I had the distinct honor of sitting down recently with Katherine Bradley, the co-founder (along with her husband) and president of the CityBridge Foundation. I have been a tremendous admirer of the work of Mrs. Bradley for some time. Her passion for assisting those at the low end of the economic scale turned me into an instant supporter from the first time I heard her speak years ago at a charter school conference.
I asked her about how CityBridge Foundation got its start. “CityBridge began in 1994,” Mrs. Bradley explained, “as the Advisory Board Foundation, inside our two best practices research companies, the Advisory Board Company and the Corporate Executive Board. Our original purpose was to deploy the talent inside the companies as a meaningful community engagement force in Washington. Around 1990, we began looking for a project to support in the Philippines, where my husband David had been a Fulbright Scholar in 1978.”
The CityBridge president continued, “But our first several attempts failed quite spectacularly. In one of those early, misguided projects, we partnered with a Catholic church affiliate to provide a home for children living in the streets of Manila. But almost immediately, several of the children ran away, prompting a call David received from one of the nuns running the home. She was asking if David wanted her to find the runaway children and bring them back. David calls this the ‘nuns with nets’ problem. We realized we had violated our own operating principles: we were investing without actually doing the research to understand the facts on the ground. We had failed to bring what we knew from our day jobs into our philanthropy. We finally got it right when we offered paid ‘Manila Fellowships’ to our own research team in Washington. They figured out that the root cause of the street children phenomenon was not homelessness; children were choosing the streets to escape abuse in their homes. As a result, we helped establish a network of child protection facilities around the country. Today, there are more than 75 centers, which assist children who have experienced sexual or physical abuse. David still chairs the board, and we travel to Manila every year.”
In 2000, the Bradleys decided to focus their efforts on improving the lives of the underserved in Washington, D.C. A local focus appealed to them because they felt the city was small enough to allow them to have a significant positive impact. Mrs. Bradley and her then colleague, Arthur McKee, started holding seminars discussing books written about ending multi-generational poverty. They studied prisoner re-entry programs, job training, literacy interventions, and teen pregnancy programs. It was during this period they went to New York City to meet with Geoffrey Canada, now president of the Harlem Children’s Zone. What he told them brought an epiphany to their minds.
“Mr. Canada explained to us during our visit,” related Mrs. Bradley, “that even if he could fix every problem for every child in the Zone, he would still not succeed in ending the cycle of poverty unless he also changed the schools at the center of the families’ lives and at the center of their neighborhoods. He framed for us that the school was the essential lever in ending poverty, the one place that provided a natural point of intervention, where significant public resources were already dedicated. We went home, narrowed our research, and eventually settled on the early childhood field as our first point of investment.
“We were ready to launch our first portfolio of work, the Early Years Education Initiative, in 2004. The Early Years portfolio included investments in schools, childcare centers, teacher pipelines, teacher training, and general support for Pre-K For All, the advocacy campaign to champion universal Pre-K in Washington. Beginning in 2006, we supported two of the city’s best charter schools, KIPP and DC Prep, to grow down to the early childhood years, as both charter schools had been middle schools only. I always try to join whatever great work is already happening, and then our method is to figure out how to expand that success.”
“And I have learned from watching great people. Charter school funding for three- and four-year-olds was only possible because of the pioneering work of our recent Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, BB Otero, who figured out how to blend existing charter school funding and child care subsidies to create full-day ‘school’ for three- and four-year-olds.” CityBridge also invested in Jumpstart for Young Children, whose executive director was Sekou Biddle. In 2008, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray spearheaded legislation to provide early childhood education at no cost to all children living in the city.
The next stage for CityBridge Foundation was to encourage whole-school turnaround. “Michelle Rhee had been appointed Chancellor under Mayor Fenty,” Mrs. Bradley detailed, “and we offered our team to do anything we could to help. Our investments in school turnaround include Scholar Academies, responsible for the work at Stanton Elementary, and the New York-based Turnaround for Children.”
I then inquired from Mrs. Bradley what her goal was for public education in the nation’s capital. She answered almost before the last word of my sentence was uttered. “A Tier 1 school for every child,” was her response. “My ultimate goal is that when you look at academic outcomes, no one will be able to tell which child comes from Ward 8.”
