actually covers the salary, largely, of a former District person who we think is great, Diane Castelbuono. It was to the United Way to support their work in education. But that was primarily carried out by a former District person who advises the District. So the District doesn’t have to pay for it.

Herold:  So it’s work on behalf of the District.

Nowak: Oh, sure, sure.  Absolutely, absolutely.

Herold: And are you looking for money for the next round of BCG?

Nowak: Yup, exactly. So we’ve gotten some. There will be BCG still there. There are a scaled-down number of them. We think it’s important for them to help with the information, to on-board Superintendent (designee William) Hite. And so, we’ve gotten some. It’s not all figured out yet, but we think we’ll be able to maintain with some donors an amount that will keep several people with BCG in there still providing information and analysis for them.

Herold: And will William Penn be contributing any more directly or is that all donors?

Nowak: No, that’s all other donors. William Penn did the $1.5 million — the communications money you talked about and the money with United Way for their work — but then that was it. Now we’ll do other things, but not for this. Our perspective is we step forward. We’d like others to step forward, too. And we’ve been thrilled that they have.

Herold: Anything else that you’d like to add?

Nowak: No, I’m good.

 

 

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Comments (1)

Submitted by Phila citizen and public school fan (not verified) on August 5, 2012 11:04 am

Excellent interview, Ben. Nowak comes off as sincere, not corrupt, but misguided and dangerously naive about people like the pro-voucher Philadelphia School Partnership group.
I urge thoughtful Notebook readers with healthy attention spans to read this article in its entirety.

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