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Nowak out at William Penn Foundation

By Dale Mezzacappa on Nov 28, 2012 12:10 PM
Photo: Benjamin Herold

Jeremy Nowak is stepping down as president of the William Penn Foundation.

UPDATED: 7:08 p.m.

The William Penn Foundation, citing "differences in approach," has announced that it is searching for a new president and that Jeremy Nowak is leaving.

The foundation's press release says that its board and Nowak, who became president in June 2011, "mutually decided that the time is right for Nowak to transition out of his current role."

Nowak guided the foundation through a strategic planning process, but had also become a lightning rod for controversy -- especially regarding William Penn's role in paying for the Boston Consulting Group to develop a transformation and austerity plan for the School District.

The William Penn Foundation, founded and presided over by the Haas family of the former chemical giant Rohm & Haas, is a major funder of the Notebook and of many other education-related organizations in the city.

The foundation, with assets of $2 billion, makes about $80 million in grants annually in education, the environment, and culture. It is the largest foundation that directs its grantmaking exclusively to the Philadelphia region.

The strategic plan developed under Nowak focuses on "closing the achievement gap" for children in low-income families, protecting the Delaware and Susquehanna watersheds, and "advancing Philadelphia as a leading center of creativity that enhances civic life."

The foundation statement said it remained committed to the strategic plan, but that the board and Nowak had differences regarding its implementation.

David Haas has taken over as chair of the foundation's board from Janet Haas. As recently as July, Janet Haas was identified as chair of the board, and since then, there has been no public statement on the website about the change, when it happened or why it was made.

Foundation spokesman Brent Thompson said that the change in board chair has little significance.

"David and Janet have served in those roles, changing back and forth several times over the past 20 years, and they always work well together no matter who is chair," he said via email.

Nowak's departure "is a big change for the philanthropic community in the region, just when it appeared the pieces were falling into place and things settling down," said Debra Kahn, executive director of Delaware Valley Grantmakers.

Helen Cunningham, executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund, said she was "shocked and upset for our community."

"The not-for-profit world needs some stability. ... So many people's lives are discombobulated when such a big organization has a shakeup like this." she said.

Feather Houstoun, Nowak's predecessor as head of the foundation, said that William Penn brought in Nowak because the board "wanted someone with a bold vision and a real ability to bring everyone to focus on a particular set of issues." At that, she said, "I think he did a great job."

Houstoun, now a member of the School Reform Commission, would not speculate on why the break occurred now between Nowak and the foundation's board of directors.

In pursuit of the goal to close the achievement gap in education, Nowak pushed the District in its strategy of creating more "high-performing seats" in schools, regardless of whether they were District-run, charter, or private. Under his leadership, the foundation gave $15 million to the Philadelphia School Partnership in support of that goal.

PSP, formed two years ago, quickly became a major player in the city's education world, distributing much of that money to replicate or expand schools that it deemed successful and innovative.

The foundation was also the presumed funder behind the District's plan to rethink and recalculate its School Performance Index, which has been used as a factor in many important decisions, including which schools to turn around and which may be closed.

A District source said that they had been assured of the foundation's continued support despite the leadership change.

In his tenure at William Penn, Nowak had made no bones about wanting to work directly to increase the supply of good schools rather than continue the foundation's past focus on supporting activist efforts and organizing campaigns. Student advocacy groups with a long history of foundation support had publicly expressed fears that the foundation was planning to cut off their funding.

One thing the foundation did make clear under Nowak was a continued commitment to invest in advocacy for equitable education funding.

Nowak's role in promoting the "high quality seats" reform direction, especially what was perceived as support for school privatization, precipitated heavy pushback from some elements of the city's education community.

Most recently, on Nov. 15, Parents United for Public Education informed the William Penn Foundation and BCG that it had prepared an ethics complaint against the two organizations regarding the work that BCG had done for the School District.

