July 23 — 12:59 pm, 2012

A conversation with Jeremy Nowak of the William Penn Foundation

jeremy nowak Photo: Benjamin Herold

by Benjamin Herold for The Notebook/Newsworks


Jeremy Nowak believes that Philadelphia is at a crossroads.

“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,” said Nowak.

“I think this is a critical time for us to decide which direction we want to go.”

Listen to excerpts of Benjamin Herold’s interview with Jeremy Nowak for WHYY.

Nowak, the hard-charging new president of the William Penn Foundation, hopes to have a big influence on that direction.  Later this year, William Penn will release details of a new 10-year strategic plan, which will include a revamped approach to bolstering the city’s cultural sector and making the region more environmentally sustainable.

It will also include details of Nowak’s plan to use philanthropic dollars to help transform the city’s troubled school system – an effort he already begun to aggressively push.

In recent weeks, William Penn – traditionally averse to the spotlight – made a big splash by giving a massive $15 million grant to a two-year old nonprofit organization that supports “great schools.”  The foundation has also generated headlines for contributing more than a million dollars for private consultants who recommended a radical overhaul of the embattled District, then paying for a $160,000 public relations campaign to counter fierce opposition to the consultants’ plan from organized labor and some community groups.

In an extensive sit-down interview last week with the Notebook/NewsWorks, Nowak said that William Penn, which currently has more than 70 active education grants, is not moving in an entirely new direction. 

But under his watch, Nowak said, big changes are coming: William Penn intends to focus its education-related efforts on closing the achievement gap, not just by seeking to influence policy, but by “supporting great practices.”

“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 the city of Philadelphia can move forward,” said Nowak.

“We want to shift the supply of great things so that Philadelphia families will come to expect that there will be great resources for them.”

Nowak’s signature move in that direction was a huge $15 million grant to the Philadelphia School Partnership, announced in early July.  By comparison, William Penn in 2010 spread a total of $20 million in new grants across dozens of organizations funded through its “Children, Youth and Families” program.

The massive gift to PSP this summer came on top of more than $400,000 given to the organization in the preceding year for planning and development work.

Over the next several years, PSP aims to re-grant most of the money directly to schools – charter, parochial, or District – in order to increase the number of “high-performing seats” in the city.  Nowak calls that “tri-sector approach” a “great opportunity” for Philadelphia to become a national leader.

But when PSP made its most recent set of gifts to schools last week, no District-managed schools were included.

Nowak acknowledged concerns among some that the organization is a vehicle for promoting charters at the expense of traditional public schools.

“We want their grant portfolio to be much more diverse,” he said. 

Nowak also downplayed worries that PSP’s board includes a number of prominent voucher supporters.

“Some of my best friends are on the right on these issues, and some of my best friends are on the left on these issues,” said Nowak.

“I think we’ve got to get over that.”

Like the SRC and many of the city’s education leaders, Nowak believes the city’s focus should be on expanding the city’s available “high-performing seats,” which he defined as seats in schools where a certain percentage of students score proficient or above on state tests.

Nowak was asked for evidence showing that successful schools can be scaled up in ways that don’t simply result in the movement of more well-prepared, well-supported students from struggling neighborhood schools into magnets or charters.  In response, he cited the work of Mastery Charter Schools – whose board he previously headed – and the early positive returns from the first year of the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative.    

“You’ve got to make a bet somewhere,” said Nowak.

“Whether it’s Mastery or anyone else, how do we make sure that there’s another 20 of those in the next few years?”

Of course, not everyone agrees with this rationale or strategy.

Nowak says he has heard the skepticism of those who believe that the new focus on expanding “great schools” is code for dismantling the District.  He’s also heard the intense criticism of the SRC’s “transformation blueprint.”

Such concern, says Nowak, is “perfectly understandable,” especially given the relentless squeeze caused by the District’s ever-shrinking revenues.

“There is pain, and the pain is everywhere,” he said.

“Part of what we’re going through right now is an enormous, very frightening moment of change.  All of us are nervous about what that means.”

Nowak says he’s committed to listening to such criticism:

“I’m a great believer in the public sphere, in the public marketplace of ideas." 

In recent years, William Penn has provided substantial support to a number of parent and student organizing groups that are now vocally criticizing the massive reforms that the foundation is pushing.  Nowak said that reports that William Penn will cut off those groups are premature.

William Penn still needs to determine the full range of strategies it will support in its efforts to close the achievement gap, he said. 

"We’re going to stay agnostic and pragmatic and take a look at it."

That also goes for William Penn’s long-standing support of coalitions that have advocated for equitable state funding and better early childhood education systems,  he said.

"We’re not going to abandon policy,” said Nowak, who described William Penn-funded efforts to improve the state’s education funding formula and establish a rating system for early childhood centers as “terrific.”

But the question for William Penn moving forward, he said, will be how to balance that work with a new focus on market-based strategies.

Just shifting policy, argued Nowak, doesn’t automatically result in improvement on the ground. He also wants to see a greater willingness to intervene when the public sector is failing.

To that end, Nowak described a formative experience in his thinking about the problems of urban public schools: a visit to the Holy Name school across the river in Camden, NJ.

Students at Holy Name, said Nowak, were far outpacing their peers in a dysfunctional public school down the street. But parents had to take money out of their already struggling households in order to get their children a quality education.

“Here were these parents, very poor, who were trying to scrape up $1,500 to send their kid to a parochial school,” said Nowak.

“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.’”

To fix that problem, says Nowak, Philadelphia needs to embrace a “post-ideological framework” that transcends long-standing tensions between public and private and among traditional public schools, charters, and religious schools.

As a prime example, he reached outside the world of public education, citing the recent transformation of Franklin Square Park in Philadelphia’s historic district.

For decades, Franklin Square languished; its dysfunction was immortalized in the classic urban planning book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

But in 2006, the city, which still owns the parcel of land on which the park is located, rededicated Franklin Square under the management of an independent nonprofit organization.  Later, a privately owned café was allowed to open on the park grounds. 

The result, said Nowak, is an “extraordinary place” that is now used by the whole city.

“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,” he said.

It’s a model for what Nowak hopes can happen with the city’s schools – with an assist from the William Penn Foundation, regardless of the resistance that the continued blurring of lines between public and private is sure to generate.

“This is a city that’s going to have figure out whether it wants to be captive by its past,” says Nowak, “or whether it wants to lean to the future.”

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation is a major funder of the Notebook.

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