Major Philly education group looks to expand reach

 Mark Gleason, Philadelphia School Partnership executive director, outlines the plan to raise and distribute $60 million to city schools over three years. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Mark Gleason, Philadelphia School Partnership executive director, outlines the plan to raise and distribute $60 million to city schools over three years. (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

One of the most influential education organizations in Philadelphia announced plans to raise and distribute $60 million over the next three years.

Since its founding in 2011, the Philadelphia School Partnership has doled out $80 million — $58 million in the form of direct contributions to schools.

With this latest round of fundraising, PSP will create 15,000 more “high-quality” seats across the city.  The organization, which said it’s already raised $15 million, on Thursday announced it will give $2.5 million from that initial bounty to five schools:

Vaux Big Picture High School ($835,000 to get a new public high school off the ground);
Russell Byers Charter School ($650,000 to expand the Center City charter);
Folk Arts Cultural Treasures Charter School ($300,000 to grow its Chinatown campus);
KIPP Philadelphia Charter Schools ($690,000 to help the charter network manage growth as it opens five new schools);
Science Leadership Academy at Beeber ($75,000 to help a public high school incorporate middle grades).

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That profile of schools is about consistent with PSP’s track record. In PSP’s first round of giving, 62 percent of its school-based grant money went to charter schools. Public schools received another 28 percent of the funds, with the remaining 10 percent going to Catholic schools.

A lobbying group tied to PSP, Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, has also been a leading champion of school choice and laws favorable to charter expansion.

But PSP works across all sectors, and its reach was evident Thursday. Superintendent William Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney both attended the announcement.

“This announcement represents another positive step forward as we continue to improve schools and create great schools close to where children live,” Hite said.

Kenney called PSP’s partnership with the school district “integral to creating transformational change in our schools.”

PSP focus questioned, clout acknowledged

Critics say PSP puts charter schools over traditional public schools, working to weaken the public system through its advocacy and giving.

Few, though, doubt the organization’s influence. That means regardless of one’s ideological orientation, it’s worth paying attention to the priorities PSP laid out Thursday.

As it’s been from inception, PSP’s main focus is to promote and expand what it considers high-quality schools. But within that larger mission, PSP has three new areas of emphasis.

For one, PSP wants to spend more money on career and technical education, as opposed to an exclusive focus on college prep. PSP’s executive director, Mark Gleason, said the organization heard from students and schools that the myopic focus on college left too many students behind.

“And so they’re might be a pathway that’s more productive for them and not as expensive,” Gleason said.

PSP also wants to focus more on improving teacher development programs and helping school networks better manage growth. Gleason said many of the charters and public schools his organization supports experience “growing pains” after expanding.

“It’s not as easy to be great when you have twice as many students as you had,” Gleason said.

So far, PSP has given money to 50 schools around the city.

The organization’s donors include a mix of national foundations, local foundations, businesses, and individual donors. On its website, PSP highlights some of its most prominent givers, a small number of whom choose to remain anonymous.

The foundations who’ve backed PSP include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Among individual donors, some of the biggest names are options trader Jeff Yass, Comcast co-founder Julian Brodsky, and investor Mike O’Neill.

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