A legal analysis from the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia argued that William Penn and BCG were actually engaged in lobbying a public agency – the School District – and should have been registered as such. The analysis was based on the fact that BCG continued to work at the District at William Penn’s expense after its official contract with the School Reform Commission had expired.

No complaint with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics has been filed.

Until a permanent successor to Nowak is found, Helen Davis Picher, who had worked at the foundation for 30 years and most recently headed its evaluation arm, is coming back to serve as interim leader.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

 

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Comments (27)

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 13:17

Jeremy Nowak stood before a group of Philadelphia citizens at Enon church and told us that he did not consult with one parent or one student, one teacher, or one principal when he and the Boston Group designed their plan for our schools. How does one conduct a needs assessment without talking to the stake holders? So much for civic engagement and democracy. Someone in the audience asked about the lack of local participation. Nowak told us he was a business man so he talked to business people, as if business people know about education. It's sad to think that our children have been reduced to a business commodity and are referred to as "portfolios." As our currrent economic situation proves, trust placed in business to do the right thing is sadly misplaced.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 09:38

When a hospital system teeters on the edge of bankruptcy - I don't think they consult the patients in the emergency ward for their advice and consent. When a municipality files chapter 9 - there is no public referendum. Another generation of kids is being lost - the status quo frozen in place by a guild that defends its vested interests. Blame Nowak for alot - but at least he had a sense of urgency, which is all too lacking from the system itself.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 09:53

The chairman of the board at Abington Hospital decided - without input from his board, the doctors, and the community - that they would merge with Holy Redeemer. This created a firestorm which led the chair to back down.You don't ride roughshod over community stakeholders. You don't ignore them if you want them to play. Those of us who have been working in education for a long time have witnessed numerous plans implemented by those who would like to "rescue" education. In almost every case, the rescuers climbed aboard their white horses and declared that they had a better idea. In every case their idea didn't work. There is no better idea than assuming good will and involving stakeholders.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 10:49

You mean the reason circumstances haven't improved is because of the "rescuers"? Its all their fault? Eileen it doesn't sound like many -if any solutions have been effective. Your thinking sounds a lot like victimology. No wonder things haven't gotten better! Maybe we're all culpable... just maybe?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 17:30

What a good day for the city! Let us hope, that Nowack's departure signals a turn to practical and meaningful conversations about how to educate EVERY child in this city. Now that the BCG report, has been called just that by Supt. Hite, let us get on with the business of working collaboratively. Sucks for Scott Gordon though, what a let down that must be for them!

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 17:53

Be careful---this could easily be another strategic move to deflect us from the truth. Don't count your chickens.................... These are slick rick type folk with only a very, very fleeting interest in truth and fairness.

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 21:52

Thanks Joe.
I agree with many of your comments. I very much appreciate recent comments from both Frank Murphy and Chris Lehman calling for civil discourse, but there has been such a breach of trust with regard to public education "reform". We need to proceed very respectfully, but very cautiously. You remind us of that.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 17:54

Good Riddance to one of the Kings of the Carpetbaggers locally.

Submitted by anon (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 19:17

good riddance indeed!

"In pursuit of the goal to close the achievement gap in education, Nowak pushed the District in its strategy of creating more "high-performing seats" in schools, regardless of whether they were District-run, charter, or private. Under his leadership, the foundation gave $15 million to the Philadelphia School Partnership in support of that goal. PSP, formed two years ago, quickly became a major player in the city's education world, distributing much of that money to replicate or expand schools that it deemed successful and innovative."

that's a very generous description of what took place. when did jeremy nowak ever try to create more "high performing seats" in the public school arena? and if psp is looking to support public schools with money that's news to me.

