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A Conversation with Greg Taylor, CEO of the Foundation for Newark's Future

Published:  September 6, 2012

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation over five years to help the Newark Public Schools in New Jersey (assuming that another $100 million in matching funds could be found). From that contribution, the Foundation for Newark’s Future was born. Its mission is to make grants to initiatives to improve the district's schools. Last month, staff members for the Early Education Initiative sat down with Greg Taylor, the foundation’s CEO and a former program officer at the Kellogg Foundation, to learn about his priorities for improving early education in the city and throughout the school system. The following is an edited and abridged version of that conversation.

Q: I understand that early childhood is one of the priorities laid out for the Foundation’s vision. Tell us more.

When I came on board in June of 2011, early childhood education actually wasn’t one of the top strategies. What happened initially was many folks invested in the foundation were really focused on teachers, principals and school options, both district and charter. And one of the things we tried to do was to broaden the initiative. There are now six areas:  early childhood education, out-of-school youth, teacher quality and principal leadership, helping the district to effectively implement the Common Core standards and tie them to early childhood education, school options (We want to grow the number of high-quality school options for Newark families. We’re agnostic on the question of charter-district dynamic; more than 50 percent of our investment goes to the Newark Public School System), and community engagement.

As in many communities, early childhood is not understood. Everything from brain development, language acquisition, and social emotional development – we work hard to build that understanding. And building on the SPARK work [SPARK stands for Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids, a project funded in the mid-2000s by theKellogg Foundation], not only is it about getting children ready for school. It’s also: How do you get schools ready to serve children?

We also want to lift up the quality of formal and informal providers of early childhood education. Already we have about 60 percent of providers that connect to the schools, which is great. I credit Barbara Reisman of the Schumann Fund with that.

Q: Newark is known for high per-pupil spending at K-12 level, spending more than $21,000 per student in 2009, and the per-pupil expenditure for the court-ordered Abbott pre-K program (which includes pre-K providers in Newark) is over $11,000, the highest in the country.  Was the $100 million really necessary?

We recognize that per-pupil expenditure in New Jersey is higher than most. Clearly it’s about more than money. What’s exciting about the resources we have access to is that they are flexible dollars.   Two hundred  million dollars is  a percentage of what is awarded annually to the schools (the annual budget of Newark Public Schools is $900 million), and we haven’t raised the full $200 million yet.  We’re about halfway there.

We’re using our revenue to be much more thoughtful about identifying models and practices that move the work forward. We want to help the district work out the kinks of how you grow quality in formal and informal providers. That’s how we’re trying to use the revenue.

This is also a public will-building effort.   How do you increase the public’s understanding and knowledge about, in this case, early childhood education? That requires small table-talk conversation like this.  That means moving parents from supply parents to demand parents. How do you create time and information for them to listen and learn so that the future isn’t something that happens to them? That also costs, in terms of training, making information and making that information available to them. It’s painstaking work.  I appreciate the notion that it’s not just about dollars, and yes we do have resources. But vis-à-vis the need, it’s much more about answering: How do you build that capacity across the continuum?

Q:  So, when it comes to early education, do you mean holding workshops and conducting outreach so that parents have a place to to talk about early childhood issues, brain development, the importance of talking with your kids, that sort of thing?

Yes, and more. There are community-based providers that don’t benefit from the Abbott legislation. We want to build on and leverage what Abbott can do. (And I should be clear, there are still Abbott providers who are struggling with quality -- even with the Abbott resources.) But there is also a whole network of community-based providers – informal and formal providers, curriculum-based or not, lots of kids in kith-and-kin providers [such as grandparents caring for groups of children] – who struggle as well.

NAEYC accreditation, for instance, may be something we pursue. We also want to work on social-emotional curriculum development. We want to work on building professional learning communities for pre-K teachers. It’s about how you use the money to build systems change. That gives you a sense of how we may use revenue moving forward.

Q: What are your metrics for making change? How are you measuring improvement?

One thing the money helps us to do is make sure that Newark has a seat at the table as the state moves forward with a quality rating improvement (QRIS) system. As cities started work on this system, Newark was not on the original list. Now we are. So our work is meeting with other district officials and local stakeholders to align with what the state is pursuing and to benefit from state resources.

On the metric side: We have a five-year window.  I am very respectful of what it takes to put in place what results in child-level outcomes. Our window is too short. So for us, it’s about creating conditions for success. How do you change the way teachers are trained to be more successful? How do you create a pipeline? How do you think about curriculum? How do you connect to Common Core? We think of our mission as more than child-level outcomes:

Another metric is the number of high-quality pre-K teachers we can help to create and the creation of new schools. We are helping to create six new schools – three district schools, three charter schools.

