August 3 — 11:06 am, 2018

Thoughts on Jeremy Nowak’s impact on Philly education

The Notebook asked several people to write something about Jeremy Nowak, who died Saturday and whose memorial service is being held today. Here are the responses.

jeremy nowak Photo: Benjamin Herold

Editor’s note: Jeremy Nowak, 66, was a former executive director of the William Penn Foundation, a consultant, and an author. He was the founding board chair of Mastery Charter Schools. In 1985, he founded the Reinvestment Fund, which provided loans for projects in low-income neighborhoods. Nowak died July 28.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth, former policy chief for Gov. Ed Rendell

Jeremy Nowak is one of the few individuals I’ve known in my life whose best trait was also his worst trait. That trait was an unbridled passion. For his own benefit, I often wished he had a bit less and would let someone gently tug on his reins and steer away from the traps of his passion.

To say that Jeremy felt passionately about the need to lift up our poorest communities is an understatement. His incredibly smart, bulldozer-like style, driven by this passion, is precisely what made it possible for him to build new low-income housing development models that produced efficient and great affordable housing for thousands and thousands of families. His models are legendary, backed by the strong institution he built at the Reinvestment Fund, and have been replicated successfully across the country.

One of the first policy conversations I ever had with Jeremy focused on the fact that rebuilding the physical infrastructure of a community wasn’t enough to really lift families out of poverty. We agreed that the community development sector needed to play a supportive role in pushing for inner-city schools to effectively teach our kids so they could achieve at high levels. That was way back in the ’90s, and those conversations continued for decades.

Building housing enabled Jeremy to be very close to the ground. His ground-level assessment led him to believe that turning around a large urban district like ours could mean a generation or two would be sacrificed in the process, something anyone of good conscience would find unacceptable.

To be sure, Jeremy was not blind to the obscene resource shortage in the District. But he was not convinced that resources were the root of the problem. That’s where we parted ways on the policy front.

But I respected the fact that his deep despair about the state of public education is what caused him to be so dedicated to new models for educating children. In some ways, he’s always been about building new structures, so starting charters made sense to him.

Nevertheless, Jeremy was very insightful and he quickly learned that unlike housing, simply creating new structures for education within the current anti-city, broken funding system and unaccountable higher educational context doesn’t work. In his book, The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, he made a riveting call for boosting investment in public education, coupled with systems that ensure that great teachers and leaders are in every type of school building, all driven by city-level leadership.

I will listen for Jeremy’s voice in my ear pushing me to put a piece of his smarts and unbridled passion to work for our communities every day.

Sharif El-Mekki, longtime Philadelphia educator and now principal of the Shoemaker campus of Mastery Charter School

Mr. Jeremy Nowak, a giant in Philadelphia, passed away on Saturday. The news of his death caught me off-guard as he was one of the leaders I requested meetings with at least yearly. It wasn’t that Mr. Nowak gave me answers to the myriad problems I always find myself grappling with, as I thought of city revitalization, starting a nonprofit, fundraising, policy, etc. Mr. Nowak was prone to barrage me with clarifying questions about my ideas, help me think about things more broadly, and ultimately, ask me whether I read a ton of authors I had never heard of. But, each and every time, I left our conversation wrestling with more questions to get me closer to where I wanted to be in my thinking and work.

I originally met Mr. Nowak when I came to Mastery Charter Schools. He’d never fail to ask about my students and the challenges of leading a school. However, the bulk of our conversations were about civic engagement, questioning the status quo, problem-solving, and scaling solutions to complex issues. He invited me to submit articles to The Philadelphia Citizen and he sent me other people’s articles to read.

Mr. Nowak was a pusher – of ideas and of my thinking. He would encourage me to take a step back and survey the land. He let me know I didn’t need to unsheath my sword for every battle – ironic because Mr. Nowak attacked problems and was hard-charging in pursuit of solutions. Of course, I didn’t agree all the time, but I can’t say I didn’t think about it. We live in a historic city, and sometimes, it seems that people are more wed to ancient ideas than newer and better ones. Not Mr. Nowak.

Beside his generous spirit, I most respected Mr. Nowak’s independent thinking. Independence, yet community partnerships are integral parts of my own worldview.

Philly will miss this unconventional thinker and doer, this educator and citizen, this writer and visionary. So will I.

Feather Houstoun, who preceded Nowak as head of the William Penn Foundation and served for seven years on the School Reform Commission

I met Jeremy in 1993 when we were asked to interview candidates for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Afterward, we shook our heads in unison as we walked toward Broad Street. I was struck by the sharpness (and I choose that term literally) of Jeremy’s intellect and his unbending belief that citizens were owed far better public institutions than they had come to accept. When in 2006 he predicted almost matter-of-factly the housing collapse that triggered the 2008 recession, he was right because he understood domestic capital markets and their effect on the 99 percent far better than anyone. And yet, with his loss, I am most struck by the universal sadness of my daughter’s generation, who looked to Jeremy not only for his unparalleled understanding of urban mechanics, but for breakthrough ideas unchained by the limited imaginations of the rest of us.


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