"William Penn was also the presumed funder behind the District's plan to rethink and recalculate its School Performance Index, which is used as a factor in many important decisions, including which schools to turn around and which may be closed."

so much for hite's street cred.

now let's see united way throw their chief exec out in the street. she's another one dealing from the botttom of the deck.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 18:55

Illuminating discourse. Truly. The system is broken, and laden by ostensibly bankrupt ideology. How sad for Philadelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 19:48

The system is broken because it's inherently unfair and segregated. The new farce called charters, plays right into that.

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 19:04

This is good news. It was disturbing that the WPF funded the BCG study. How about giving the School District of Philadelphia a grant to update some of its buildings and buy more supplies or new curricula?

I am suspicious of private-sector/for-profit/business involvement in education reform. The Walton Foundation's involvement in education reform has an agenda--undermining unions. This is consistent with the Wal-Mart stance. Read more about this in these articles:

http://www.salon.com/2011/09/12/reformmoney/

http://www.salon.com/2012/09/27/the_corporate_education_agenda_behind_wo...

Submitted by Bruce Schimmel (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 21:02

Hey. Kudos to you. This is better reporting than either the Inky or Newsworks. Ironic. William Penns money is being well spent!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 22:21

In fact... William Penn funds The Notebook. Ironic, indeed.

Submitted by A.W. (not verified) on Wed, 11/28/2012 - 23:13

I have been consistently impressed by the Notebook's integrity and dogged reporting throughout this past tumultuous 18 months. It is not easy to be honest, clear, and fair without undermining your funding or kissing up.

Paul and the crew here are models for us all -- and that's why I support the Notebook financially as well. I just wish it could be more than my paltry $60 a year.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 00:43

I second the comments from Bruce Shimmel and A.W. I'm awestruck by the line walked by the Notebook, which never compromised its reporting in the face of threats presumably implied and real. We can't take institutions that work in and for the community for granted. One thing this proves is how quickly things can fall apart if we do.
Also struck by Helen Cunningham's comments. Jobs were lost, good ideas were dashed, tempers flared, stress reigned, relationships were undone, courses were changed and a bunch of consultants got rich helping hundreds of non-profits adapt to change they may or may not believe in. What can we learn from this? Keeping in mind that resources are necessary to accomplish things such as the Notebook's fine reporting, and that the destruction wasn't all the work of one individual, how could things be done differently in the future?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 09:20

Simply amazing. Rather than continuously vilify Mr. Nowak, who has been serving the Philadelphia community for decades, perhaps we ought to consider having a balanced conversation? One that is not a one-way street, and frames out the question of whether it was his approach (see: style) or policy that was so problematic-? Is there any merit in his vision of "reform"? Did he prompt us to re:think how we view public education? Is "entitlement" the only path to success? Are we angry that an "outsider" like Scott Gordon has had notable success advancing our children? What actually counts here?? Dancing on someone's grave without a clear understanding of the facts truly undermines us all. And, its anti-intellectual.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 09:56

Public education is hardly an "entitlement." Public education is the basis of a democracy.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 10:17

Agreed. However, does this earlier statement convey entitlement?
"How about giving the School District of Philadelphia a grant to update some of its buildings and buy more supplies or new curricula?" Under Hornbeck WPF gave generously with little measurable outcome. Where does the responsibility lay when it comes to funding public education? Is it irresponsible to expect or demand that a (((liberal))) organization such as WPF to fund without demanding results. By the way, we live in a Republic not a democracy. "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." -George Orwell

Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 19:54

The earlier statement to which you refer is from my post. You have taken it out of context. It says:

"It was disturbing that the WPF funded the BCG study. How about giving the School District of Philadelphia a grant to update some of its buildings and buy more supplies or new curricula?"

I probably should have included a line to say "How about funding something that has more of a direct impact on students, like giving the School District...?"

That said, the real entitlement in this whole situation is that of the BCG and WPF thinking that it is okay to design a blueprint for reorganizing the School District of Philadelphia without making the plan public or eliciting public comment. Furthermore, the WPF funded the BCG plan because the SDP didn't have the $3 million to fund the plan. However, there appear to be other motives, such as increasing the number of charter schools and impacting the unions (See Helen Gym's article, http://parentsunitedphila.com/2012/11/28/).

