Freedom College – Update on A Program to Address Chronically Low-Performing Schools

Two years ago this month, I published a proposal to develop a college that would offer a degree completion program for inner-city community college graduates to get certified to teach in their neighborhood schools. I have spent the last two-years developing a business plan, talking to many potential funders, and examining the regulatory hurdles. It turns out the first dollars will be hardest to raise. There are a wide variety of funders for endowment campaigns and new programs, but it is hard to find funding to start a new organization. I recently discovered the Echoing Green fellowship program, which provides seed funding for social entrepreneurs. Below is my application to the program. I will hear back in May whether I made it to the interview stage with final decisions made in June. If anyone has other ideas for seed funding, please let me know.

Section 1: Overview
·       Briefly describe the problem your organization will address. (250 characters) Teacher turnover is the largest barrier to urban school reform. Schools staffed by former students have lower turnover. But, few urban students earn bachelor degrees required to become neighborhood teachers, thus churn from the outside perpetuates.

·       Briefly describe who or what your organization will help. (250 characters)Increasing numbers of urban students are completing associate degrees, but face barriers in completing bachelor degrees. Those urban students who do complete a bachelor degree in teaching still face high failure rates on teacher certification exams.

·       Briefly describe how your organization will solve the problem described above. (250 characters)Establish Freedom College to provide a 2-year, teaching degree completion program for community college graduates from high poverty neighborhoods. These graduates would return to their former neighborhoods and transform their former schools.

Section 2: The Problem
·       Describe the problem your organization will address in detail. (750 characters)Teacher turnover impedes school reform. Teachers reach peak performance after 5-7 years and, in stable districts, operate at peak performance for another 10-20 years. This stability enables high quality school culture that can improve new teachers’ practice and accelerate progress towards peak performance. This process of enculturation enables program coherence, which supports student learning. In contrast, extremely high turnover in low-income schools means few urban-school teachers last until peak performance; therefore, our neediest students mainly experience suboptimal teacher performance. Unstable schools also lack quality school culture, which breeds incoherence and confuses students who experience a plethora of teaching approaches.
·       Explain the causes of this problem and why the problem still exists. (500 characters)Of all the professions in the United States, teachers are the most likely to work nearest to their high school alma mater.  Yet, most urban teachers went to school somewhere else. Programs like Teach for America provide an avenue for our most accomplished college graduates to fill vacant urban teaching slots. Yet, the siren call of home draws most away from urban schools. With few alumni teachers, urban schools must perpetually turn to the Band-Aid of outside teachers for hard-to-fill positions.

Section 3: The Solution ·       Describe the specific product(s) or program(s) your organization will implement to solve the problem. (1,000 characters) I will establish Freedom College as a new college dedicated to certifying low-income, academically qualified Chicago students to return as teachers to their neighborhood schools. The 2-year, degree completion program will be built from the ground up to address the unique needs of low-income, community college graduates. Apprenticeship models from the field of the learning sciences will serve as the foundation for the program. Students will spend 40% of the program observing and student teaching as apprentices in neighborhood schools. Students’ apprenticeship experiences will be supplemented with online coursework, which will reduce costs and increase convenience. Courses requiring face-to-face interaction will be conducted from a central campus located close to the neediest schools on the south side of Chicago. The program will initially recruit cohorts of 25 City Colleges of Chicago graduates who have completed their general education requirements and introductory content coursework.

·       How is your idea innovative compared to others addressing the problem? (1,000 characters)Programs focused on certifying and retaining minority teachers rely extensively on partner universities for certification. These universities contribute little and marginally differentiate. The programs provide external tutoring services and finance tuition on behalf of universities. Costs are high and results are low. One IL program spent $20 million in 10 years. Over 650 candidates entered. Only 88 became teachers. Large introductory lecture courses, which model atrocious teaching and high failure, are a root cause of attrition. In contrast, Freedom College courses will model best teaching. Students will finance tuition through repayment of 5% of income over 10 years. Thus, we have shared stake in long-term success & will provide long-term mentoring and career support. Entrepreneurial practices keep costs & thus tuition low. No hidden fees tuition pricing includes cost of equipment, materials and services. One-time $3.2 million investment will result in 200 teachers over 10 cohorts.

·       How will the lives of the target population be better because of your organization’s work? (1,000 characters)The target Freedom College student is a City Colleges of Chicago (CCC) graduate who comes from a low-income neighborhood, where median household income is <$25k, poverty is high, and bachelor attainment is low. About one-third of low-income CPS graduates attend CCC, but less than 20% of those attain degrees. Degree completion at CCC requires persistence and grit, which are qualities for success at Freedom College despite low income and low prior test scores. Our graduates will earn a starting CPS salary of $50k and more than $75k by the 10th year. They can attain a middle class income and live near family and friends from their neighborhood. The neighborhood benefits through an influx of middle class income, teacher stability and program coherence at the schools, and closer connections between schools and community, all of which are tied to improved learning outcomes for all students. In addition, a vision of a clear path to a middle class job can also improve graduation rates at CCC.

·       How will you measure the success of your organization? (500 characters)Program success will be measured in 4 ways: (A) % of each cohort employed in the 1st year and still teaching at least 10 years later (2X the expectation of other programs). (B) % of each cohort consistently rated at least proficient on CPS teacher evaluations. (C) Extent to which increased stability and sustained quality of cohorts increases student outcomes at partner schools. (D) Extent to which partnerships between schools and neighborhoods are strengthened as measured by 5 Essentials survey.

