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Bill and Melinda Gates pledge $100K to Philly schools

Philadelphia's new education compact between the school district, city, state and two charter school coalitions has attracted the attention of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged $100,000 in funding and a chance at millions more.

For years, the district has tried to gain funding from the philanthropic Gates foundation, especially when it was doling out millions for the development of small high schools. But it was the compact announced last month that finally won the recognition.

Under the compact, all four entities said they would work together to set common academic standards and then seek to expand schools that meet them and close those that do not - no matter if they are charters, regular district schools or some other variation. The project also is designed to reduce some of the tension between the city's 80 charters and the district.

"What we saw as bold for us was the fact that the compact is inclusive of all schools in Philadelphia," said Don Shalvey, deputy director of the U.S. education program for the Seattle-based foundation. It's "the only city that said we can learn something from everyone. These are all Philadelphia's children, all Philadelphia's youth regardless of the school they go to."

Mayor Nutter, School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos and other dignitaries made the announcement Tuesday afternoon at Stetson Middle School before a cafeteria full of students. Stetson was chosen, officials said, because it has made progress as a charter school overseen by Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania, part of the Aspira Association, a national Hispanic nonprofit that focuses on helping Hispanic youth.

The compact also indicates a further positive working relationship developing between the city and the state's Republican gubernatorial administration, which has been supportive of charters.

"We want our partners in Harrisburg to know that we are doing everything we possibly can on the ground and in partnership with the state to improve the quality of education here," Mayor Nutter said in an interview after the press conference.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for state education secretary Ronald Tomalis, said Tomalis supports the "innovative" program.

"By working together, local and school district leaders, parents and the community can bring about the necessary changes that are conducive to a successful and healthy learning environment, while continuing to refocus our attention on the needs of each student," Eller said in a statement. "This collaboration will benefit not just Philadelphia, but the entire state."

With the planning grant, the district will work on its proposal and prepare over the next six months to compete with up to 14 other cities for $40 million in funding to improve schools. Grants range between $2 million and $10 million, Shalvey said.

The compact's aim is to eliminate 50,000 seats in the lowest-performing schools - district and charter - in five years by increasing enrollment in high-performing schools.

Shalvey said the foundation was particularly impressed with that notion.

"It's priorities are clearly aligned with the priorities inside the foundation," he said.

City officials have said a committee would be set up to develop common performance criteria over the next several months to be used to evaluate all schools, create an accountability framework and develop a plan for implementing the compact. After public input, a final version of the compact will be submitted to the Gates Foundation.

The proposed compact would permit other charter operators to take over failing charter schools. A draft of the proposal distributed last month said that if the SRC revokes or fails to renew a charter, it would launch a competitive process to find another operator to take over the school.

The compact draft also calls for shared planning to coordinate growth of charters and district schools; collaborating on facilities; and creating a "universal enrollment" system that would align schools' application procedures and make it easier for families to select schools.

The compact also calls for replacing the district office that oversees charter schools with a new office whose executive director would report to the SRC. Now, the charter office is part of the district administration and reports to the superintendent. Charter school operators have advocated the change.

Philadelphia, which has 40,322 students in charter schools, ranks third among the 10 largest districts in the country in charter enrollment, just behind Los Angeles and Detroit.

Also represented at the press conference was the Philadelphia School Partnership, a non-profit that formed a year ago and set the goal of raising $100 million for education reform in Philadelphia, and leaders of two charter school coalitions.

School Reform Commission Chairman Ramos said he's pleased with the Gates funding and support, but the work would have gone on even without it.

"This focus is enabled by, not caused by the funding," he said.