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Philadelphia School Partnership halfway to $100 million goal

The leadership of the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership announced Thursday that it was more than halfway to its goal of raising $100 million to pump into expanding strong schools, whether they're charter, public, or private.

The leadership of the nonprofit Philadelphia School Partnership announced Thursday that it was more than halfway to its goal of raising $100 million to pump into expanding strong schools, whether they're charter, public, or private.

That the group has shaken loose $51.9 million in just under two years in a tough economy is a symbol of the considerable and rising influence of the partnership (PSP) in the city's education sector.

An energized Mayor Nutter, speaking at a news conference with deep-pocketed donors and city school officials to announce PSP's fund-raising prowess, made it clear he was on board with the organization's goals.

Parents deserve school choice, Nutter said. Labels - public, private, charter - don't matter.

"These are esoteric debates that ultimately don't mean anything to these young people," the mayor told a crowd in the gym at the Philadelphia Charter School for the Arts and Sciences at H.R. Edmunds. Edmunds, a former district school opening as a charter next month, benefited from a $2 million PSP grant.

Michael O'Neill, the real estate developer and PSP board chairman, called it a "gigantic day for our city."

Earlier in the year, PSP announced a $15 million donation from the William Penn Foundation. It has since added $5 million from the Maguire Foundation and $31.9 million from 20 individual donors ranging from the Samuel S. Fels Fund to Janine Yass, a school reform advocate married to Jeffrey Yass, the options trader and Susquehanna International Group founder who is a strong supporter of school vouchers.

The mix is significant. Historically, much of the philanthropic community has been wary of signing checks for causes tied to the Philadelphia School District.

Last summer, PSP executive director Mark Gleason said investors were on board conceptually but not ready to make a commitment. At the time, confidence in the School Reform Commission was low, and a messy public battle over leadership led to the resignation of Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

But people now have confidence in a mostly reconstituted SRC, Gleason said Thursday.

"This is now a much broader group of funders than we had a year ago," he said in an interview. "We have some corporate funders, we have some individuals, we have some foundations. We have funders who historically supported Catholic schools, who have historically supported charter schools, who weren't that active in funding education at all."

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos said the speed with which PSP had raised more than half of its goal "speaks very well for our city. Our community still believes that we can do better by our children in some consistent way."

Ramos echoed Nutter's - and PSP's - language, emphasizing that the district would focus on "quality" and continue to use its Renaissance Schools program, which gives low-performing schools to charter organizations.

PSP's core belief - scaling up what works in education - has caused decision-makers to coalesce in a way they haven't in the past, said Janet Haas, William Penn's board chair.

"For too long, civic and philanthropic leaders in Philadelphia have had a scattershot approach to education," Haas said.

But now, they seem to have a focus, matching that of PSP.

The Philadelphia Schools Partnership's now-flush Great Schools Fund ties in with the Great Schools Compact, a document signed last year by city, state, district, charter, and archdiocesan officials that pledges to eliminate 50,000 seats in low-performing schools and replace them with seats in strong schools, regardless of school type.

PSP wants to directly fund the creation of 35,000 high-performing seats in the city and "indirectly contribute to the transformation of at least 15,000 additional high-performing seats through changes in policies and practices inspired by the fund's investment and related activities," according to foundation literature.

The organization has already distributed about $7 million worth of grants, including one to String Theory Schools, which recently took over Edmunds.

New principal Susan Feola, for many years an Edmunds teacher, was at first worried and angry when she found out her school was becoming a charter. Now, she's a convert, excited by the idea of her students getting what she believes will be a private-school-caliber education - updated facilities, instruction in visual and performing arts, an extended day.

"It is an incredible model," she said.

Still, some are wary of PSP's rising influence.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, pointed out that PSP had not yet made any grants to district schools.

Gleason said the organization was "in the middle of promising conversations" with some district principals about possible grants for expansions. He said it had been tough to make headway in a big bureaucracy that historically does not empower principals to seek grants and plan for growth.

A new round of awards will be announced in the fall, Gleason said, and another will follow later this year or early next year.

Jordan also took issue with money being awarded for expansions but none being devoted to helping long-struggling schools improve without completely reconstituting them.

"Schools aren't failing because they're bad schools," Jordan said. "There's a serious lack of resources."

He said he was not surprised by PSP's growing influence.

"There are a lot of people who are investing in groups that support schools other than traditional public schools," he said.

PSP board chairman O'Neill said the city needs all types of schools, and PSP's investing in them all would make public schools better.

"There's nothing to challenge a school system," O'Neill said, "unless other schools exist."