A Funder's Big Bet That Personalized Learning Tools Can Improve Chicago Public Schools

What do the tech sector and inner-city public schools have in common? Not a whole lot, but one organization called LEAP is trying to change that.

LEAP is a Chicago-based research and development organization that scans the globe for the most promising education technology products and pilots them in Chicago's local public schools. With a broad technology-education focus, every age range from Pre-K to early college is fair game.

LEAP has captured the attention and the imagination of several grantmakers, both in Chicago and nationwide. The Chicago Public Education Fund (The Fund) recently made a $750,000 multi-year investment in LEAP to expand personalized learning resources and tools in Chicago Public Schools. While LEAP focuses on the technology side of education, The Fund focuses on improving principals and teachers.

The Chicago Public Education Fund, which is an entirely separate entity from the Chicago Foundation for Education, is a nonprofit organization that invests in principals and teachers to improve classroom learning in Chicago public schools. Some of Chicago’s top business and civic leaders created The Fund in 2000, when it became one of the country’s first city-based philanthropic venture funds.

Related: IP’s Profile of the Chicago Foundation for Education

LEAP Innovations is a nonprofit organization connecting the tech sector to educators and students in pre-K through college through personalized learning strategies. LEAP recruits tech innovators to address math and literacy challenges and encourages schools to join its pilot network to test out new innovations they come up with. The idea is to seamlessly weave technology throughout everyday education practices to tailor lessons to individual student needs and engage students in exciting ways.

"LEAP and the Chicago Public Education Fund have a shared vision for this partnership: to make personalized learning and its benefits available to educators and students across Chicago," said Heather Y. Anichini, president and CEO of The Fund. "Our combined efforts represent the largest-scale initiative in the country to create a pipeline of educators and schools who are rethinking teaching and transforming learning."

But The Fund isn’t the only one supporting LEAP these days. The organization secured $1 million in support from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to launch a regional pilot program in 2013. Through the Breakthrough Schools: Chicago program, LEAP led 11 local school teams through a 10-week design process. Seven of those teams ended up receiving $100,000 each for planning and implementation grants. The winners included schools that first opened for the 2014-2015 school year, existing traditional public schools, charters, magnets, and one AUSL campus. This new grant money will be going toward the Breakthrough Schools: Chicago program as well.

So why’s a venture capital philanthropy like The Fund, which typically focuses on leadership more than student lessons and performance, making big commitments for technology? Well, it seems that this particular type of technology will be used mostly by the educators, rather than just the students themselves. But exactly what this technology is or how it will improve inner-city public schools remains to be seen.

“This partnership aligns The Fund’s expertise in seeding talent and innovation in public education with LEAP’s role as the education innovation hub to bring new ideas and technology into classrooms to support teachers, allow parents to be more confident in what their children are learning, and unlock the limitless of potential of each student,” said Phyllis Lockett, CEO of LEAP Innovations.

The Fund has made over 30 seed investments since 2000 and is committed to bringing new ideas for education into Chicago. In 2013, The Fund committed $250,000 to the Innovative Educator Network. In 2012, it gave $85,000 and staff time to Common Accountability Policy and $600,000 to a nonprofit known as New Classrooms.

To learn more about the Chicago Public Education Fund and what it supports, check out the organization’s website or send an email to info@thefundchicago.org