We also ask: How do we leverage resources? As in states around the country, there have been cuts to child care institutions that were trying to improve quality. So we’re using our dollars to keep the quality conversation going.

Q: So with NAEYC accreditation, for example, do you want an increase in a specific number of providers who have that accreditation by the end of five years?

Yes, absolutely, but we don’t have a specific target yet.

Lastly, I would say, we’ve been successful in helping to organize the local philanthropy community.

Q: How would you measure that, by sheer dollar amount?

Pooled funds. Newark has been documenting the number of pooled funds and how those have been shared to improve teaching performance.

Q: Does Newark or New Jersey do any kindergarten-entry assessments or other early learning assessments? Are you using them?

There are kindergarten and pre-K assessments in place. Members of the organized philanthropic groups in Newark have been collecting that kind of data for years. We’re not building that ourselves. We’re benefiting from that. There’s no challenge on our part to get baseline data. The challenge for us is how do we, in our limited time frame, get in place our system-level drivers – people  who would be change agents beyond us – towards  those metrics? We are trying to build the advocacy community, organize local philanthropy, build a roadmap that is co-created with community around these measures.

Q: Are there tensions between what the state wants to do, what the philanthropies want to do, and what you are doing locally in the district? Are priorities aligned? Are state funding streams available to sustain what you’re doing?

Each of the priority areas we’ve set has a particular relevance on the ground in Newark. Secondly, in my ideal world, I do wish there were dedicated funding streams from the state toward those priorities. There are funding streams from the state that are not, or were not, originally directed toward Newark. The fact that Newark was not originally a pilot site for the state’s quality rating system is an example.

So yes, there is contradiction between what the priority set of an organization like ours and what the state is trying to do. Another example: We are talking about principal and teacher leadership at the local level, and yet the district is controlled – in receivership – at the state level. We balance that contradiction all the time. Our practices are well-researched, and we are governed by an independent board of directors, and so we’re able to invest moving forward.

Clearly, sustainability is important for us and for other philanthropies And we need to be working through existing organizations. It is important to us to understand our shelf life. Part of that is understanding our revenue sources from the state and how they align with what our goals are moving forward.

The promise of this opportunity is the alignment between the state, the district, the mayor’s office and philanthropy, but I want to be clear: Just because we have shared goals, the devil is in the ability for us to execute moving forward. One of the roles we play is keeping the people at the table focused on children. We are like that back-office shuttle diplomat. It’s a heavy lift. Think of contradictions of districts working with states. So how do you set a shared vision? Not even all the philanthropies get along. But we’re not going to let the tyranny of scheduling stop the work.

Q; Could you tell a story about a particular neighborhood or provider where you’ve already seen some of this work causing change?

The superintendent has voted to shut down some schools and named eight of them as “renew” schools. And one of those schools is a Peshine, a K-8 school. It’s remarkable the degree to which parents, the new administration, the new principal and community leaders are working together to renew that school.  This is a school that has stood tall against the naysayers and is really starting to organize with the early childhood programs in its community. They are creating professional development and learning communities across preschools and aligning that with what is happening at the school.  They are looking at aligning curriculum.

Q: Is Peshine a district school or a charter school?

It’s a district school. [The full name is Peshine Avenue School.]

Q: Are teachers in that school at the K-3 level meeting regularly with pre-K teachers to learn how to improve instruction for young children?

So far this is between the principal and her administration and the directors of the community-based providers of early childhood education. This is five weeks old. This is just the first wave moving in. But we’re excited about this, and it will soon move to the practitioner level.

This is a practical application of how you grow connections to the curriculum and how you connect that to the Common Core Standards. For example, the Common Core is not well understood among parents and even early childhood teachers.  This group is taking its time to have those proper conversations at this point.

Q: Regarding QRIS [quality rating system], are there Newark providers that are being rated at this point?

Not yet. We are having conversations about quality and tiered reimbursement.

We are literally at the public will, advocacy, organizing stage of all this. We’re 15 months into this effort. I don’t want to oversell progress to date, though all of this really is the work – keeping parents and principals and teachers around the table – this is how you change the dynamic.

Q: Tell us about how elementary school principals are involved. 

One of the first things that needs to happen on the principal side is to help principals become more sound instructional leaders instead of just putting out fires everyday. We are focused on helping them by possibly providing a second set of hands on early ed issues. We're thinking about who is the staff member who should play that role. Secondly, we need to help principals see that early ed is not additive but central to their administrations. You'll see in our teacher innovation fund, we have a particular focus on early education teachers and principals to really value the work they are doing. And I want to mention that Cami Anderson, Newark's superintendent, has named early ed as a priority, which is no small feat. So this is an amazing authorizing evironment for these issues. She is doing the trainings of principals herself, and she is an amazing instructional leader herself.  She runs a principal leadership institute and early ed is on that agenda.

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