Section 4: Budget  
Describe how you expect your organization to grow over the next two years. (1,000 characters)Echoing Green investment provides startup funds to charter Freedom College as a nonprofit college with the IL Board for Higher Ed and initiate accreditation process. In the 1st year of the fellowship, I will establish the charter, raise funds for the first cohort, plan the curriculum, set up the infrastructure, and recruit the 1st cohort of students. In the 2nd year of the fellowship, I will hire staff and begin Phase 1 of Freedom College with the implementation of the 1st year of cohort 1. In 3rd year, we will complete Phase 1 by graduating the 1st cohort, recruiting the 2nd cohort and receiving interim accreditation, thus qualifying to offer government aid to students. In Phase 2, Freedom College will be fully operational by recruiting a new cohort each year. I will need to raise $1 million for the 3-year Phase 1 and $2.2 million for Phase 2. By the 10th cohort, income-based repayment will cover cash flow, even after accounting for avg attrition. No further investment will be needed.

Section 6: The Applicant
When and how did you come up with the idea for the organization? (500 characters)The genesis was a report my colleague wrote in 2012. In Chicago, I was experiencing firsthand our inability to gain traction due to the revolving door of young suburban professionals. Her report that teachers work where they grew up hit me like a lightning bolt. After exploring many options through colleges, I resolved 2 yrs ago that a new college must be formed. I have met with many potential funders who have expressed interest in the program, but I first need funding to establish the college.
·       Explain why you are so passionate about the problem and the population you described above. (1,000 characters)My passion is cultural, intellectual, and spiritual. My cultural heritage is a mix of Irish and Puerto Rican. As a child growing up in a mainly white, middle class neighborhood and occasionally visiting my mom’s family in Puerto Rico, I felt oddly connected and disconnected from both communities. Living in two worlds provided me with great insight & set me up as a boundary crosser. My intellectual passion was awakened as an undergrad at NU. I had a vague dissatisfaction with my own K12 education that was crystalized as I read theories of what we have known for over a hundred years about high quality education, but have been unable to implement on a wide scale. This intellectual passion coupled with my cultural comfort of living in two worlds enabled me to become a boundary crosser between academics and practitioners. My Catholic faith has given me a heart for the poor & instilled a belief that all things are possible when you pour out your God-given background and talents for others.

·       What skills or experiences demonstrate that you will be able to attract money, people, and other resources to your organization? (1,000 characters)For 30 years, I have been involved in education reform as a designer, practitioner, researcher, professor, & entrepreneur. As a designer, I have led teams of developers to create new technology-based curricula that bring the excitement of STEM and the humanities to the classroom. As a practitioner, I have implemented what I designed before deploying. As a researcher, I have studied how authentic inquiry can enable students to achieve proficiency on standardized assessments. As a professor, I developed a new masters degree program in teacher leadership to teach teacher leaders how to support implementation of authentic inquiry. In all of these capacities, I have been strictly grant-funded. Therefore as an entrepreneur, I have raised over $13 million for these endeavors as well as formed two successful businesses. In all of these capacities, I have learned how to sell an idea, attract talent, scale regulatory hurdles, and build efficient organizational structures that keep costs down.

·       Describe an example of your entrepreneurial spirit. (750 characters)Entrepreneurs identify a need and create new ways to fill the need. There are huge racial and poverty gaps in science achievement. Low-income, minority students need access to science and scientists who connect with their cultural background. Shortly after finishing grad school 20 yrs ago, I saw an opportunity to fill that need while traveling with my family to the El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico. I discovered a unique scientific community investigating a phenomenon of interest to low-income, minority students. I sold my idea to the scientists, gathered a creative team, and have raised $1.6 million. Thus, the bilingual Journey to El Yunque curriculum was born, raises achievement for low-income minority students, and continues today.

·       Provide one or two examples of your ability to overcome adversity. (1,000 characters)My attitude towards adversity comes from an ancient parable: a grain of wheat must fall to the Earth and die in order bear much fruit. I first experienced this parable 25 yrs ago as an ed tech designer at a textbook publisher. We created cutting edge multimedia hyperlinking that is now commonplace. Declining textbook revenue led to the shut down of all supplemental departments. Undeterred, I co-formed our department into a company. We developed 2 multimedia products and sold them to another publisher, which generated royalties for 2 decades. My 2nd experience with the parable came in 2011 as an NU professor. After years of planning, we received approval to offer a teacher leadership certificate. Shortly afterwards, the state changed the rules, which invalidated the program. My expertise garnered an invitation to advise the state on the new rules. I helped create high quality state policy and redesigned the certificate into a full masters program that was approved under the new rules.

·       Describe one past experience or accomplishment that demonstrates your leadership potential. (1,000 characters)
Leadership involves vision, aligning systems to that vision, and inspiring others to follow. In my initial vision, I worked with individual teachers to improve student achievement but progress dissipated due to teacher turnover. In 2006, the Gates foundation funded a new vision of working with whole schools to improve student achievement despite teacher turnover. With $4 million, I formed organizational structures and inspired a team of instructional coaches. We successfully supported 75 science teachers in 9 high schools to implement authentic inquiry, even though one-third of the teachers changed yearly. In 5 yrs, we improved achievement on a broad scale, but progress dissipated without ongoing support. Now I have expanded my vision of how to transform the system. I hope that Echoing Green will serve as a catalyst for enabling me to inspire others and align systems to my new vision of empowering teachers with a low-income background to transform their own schools and neighborhoods.