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Michael O'Neill launches nonprofit to raise money for successful Phila. schools

A businessman with a track record of aiding Catholic schools is launching a nonprofit aimed at raising at least $100 million in private funds to support all quality schools in Philadelphia, whether public, charter, Catholic, or private.

A businessman with a track record of aiding Catholic schools is launching a nonprofit aimed at raising at least $100 million in private funds to support all quality schools in Philadelphia, whether public, charter, Catholic, or private.

Michael O'Neill, who has also helped charters, said his newest project would support success. "My goal is better education for kids," he said.

"A seat that's producing a graduate is a successful seat," O'Neill said. "One which is not producing a graduate is not."

The initiative, the Philadelphia Schools Project, and its broad outlines were introduced to educators and philanthropists in June. A public launch is planned for mid-September, when it will be called the Philadelphia Schools Partnership.

While many who heard the proposal say they need more details before they can commit, the concept has intrigued others, including the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and representatives of Mayor Nutter. The school district remains noncommittal.

Scott Gordon, founder and chief executive officer of Mastery Charter Schools, praised O'Neill's "bold vision" for "getting folks who care about education in Philadelphia together and trying to raise a large amount of money for what works."

The project also seeks to speed the pace of change in the district. Proponents said the initiative could lead to schools' collaborating to raise student achievement, sharing resources, and agreeing on a common yardstick to measure performance.

More successful schools would mean more students graduating from high school and college, a stronger economy, and a more vibrant future for Philadelphia, supporters said.

The nonprofit previewed its agenda during an invitation-only breakfast at the Comcast Center. O'Neill introduced Nicholas Torres, who is stepping down as president of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a community organization in Fairhill, to become the project's executive director. Torres declined to disclose his salary.

The nonprofit, which has registered with the state, has raised less than $1 million from supporters to cover start-up costs, including a Center City office and Torres' salary.

"People are curious and hopeful, but we understand that it needs to get off the ground a little bit," said Debra A. Kahn, executive director of Delaware Valley Grantmakers and a former city education secretary.

Lori Shorr, Nutter's chief education officer, said the city welcomed a vision of K-12 education that went beyond public schools.

"From the mayor's perspective, it's about all the kids in Philadelphia," said Shorr, who has met with Torres. "We're very interested."

Deputy Superintendent Leroy D. Nunery II, the top district official to attend, was noncommittal: "We are interested to learn more about the Philadelphia Schools Project's objectives to find ways to improve the education of all the children in Philadelphia."

The project is refining its strategic plans, but Torres said its mission was clear: "To make sure every student in Philadelphia, no matter where they go to school, gets a great education."

The independent nonprofit, he said, will provide "a way for private investors who believe in education to invest their dollars and have an impact on quality education in Philadelphia."

O'Neill has a history of launching bold educational initiatives. A year after becoming chairman of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools in 2007, he announced a $50 million campaign to create a foundation to provide long-term support for endangered, inner-city Catholic elementary schools. BLOCS has raised $14 million so far.

O'Neill said he had begun talking with other business, philanthropic, and educational leaders months ago about the need for the private sector to aid city schools. He does not take credit for the idea, but said he was acting as "the main driver" of a group of about 20 who include Janine Yass of the Susquehanna Foundation, Bruce Melgary of the Lenfest Foundation, Evie McNiff of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, David Hardy of Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, and Mastery's Gordon.

Torres said some people assumed the project was a BLOCS initiative because O'Neill was involved. Others, he said, mistakenly believe that the effort is about expanding school choice, including vouchers, because Yass' husband, Jeffrey, was among the executives from Susquehanna International Group in Bala Cynwyd who contributed $5.3 million to State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams' unsuccessful Democratic primary bid for governor this year.

O'Neill, 47, said he wanted to help city students because education plays a critical role in shaping lives. A graduate of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic elementary school in Overbrook and Malvern Prep, a private Catholic boys' school, O'Neill holds degrees from Villanova University and Temple Law School.

"I look back at myself and my kids, and my ability to go out and compete goes back to high school and grade school," O'Neill said. "I also know that as an investor, I think the highest return you can make is in education."

In 1987, he and older brother Brian founded O'Neill Properties. Michael O'Neill left five years later to found a real estate investment company. He is CEO of what is now Preferred Unlimited Inc., a Conshohocken firm involved in sand mining for the oil and gas industry.

His latest educational project was first disclosed by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent nonprofit that reports on the Philadelphia School District in its quarterly newspaper and online. The project also was mentioned in the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative's recent education report, which found parents more concerned about good schools for their children than who operated them.

O'Neill said the project aimed to improve education by making Philadelphia schools a top fund-raising priority for local, regional, and even national donors and channeling resources to schools that can demonstrate success.

That data would help donors track the results of their contributions and help parents compare the performance of public and nonpublic schools.

One issue is how to compare schools. Students in public schools, including charters, take state tests, and the school scores are released annually, but Catholic schools and most other nonpublic schools elect not to take the tests.

One glimpse into how Catholic schools compare with public schools was provided in the Pew report, which said Catholic students scored at or above national norms on 2009 TerraNova tests in reading and math but below that mark on language skills.

And while college-bound students take the SATs, many private schools and diocesan high schools choose not to release scores.

The Pew report also said that enrollment in the city's Catholic schools was in a "free fall," and that survival prospects were bleak without additional support. Since 2000, 23 Catholic grade schools have closed, and two high schools shut down in June.

O'Neill, who has worked with Mastery Charters, said the project was not about supporting any one kind of school.

"Our goal is to create more quality education seats of every type and help those" schools that are successfully educating students.

According to O'Neill, the core organizers saw that individual district, charter, Catholic, and other nonpublic schools were doing a good job educating students but weren't talking to one another or trying to coordinate.

Take real estate, for example. While the district has 45,000 empty seats, O'Neill said, charter schools scramble to find quarters. He said charter operators had told him that they often selected locations based on the availability of buildings rather than educational need. And the free, publicly funded charters draw students from Catholic schools, where families struggle to pay tuition.

"In the long run, it's not good for the city for charters to be pulling kids from successful Catholic schools that already are fulfilling a purpose," O'Neill said. "We have to help them develop a financially sustainable model."

Joseph P. McFadden, an auxiliary bishop who has overseen education in the archdiocese, said he hoped the effort would attract "a wider audience" to support Catholic schools.

"I think Mike's feeling is by looking at a more holistic approach, we may be able to attract the dollars and support from foundations and groups that wouldn't necessarily give to Catholic schools but would be willing to support an initiative for choice in education," said McFadden, who will be installed as bishop of Harrisburg next month.

When it comes to charters, O'Neill said, the project plans to assist successful ones.

"We also need to help the poor operators get better or help the [district] move to give them to someone who can be successful."

He praised Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's Imagine 2014 plan, which calls for restructuring failing schools. Seven will be run by charter operators in the fall.

Said O'Neill: "That is definitely the direction our city should be moving."