Here's a Funder That Wants to "Do High School Differently"

  antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

 antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

The Barr Foundation may not be so well known nationally, but as the largest private foundation in Massachusetts, it is one of the most important players in Boston and New England philanthropy. The funder's giving has a local focus that encompasses climate change issues, the arts, and public education.

Over the past two years, as we've reported, Barr has gone through a strategic planning process—and its education grantmaking saw the biggest changes as a result. In early 2016, it unveiled a new direction for its education program, with the goal “to connect all students to success in and beyond high school.”

Barr said at the time that achieving this goal means “broadening the definition of student success to include competencies as well as mastery of academic subjects.” It also means backing the development of “new high school models and programs that are flexible and conducive to innovation, and that move away from an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach to secondary education.”

Related: Want Kids to Get Jobs? Teach Them to Think: A K-12 Funding Strategy Gains Steam

Since then, Barr has worked to flesh out its grantmaking along these lines, developing an initiative called "Engage New England: Doing High School Differently". This is a $30 million, five-year effort that challenges innovation-minded New England educators and nonprofits to create new high school models to reach young people who have not been engaged by traditional secondary school models. "New England’s secondary schools have done a good job for many students, but we believe we can do a great job for all," Leah Hamilton, Barr's Education Director told Inside Philanthropy

Redesigning high school is not a new idea. Multiple funders have supported a number of efforts to reinvent high schools and try new models of K-12 education. Such ideas are rooted in the view that the traditional U.S. elementary and secondary model, often derided as an inflexible "factory model," is not well suited to the needs of a 21st century economy. It also fails to engage a great many students on the cusp of adulthood. A study by Civic Enterprises found that one-third of U.S. high school students either do not graduate high school with the appropriate level of preparation for college or do not graduate at all

No funder has invested more in efforts to make high school more relevant for the 21st century than the Carnegie Corporation of New York—making over $200 million in grant, starting in the early 2000s. In 2013, as it doubled down in this area with additional grant commitments, it released an in-depth look at the challenge of reinventing high schools, "Opportunity by Design," that remains important reading for anyone interested in this work. That report was co-authored by the very same Leah Hamilton who is now spearheading Barr's high school initiative—and who previously served as Program Director of New Designs for Schools, Colleges and Systems at CCNY. Before that, Hamilton had directed an office at the New York City Department of Education that worked to increase graduation rates at the city's struggling high schools. 

A new player in this space is the philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. In 2015, her Emerson Collective launched XQ: the Super School Project, a $50 million initiative to redesign high schools. Interest in this effort was so strong, with over 700 applicants, that the organization ended up making grants worth about $100 million to ten schools last fall. So far, it has not been entirely smooth sailing. In Oakland, where Summit Public Schools received $10 million with support from the city's mayor and school district, backers scrapped the project there and moved it to Daly City, citing turmoil within the Oakland Unified School District. 

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It will be some time before it's possible to fully judge XQ's success. It's worth keeping in mind the cautious note that education expert Rick Hess has sounded about this program, pointing out that efforts to redesign high schools have yielded major disappointments in the past. 

A range of other funders are also supporting work that seeks to change how high schools operate in one way or another. The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, for example, is backing a portfolio model of school management, in which districts offer a variety of schools, each with autonomy over their curriculum and staff. Charter schools are an important part of this approach, but as part of a broader strategy. Efforts to advanced personalized learning by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and other funders also involves work in high schools. 

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Barr appears to be entering the movement to reinvent high school with caution, awarding planning grants of $150,000 each to nine recipients, including the Chelsea Public Schools in Massachusetts and the Capital Region Education Council in Connecticut. Hamilton said that this first cohort of grantees "represent a variety of approaches to advancing greater success for all students. They include concepts for both new schools and school redesigns, urban and rural schools, as well as a combination of district and charter public schools."

A partner organization, Springpoint, will work with the recipients to assess their needs and develop a vision for how they plan to serve students better. Barr will review the resulting plans before inviting grantees to apply for implementation grants of up to $750,000, which the funder plans to award in 2018.