When I asked her how we were going to get there, Mrs. Bradley had clearly thought this question through many times before. “We believe we need to take a portfolio approach to investing in schools, all with the goal of reaching a place where we have the needed inventory of excellent schools, DCPS and charter, to serve all children. For us, that investment strategy falls into three buckets: We need to replicate our highest performers, the ‘blue chip’ part of the portfolio; we should invest in real turnaround of poor performers; and we need a ‘venture’ arm, bringing the best of school innovation from around the country to D.C.”
The CityBridge president then discussed the foundation’s Education Innovation Fellowship, which is now in its third year. As explained on the organization’s website, “the yearlong program introduces teacher leaders to the most promising innovations in personalized learning and offers them opportunities to pilot personalized learning models in their schools.” Mrs. Bradley related that the program is a partnership between CityBridge and NewSchools Venture Fund that is supported by a $1 million grant from Microsoft Corporation. “We select a new cohort of 20 to 22 Fellows each January. These teachers are with us one day a month, plus a week in February to visit schools in California and three days in April to visit schools in Chicago, and they have an opportunity to pilot what they have learned at their own schools. We believe that empowering teachers to innovate in their classrooms will move us closer to a system in which education is personalized to every child’s needs.”
Mrs. Bradley revealed that CityBridge Foundation also plays a managing role in Breakthrough Schools: D.C.,which is one of six regional grant competitions in partnership with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC). The competition is for school teams interested in designing new, whole-school models built on next generation school design principles such as personalization, blended learning, and mastery-based learning. The competition was built on the highly successful national competition started by NGLC that has awarded grants to more than 40 schools across the country. Ingenuity Prep Public Charter School in Ward 8 was a national competition winner prior to the creation of the regional challenge.
The goal of the $6 million challenge is to fund the design or redesign of 20 traditional and charter public schools in Washington by Fall 2018. The CityBridge president pointed out that the scope of this project would impact 15 percent of the Washington, D.C.’s student public school population. She noted that each cycle of grants includes up to $2 million for winning teams, with 50 percent coming from NGLC’s funders, including the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. CityBridge brings together funders to match their share. To date, educators from 70 schools have participated in pre-application workshops; 41 school teams have submitted applications; and 13 schools have received grants. “When we reach 20 schools,” Mrs. Bradley commented, “DC will have a concentration of talent and innovation that leads the nation. Along with the significant work DCPS is doing, Washington will be a true hub of innovation.”
Mrs. Bradley is extremely optimistic about the future of personalized learning in public education. “Let me just relay one example of what is possible. Two years ago, in a high school physics class at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, half of the students failed the course. Then, the teacher tried a method where each student controlled the pace at which he or she accessed the class material. Students not only passed in much greater numbers, but they also began to own their learning and plan their learning, skills that are non-negotiable in college. Personalized learning gets around the problem of the wide range of academic abilities that is typical of most public school classrooms. When the teacher is teaching all students at the same time, that teacher has to choose which part of the curve to teach to, and it is usually the middle. Personalization, supported by adaptive technology, eliminates the teacher’s need to make that choice.”
At CityBridge, through the Education Innovation Fellowship and Breakthrough Schools: D.C., they have embraced the notion of educator-led innovations in classroom and school design. This work builds on and further leverages work in this area throughout the city, not only the work at Ingenuity Prep, but also DCPS’s extensive investment in broadband access for schools, education technology, and blended learning. CityBridge highlights its partnerships with Next Generation Learning Challenges, Microsoft, DCPS, and NewSchools Venture Fund, an approach to coalition-building that is in the DNA of the organization.
I asked Mrs. Bradley about the state of public education in the District today, and her response echoed the opinion of many in this town. She believes we are making progress, as is clearly demonstrated on the 2013 NAEP exam results. However, given huge unmet demand for entry into high-performing schools, Mrs. Bradley stated that the pace is still not fast enough, although she acknowledged that the work is incredibly hard. One area of concern for the CityBridge president is the exceedingly long pipeline that it takes to bring strong new charter schools to D.C. and to expand and replicate the high-performing ones that are already here. She also feels that we have to “double down” on the development of excellent teacher and school leader talent. However, Mrs. Bradley is as confident as ever that we can and will eventually provide a quality seat for every child.
I ended our conversation by inquiring of Mrs. Bradley why she has so strongly dedicated her life to this cause. She replied without hesitation. “I realized that if my children had been born just four miles away, their lives might have had a completely different outcome. Is that either right or fair? I think about what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes, what it would be like to desperately want a great school for your child, and not to have it, when someone four miles away, or someone who won the charter lottery, does. If you can feel that injustice, the only real choice is to be committed until you see that it is fixed.”