There is always criticism that too much public education money goes to contracts and central bureaucracy. The BCG plan is a prime example of one of these contracts that has little to do with learning in the classroom. Anyone who has been in enough public schools in Philadelphia knows that many are in need of major upgrades to bring them into the 21st Century, such as a new coat of paint and additional electrical outlets in classrooms. Philanthropy which has the primary agenda of helping children would make sure that the basics of public education -- adequate buildings and curricula, among other things -- are in place.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 11:49

Those who know me know that I am not a victim. Please don't assume things when you don't know to whom you are talking. My point is that when someone rides into town on their white horse and thinks of themselves as the messiah, the organization is in trouble. This is what has happened for at least the last twenty years with our parade of superintendents. Their programs didn't work b/c they ignored and discounted organizational wisdom and assumed that they had all the answers. They chose not to include the major stakeholders in their plan. So those plans failed.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 12:31

I would advise everyone to read Helen Gym's article on the Parents United website. Her group filed a law suit several weeks ago. The Boston Group had a financial interest in charter schools which was not disclosed when they arrived at their plan to facilitate charter school development. http://parentsunitedphila.com/2012/11/28. I think her article more than explains why Norwak left WPF.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 13:34

WPF has generously funded the Philadelphia School District for years with no obligation to do so. The past 18 months are no exception as it also did not need to include education reform in its 'strategic plan'. I think its helpful that Helen Gym has spoken up and raised awareness --however, we only have opinion at this point. Indeed this latest upheaval underscores a struggle for whose voice gets to decide what (policy). I think we can all agree that it ought to be a shared dialogue, rather than a struggle for power. This most recent circumstance serves as a useful reminder that there are no winners. Another generation is at risk and expecting a NPO to become a "piggy bank" for educational du jour type whims is unacceptable.

Eileen your commentary only reinforces the notion that anyone who advocates for low-wealth children who is not part of a "guild" or teacher's union will become a target. Please understand that it is almost next to impossible to critique a discourse group when you are a member of that said group. Bias is also evident when you mention folks riding into town on a white horse. The truth is, the folks that you are attacking have been here all along-- fighting for the same things that you claim you are: the social advancement of low wealth communities, and; the idea of building a more just (equitable) and vibrant society...

I salute you on your service, but do hope you take more time to re:consider your thinking and practice.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 16:11

Glad to see him go. No tears here. It really is all about him being right and everyone else is just stupid.

Submitted by eileen difranco (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2012 - 16:14

I'm not attacking anyone and I am very sorry that you perceive my comments as attacks. I just happen to disagree with you. This generation is at risk b/c of the ongoing efforts to destroy public education, the basis of the American democracy. If we, as a society, are willing to open up our "piggy bank" to bail out million dollar bankers, why is it that money spent on children is somehow looked upon as being a waste? As someone who has worked in the SD for 23 years, I've seen first hand poorly thought out measures that allegedly worked in other districts foisted upon Phila. by those people who did, indeed, ride into Dodge on their white horses. My children were part of their experiments. I suggest you read the City Paper's discussion on the Boston Group. Neither Helen Gym nor the City Paper is an "opinion." In a democracy, we citizens are free, indeed, we are obliged to point out the error when we see it. I see, in this case, however wonderful WPF might be, an egregious error.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/30/2012 - 22:10

So now that JN is no longer at WPF fixing Philadelphia's school system can now begin? Come on! Say what you will about BCG and the report, at least he was trying to take action to understand the systemic issues facing the SDP. Now its back to band aid solutions theat fail to address underlying problems.

Submitted by ion (not verified) on Tue, 07/22/2014 - 09:51

Why have they been changing position back and forth for so long? In my opinion this means that there is a problem and maybe some new people need to be brought in with a new approach. echipamente profesionale

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