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The Neubauers want to fix Philly schools. Their plan? To sharpen the principal force.

"I tell people all the time, 'I didn't go to principal school to learn about development and financial planning,'" said Ted Domers, principal of George Washington Carver High School for Engineering and Science in Philadelphia.

Karen Thomas, principal at Bodine High School, listens intently in a session for the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, a program founded by Joe and Jeannette Neubauer.
Karen Thomas, principal at Bodine High School, listens intently in a session for the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders, a program founded by Joe and Jeannette Neubauer.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Joseph Neubauer made millions as a businessman, and when he turned his attention to Philadelphia schools, he did not abandon the instincts that made him successful.

There are too many students in the city — about 225,000 — to improve the education system directly through them, he thought. There are 20,000 teachers and 350 public, private, and charter schools. But principals? There, the philanthropist figured, was his leverage point to accelerate Philadelphia's renaissance.

"You have enough critical mass to change the process," said Neubauer. "You can't find an excellent school without a great principal."

To that end, Neubauer and his wife, Jeanette Lerman-Neubauer, started the Philadelphia Academy of School Leaders in 2014, and it's already attracting national attention.

Its flagship program, the Neubauer Fellowship in Educational Leadership, takes a class of about 20 charter, private and Philadelphia School District principals annually, and over two years arms them with high-level management training — lessons in entrepreneurship and implementing strategic plans, conversations with nationally recognized researchers and leaders. The organization's annual budget is about $1.5 million.

If sharpening the principal corps is the Neubauers' aim, Fatima Rogers, principal of C.W. Henry, a public school in Mount Airy, believes the couple are hitting their mark. Becoming a Neubauer Fellow, Rogers said, "was like hitting the lottery."

"It elevates what we do," said Ted Domers, principal of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, another Neubauer fellow. Domers is a veteran with a doctorate in education, but the vast majority of the time he spent in school concentrated on pedagogy.

"I tell people all the time," Domers said, "I didn't go to principal school to learn about development and financial planning."

‘What else can we do for the community?’

For 30 years, Joseph Neubauer built and ran Aramark, the multibillion-dollar international hospitality company. He retired in 2014 not to stop working, but to concentrate on the philanthropy he had become known for, both through the Neubauer Family Foundation and his board work — he chairs the trustees of the University of Chicago and the Barnes Foundation.

The Neubauers had already donated large sums to the Philadelphia Orchestra, the University of Chicago, the Metropolitan Opera, and museums and organizations around the world, especially those that advance Jewish causes. But when they read a 2013 Inquirer story that revealed Central and Masterman, two of the city's top high schools, had shuttered their libraries amid a Philadelphia School District financial crisis, the couple felt stirred to action, they said in an interview.

"It was time to think about, 'What else can we do for the community?'" said Neubauer, who has lived in Philadelphia for 35 years. "If we don't do something to keep young people in the city, we're not going to go anywhere as a community."

The Neubauers donated the funds to restore librarian positions at both schools, though they insisted on anonymity at the time.

On a visit to Central, they were impressed by Tim McKenna, the school's president  (Central's leaders are called presidents, not principals). He took ownership of the school, operating in many ways like a business leader, they thought.

"A lot of principals don't know much about the day-to-day process of management. We asked ourselves, 'What would happen if we started to talk to principals about that?' " said Neubauer.

William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia's school superintendent, agrees.

"These principals are getting opportunities I didn't have until I got into district management," Hite said of the Neubauer fellows. "It's really important to the growth and development of individuals who are leaders in our schools."

The district mandates training sessions for its leaders, but the system is large, and the assistant superintendents who supervise principals often have dozens of schools to oversee. Neubauer said he believes their program "puts a little bit of pressure on the school system to improve their professional development."

The Neubauer program was designed with assistance from the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute and input from educational leaders; the couple were clear that they were not interested in divisions between among public schools, charters, and private schools. The program has attracted national interest, the Neubauers said, but they do not yet wish to take it outside Philadelphia.

What principals wanted most of all, they said, was high-level coaching and support, a way to combine theory and practice, and opportunities to network with peers. It would, at the Neubauers' insistence, be data-driven, but also treat the principals exceptionally well: dinners at places that public servants don't frequent, and opportunities to learn directly from luminaries like former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Comcast honcho Brian Roberts.

Fellows receive a $5,000 honorarium for their two-year commitment and meet several times a year. At a daylong session in a Center City office this spring, one group discussed the "urgency vs. importance matrix" — how to prioritize tasks — and, with accountability partners from among their cohort, each participant picked out one area to focus on.

Richard Gordon IV, the principal of Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, chose an area that had everyone in the room nodding: "carve out more personal time with my family."

Connie Carnavale, the principal of H.A. Brown Elementary, said she wanted "to have more stakeholder conversations, even if I find them personally uncomfortable."

By 2020, 100 principals will be current or former Neubauer fellows. The Neubauers hope that's a critical mass for change.

Neubauer Fellows are being promoted, and receiving local and national awards, and 95 percent of the 62 leaders who have been through the program have stayed in Philadelphia.

"We're seeing amazing results," said Neubauer.

‘Everything starts with an idea’

Domers, the Carver principal, has big dreams for his already strong school — an expanded library, more internships and opportunities for students in struggling neighborhoods. But how does he do that on a tight budget (Carver has just two counselors for almost 900 students) without an active alumni and parent base?

Having access to the Neubauers and their ideas has been a huge boon, Domers said. ("One of the things that Joe taught me is: Everything starts with an idea. People latch on to an idea," said Domers.)

He's also taken advantage of a matching grant program offered through the organization, raising $17,000 to pay students for summer internships. (The foundation matched $12,500.) Being in the fellowship has helped him fine-tune his vision for Carver, grow firmer in his belief that in education, change happens at the school level, not the district level.

Having the red carpet rolled out for him as a Neubauer Fellow also affected how he treats his staff.

"I can't take my teachers to a fancy restaurant for dinner, but how are our binders set up on the first day? Is there food for the teachers? Is the room ready to go? Providing that attention to how we treat people is key, and that's influenced me," Domers said.

For Rogers, the Henry principal, the fellowship has strengthened her resolve to serve the city's children.

"I came out of that first week of training and said, 'Joe and Jeanette Neubauer are investing in us to make an impact on Philadelphia,'" Rogers said. "I don't want to take this training and go somewhere else. This is to help Philadelphia."

Tiffany Holmes, the principal of Mastery Charter School-Clymer Elementary, has worked in New York City public schools and charter networks.

"The time that I've spent in professional development through the Neubauer Foundation is absolutely the best," said Holmes. Fellows are asked early on to identify a problem in practice — boosting staff morale, for instance —  and then given time and space to work on it. Holmes wanted to create "a data-driven school culture."

Now, "when you walk into a classroom, you can see how teachers are collecting data on a daily basis, and using it in the moment." And all of her staffers committed to remain at Mastery-Clymer next year.

Neubauer meetings help recharge their batteries, fellows say, and the formal and informal networks of colleagues they have formed have been invaluable.

Michael Gomez, the principal of Cristo Rey Philadelphia High School, is struck by the deep personal connection the Neubauers seem to have to the program. At one dinner, Lerman-Neubauer drew him out about why he became a teacher. At another, Neubauer addressed the group.

"He said, 'Remember, I love you guys.' He was talking about the importance of leading with heart and love," Gomez said. "They're investing in Philadelphia and in education, but they're also investing in us as leaders and as people."