Funding tomorrow’s teachers, today
In 2004, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida celebrated its 40-year anniversary by looking forward to the next 40 years. The community foundation’s board began surveying its donors, stakeholders and community members on the role for the community foundation over the next 40 years.
Responses were clear: The community foundation was called to advance the state of knowledge and practice around public education.
Community foundation leaders took a deep breath, said Nina Waters, president at The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida. The foundation wasn’t as familiar with education grantmaking as they would have liked to be, but they made a 10-year commitment called the Quality Education for All (QEA) Initiative to improve the Duval County high school graduation rate, and to reduce the achievement gap between poor and non-poor students, and minority and majority students.
“We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to solve it overnight.”
President & CEO, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida
“We didn’t get here overnight, and we’re not going to solve it overnight,” said Waters of the community foundation’s conscious decision to take the long view.
Previous studies resulted in hundreds of recommendations for the county’s schools, but these studies lacked involvement and participation with district leaders. The initiative was heavily rooted in community discussion and action, with leaders gathering monthly for the Forum on Quality Education, to discuss local and national education reform.
Conversations led to the involvement of independent, education-focused organizations to further support the community’s vision and commitment to higher quality in public schools, said Trey Csar, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund (JPEF). In fact, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida created JPEF as a result of conversations between venture philanthropists inspired to invest in the local education system. The Forum on Quality Education discussions also led to KIPP charter schools first Florida site and Teach for America’s expansion to Jacksonville.
As the QEA Initiative approached the end of its 10-year commitment, the philanthropic sector realized a continued need for partnerships with public schools. A formal partnership between The Community Foundation, JPEF and Duval County Public Schools was born: the Quality Education for All Fund (QEA Fund), a communal philanthropy fund to invest in programs and initiatives designed to attract and retain high-quality teachers and leaders in 36 of the highest-need schools in Duval County. Those schools would become known as the transformation schools.
“A lot of the people around the table at our first convening of the Forum on Quality Education were investors in the QEA Fund,” said Waters. Including the QEA Fund, more than $122 million has been raised in private funds toward Jacksonville’s public education goals since 2004.
Housed at The Community Foundation, the QEA Fund hired JPEF to facilitate the donor-advisory board and grantmaking of more than $38 million in private dollars.
But the fund provided more than just dollars to the public school system.
“Philanthropy’s bigger contribution is innovation, experimentation and piloting programs,” said Csar. “The QEA Fund was always viewed as an opportunity to help the district try new things to improve support for teachers.”
To fully understand the county’s human capital and instructional landscape, one of the fund’s first investments was a grant to engage TNTP to audit existing human resource policies and examine how they compare to best practices from other parts of the country.
The results? Duval County schools serving the most high-need students were disproportionately disadvantaged by ineffective recruitment, selection and staffing, and classroom instruction countywide had not yet fully embraced the more rigorous academic standards passed by the Florida Legislature in 2014.
Investing in Human Capital
Early research commissioned for the project showed that improving teacher effectiveness is the factor most likely to improve academic achievement among students. The QEA Fund focused on building a pipeline of great teachers and leaders through investments such as:
- The creation of a teacher residency program for college graduates with science and math majors
- Leadership development to build the principal pipeline
- Performance pay incentives to recruit and retain highly effective educators and principals
- Modernizing and updating human resource policies
- Dedicated district staff focusing solely on the transformation schools
- New data systems to strengthen infrastructure district-wide
- Reading interventionists focused in targeted schools to increase student literacy
- Leadership training for assistant principals across the district
One of the fund’s largest investments is incentives to retain high-performing teachers through incentive bonuses. Through the incentive program, and multiple other efforts, Duval County Public Schools was able to stabilize staffing at its most challenged schools, and saw great improvements in student learning, leading to a significant reduction in the number of “D” and “F” rated schools over the course of the effort.
How does practice catch up to policy?
The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida’s venture into this work was unlike previous efforts. With large donors from different ends of the political spectrum, a well-designed plan and informative research were critical to define the fund’s goals, Waters said. The community foundation enrolled the help of The Bridgespan Group early on to develop the plan and identify where the community foundation could add the most value.
“Our role at the community foundation is to build the capacity of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund to expand public education reform work in the future,” she added.
Although the impact of the QEA Fund will continue to be analyzed for some time, this collaborative work in Duval County carries important lessons and practices for other districts and grantmakers focused on higher-quality education in public schools.
“Philanthropy led the way both in Jacksonville and across the state to gather solid data about the status of implementation and to work with district leaders to answer, ‘How does practice catch up to the policy?’” Csar said. “How do we help make sure teachers have what they need, including training and strong instructional materials, to deliver on those standards the way they were intended?”
Results from the 2014 TNTP investment led to additional funder interest in how Florida public schools are aligning teaching and learning activities with the expectations of Florida Standards. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and additional engagement from TNTP, the Pilot Florida Implementation Network was born.
“We’ve learned that it is undoubtedly possible for private philanthropy to help improve public schools on a large scale through systemic issues and not just tinkering around the edges."
President, Jacksonville Public Education Fund
This three-year pilot network is part of a collaborative strategy and communications among six Florida school districts, including Duval County. Districts exchange ideas, practices and applications to increase capacity to provide schools and classrooms with the support they need to effectively teach the rigorous Florida Standards, including standards-aligned instructional materials and high quality professional learning.
During the 2016-17 school year, Pasco County, one of the network participants, began a trial of a new standards-aligned math curriculum that Duval County had implemented the prior year. Learning from some of the challenges Duval experienced, Pasco County’s implementation was even smoother with more schools set to use the curriculum in the 2017-2018 school year. Meanwhile, improved student achievement in both counties continues — results from the most recent Florida Standards Assessments mathematics exams show an increase in the percentage of students testing at a Level 4 and above at nearly every grade level from the previous academic year.
A Shared Vision for Florida Students
The QEA Fund is a great example of how local funders, focusing on local issues, can innovate and begin work that, with intentionality, can spread to affect even greater numbers of students statewide. Between 2005 - 2015, the federal high school graduation rate in Duval County improved by more than 20%, the result of a number of concerted efforts, including those supported by the Quality Education for All initiative and later, the QEA Fund.
Moving large systems toward common goals requires tolerance and patience. Part of what makes the QEA Fund a promising model for other Florida communities is its approach to ongoing, multi-faceted relationships built on trust, a common vision and continuous communications between private philanthropy and the public school system, said Csar.
“We’ve learned that it is undoubtedly possible for private philanthropy to help improve public schools on a large scale through systemic issues and not just tinkering around the edges,” he added.