Inside Player: Behind a Unique Effort to Transform a Big Urban School District

 photo:  GagliardiImages/shutterstock

photo:  GagliardiImages/shutterstock

When it comes to improving K-12 education, it can seem like battle lines are invariably drawn with charter schools on one side and traditional public schools on the other. But a Los Angeles-based nonprofit called the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools is pioneering a third way—with the help of some deep-pocketed donors. 

Founded in 2007, the partnership manages 18 of the lowest-performing grade schools, middle schools and high schools in the Los Angeles School District (LAUSD). The schools are overseen by the nonprofit, but are still part of LAUSD. The rules and standards that apply to other district schools, including union contracts, apply to the partnership schools. Initiatives funded with private money focus mainly on professional development for teachers and principals, and community engagement.

This effort is worth spotlighting at a moment when quite a few funders—including major new players like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative—are looking to move past an era of fiercely polarized debates on K-12 education, as we often report. Also, with the vast majority of U.S. students still attending traditional district schools, the partnership offers a strong example of how donors (including some that normally favor charters) can band together to improve these schools in a large urban center.  

Seed Funding

The partnership started with a $50 million pledge from Melanie and Richard Lundquist, who made their money in real estate development. Melanie Lundquist is a product of L.A. public schools. Four generations of her family attended public schools in the district, but that isn’t why she invested, she said.

“I would’ve done it any place in the United States where people were willing to do it, but I was elated that it was LAUSD, not because I’m a product of LAUSD, but because it is the second-largest district in the U.S.,” Lundquist said.

The Lundquists recently announced another $35 million in support of the nonprofit. The nonprofit has raised an additional $45 million over the last decade from other donors.

The list of donors includes the Annenberg Foundation, the Ballmer Group, the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Biller Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the California Endowment, the California Community Foundation, the Joseph Drown Foundation, the W. M. Keck Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, United Way, the Walton Family Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation and Wells Fargo. Ambassador Frank Baxter, Cyrus Hadidi and former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan also support the partnership.

Some of the partnership’s backers, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, have given to both charter and traditional public schools in the past, but others have been stalwart supporters of the charter movement. The Walton Family Foundation is usually a big donor to charter schools, as is the Broad Foundation, which carries out the giving of Eli and Edythe Broad.

The L.A.-based philanthropist Eli Broad has backed charter schools for the last decade through philanthropy and political donations. His work has helped make L.A. a center of the charter movement. The city has more children in charter schools than any other in the country and the Broad Foundation is behind a plan to dramatically increase that number in coming years. 

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Broad was a supporter of LAUSD in the 1990s, but turned to charter schools when he felt nothing changed. Donor fatigue in the district from Broad and philanthropists like him was one thing that pushed Melanie Lundquist toward an effort like the partnership. The model allowed for nonprofit oversight and management of donor funds.

“Public school education has really gotten a very bad name, so nobody wants to put the money into the school districts directly. They don’t have the structure like we do in the partnership to really drill down into the problems,” Lundquist said.

In this sense, the partnership plays a role similar to education innovation funds in cities like New York and Washington, D.C., where funds provide the accountability that reassures donors. Jeanie Lee, the president and executive director of the D.C. Public Education Fund, is an admirer of the partnership’s model and its work. But unlike education funds elsewhere, the partnership actually runs schools.

Reaching All the Students

Although the partnership appeals to some donors who usually favor charter schools, for Lundquist it was crucial that the partnership operated within the school district. For starters, being a part of LAUSD meant that the partnership could tap into district resources and infrastructure, like transportation, meals, testing and data collection. That meant that private funds raised by the partnership could go to new programs, instead of day-to-day administration.

A bigger reason for Lundquist though was scale. Charter schools serve a little over 15 percent of L.A. students. It was important that the partnership's solutions would scale to include most students in LAUSD and beyond, not just those who enter a charter network via lottery, Lundquist said. We've heard a similar point from other funders—charters can be great, but if you want to reach all the students, you need a different approach. 

For scalable results, the partnership had to operate within the LAUSD system. Charter schools operating outside of the school district system face different challenges than in-district schools. If partnership strategies and successes were to be replicated district-wide, they would have to be developed in an environment that operated under the same rules and constraints as the rest of the district, Lundquist reasoned.

“At our founding, we didn’t just want to transform schools, we wanted to take its learning into the broader district. Our mission is to transform schools and revolutionize school systems,” said Shauwea Hamilton, the partnership’s chief external relations officer. “Our thought was that we can only revolutionize the system if we accept the limitations of the system and prove that transformation can happen within.”

The strategies the partnership settled on revolve around three primary areas—strong leadership, strong teachers and strong communities. Principals get one day of professional development a month. They are also paid to work year-round. Teachers receive training and professional development. Successful teachers make extra money to work as coaches to other teachers in their schools.

To foster community engagement, the partnership started a program called Parent College, which brings parents together on weekends to discuss things like expectations, how to read a report card, and how to advocate for their children. The program has been replicated at other schools in the district and the state, Hamilton said.

The Results

The model has had some success. According to a Public Impact report released by the partnership, 95 percent of partnership schools have improved in English language arts relative to other schools in the state. Almost 90 percent have improved their statewide percentile rank in math. The average high school graduation rate at partnership schools exceeds 80 percent, which is higher than the district in some places.

The partnership has also produced some striking turnaround stories. Math, Science, Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High School and Mendez High School both improved more than 60 percentiles in math since joining the partnership. Roosevelt is in the top 20 percent of schools in the state for math.

Outcomes like Roosevelt’s have not proved universal for partnership schools, though. Five partnership schools were among the 20 lowest-performing LAUSD schools in 2016, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Critics point to such stats to argue that the process has been too slow for partnership schools. Lundquist and her colleagues are aware of the criticism, but argue that the work will take time. “We spent 50 years breaking the system,” Lundquist said. “I didn’t want anyone expecting us to get it fixed in three or five.”

“These are the highest-needs schools, and in many cases, the historically lowest-performing schools, so our absolute performance still remains low, but in order for that to rise, we need to have exceedingly high growth rates, and that’s the direction that we’re headed in. The 10-year study bears out that we’re growing at that rate needed to rise to be on par with other schools in the district and in the state.”

Staying the Course

Lundquist is committed to supporting that slow, steady growth. She and her husband recently announced another $35 million in support of the project and committed to another 10 years. Lundquist says this was always an effort she intended stick with for the long haul.

“I think that a lot of philanthropy is not staying the course. It’s, ‘Well, we’ll fund this for two or three years,’ and then they move on to something they think, ‘Well, maybe there’s a better solution out there,’ and then they start over,” Lundqusit said.

“Slow and steady is what makes the difference. I think this is one way in which the way we practice philanthropy is very unique. We are staying the course,” she said. “That’s why we committed to another 10 years. I always knew it would take at least 20.”

As for the future, Lundquist is very conscious of LAUSD’s place as the second-largest public school district in the country.  “If you can do it in the second-largest school district in the United States, then you can do it any place,” she said.

As far as the model spreading, the D.C. Ed Fund’s work may start to resemble the partnership’s approach more closely, Lee said. As part of the fund’s Ensuring Excellent Schools initiative, money will go toward developing new school models that will still be DCPS schools managed by the district.

The partnership has built a model that charter and public school funders seem to agree on. It provides the accountability skittish funders feel the district lacks. It keeps resources in district schools, allaying fears about equity for anti-charter donors. If it catches on, it could mean collaboration from funders that typically oppose each other. When that collaboration happens, everyone wins.

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