New fund aims to grow quality private schools

For years, some of the country’s top charter school networks have turned to venture philanthropy funds that have helped them grow and replicate.

Now, for the first time, a group of philanthropists and investors has set out to create something similar for high-quality private schools.

The founders of a new philanthropic venture known as the Drexel Fund say private schools need to adopt the same “growth mindset” that exists in thriving charter school networks. That requires financial support to start new schools, which they’re setting out to provide.

birdsell headshot
Birdsell

“We are very much of the mindset that if it’s great, the school should be serving more kids and it should expand,” Rob Birdsell, a co-founder and partner of the fund. “If someone has a great school, why should their growth be limited? Let’s get creative. They need funding to expand and serve more students and families.”

The new fund opens today, and will start providing “seed investments” to schools as early as this fall.

Birdsell is the former leader of the Cristo Rey Network, a group of Catholic schools that has won accolades for an organizational model that resembles a high-impact charter school network, with a unique work-study program and a mission to target low-income students. He said he’s convinced there are existing private schools around the country from a variety of faith-based and secular backgrounds – and others still waiting to be created – that show similar promise.

Drexel has set a long-term goal of raising $85 million to create new space in high-quality private schools for 50,000 low- and middle-income students over the next decade.

In addition to helping the poor, its founders want to ensure the children of firefighters and construction workers have the same opportunities as the children of doctors and lawyers.

They plan to achieve that goal by backing a mix of new, startup schools and replications of existing ones.

Birdsell says his experience at Cristo Rey showed him the advantages of private schools forming networks, much like charters. They allow schools to learn from each other, and crucially, “let educators be educators.” Network offices can allow school administrators to focus on their classrooms by handling bookkeeping, recruitment and other back-office functions that private school principals often shoulder themselves.

Another of the fund’s co-founders is BJ Cassin, an early supporter of Cristo Rey and the Nativity Miguel network of Catholic middle schools. A venture capitalist by trade, he said the venture philanthropy effort would fund new schools much like investors fund startup companies: Give them needed cash up-front, help the new venture grow and develop a sustainable business model, and provide support along the way.

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Cassin

Private schools could use the help.

In school districts around the country, publicly funded charter schools are growing, with some of the best operators drawing multi-million dollar investments from organizations like the Charter School Growth Fund to help them reach more students. Meanwhile, private schools have watched enrollments continue to dwindle and vital community institutions disappear.

In private schools, the people behind the Drexel Fund see institutions that are deeply rooted in American history, and often committed to serving disadvantaged students. They can be in a position to offer things public institutions cannot – from innovative learning models to faith-based instruction. What they need are funds to get started.

The Drexel Fund is initially targeting six states: Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Indiana. All of them have either school voucher programs or tax credits scholarships, which in Florida are administered by organizations like Step up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.

By helping families afford tuition, these programs can help private schools that enroll economically disadvantaged become financially sustainable after Drexel’s seed investments are complete.

The fund’s backers say they plan to vet schools’ academic results before deciding whether to support them, much like the Charter School Growth Fund backs academically successful charters. As Cassin put it, “quality is going to be a part of the due diligence process.”

In the next few months, the fund plans to start announcing some of its high-profile funders.

Cassin said when talking to potential financial backers, he’s often asked why nobody else has done this.

That’s a question to which he hasn’t found a clear answer, a sign, he said, that “this was something that was waiting to happen.”