As I write this, we are firmly in what I consider the annual “sprint” toward the end of the year – the time before the holiday break when people in the social change field are rushing to hold meetings, attend conferences, finalize projects and start planning for next year, all while keeping pace with the usual whirlwind of social and professional receptions and holiday parties. In the midst of it all, it’s critical to create time and space for reflection. Years ago, I saw a definition of reflection by the late Col. Eric Kail, former course director of military leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Col. Kail wrote, “Reflection is what links our performance to our potential.” The definition resonated with me and closely mirrors how we at Venture Philanthropy Partners value and use reflection to better understand our investments, and to translate that to shape our strategies moving forward.
Since its creation, VPP has been dedicated to investing in innovative organizations that work to ensure that young people in Greater Washington have access to a high-quality education, resources and the support they need to successfully transition to adulthood, career and college ready. Some of these have included Friendship Public Charter School, KIPP DC and AppleTree. We are proud of these investments and the impact that the organizations we support have had on the lives of young people in our region.
But as we examined the landscape, both nationally and regionally, and listened to our nonprofit partners, one particular challenge was consistently raised – the scarcity of high-quality teachers to educate and support our youth. The nationwide teacher shortage is well documented – the Learning Policy Institute estimated that, without significant changes, there could be a shortfall of 112,000 teachers by 2018 nationwide. This troubling trend is evident in our own region. The lack of quality teachers manifests in ways that negatively impact our students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates and narrower paths to graduation and long-term success.
Our culture of reflection led us to examine how we could best leverage our past performance – in this case, our previous investments in schools – and our potential to leverage those investments to have an even greater impact on students’ success. When VPP decided that addressing the teacher shortage in our own community would be an important next step in pushing our work forward, we identified opportunities that would help build on our past investments and take them to the next level.
As you may know, Ready for Work is a six-year initiative to help young people in Prince George’s County successfully transition to adulthood prepared to enter the workforce and pursue a college education. A key strategy of the initiative is to increase students’ academic and technical skills to pursue college and a career. To help ensure that students in the three Ready for Work high schools have the teachers they need to tackle those skills, we are partnering with Teach for America-D.C. Region (TFA-D.C.) to create clusters of TFA-D.C. alumni and corps members in schools. With this effort, TFA-D.C. is developing a new operating model in this region that is designed to leverage the large number of alumni they have in this region. It’s about matching alumni talent to the needs of local schools.
Recruiting and placing teachers in schools is only one element of addressing the teacher shortage. Without adequate training and support, teachers may be ill-prepared for the classroom and are less likely to stay in their positions long-term. By continuously connecting with our current and former investment partners and always keeping our ears to the ground, we understood a crucial need and the role we could play in helping to meet it.
This led to our newest investment – a collaboration with Education Forward DC to help launch Relay Graduate School of Education (Relay) in the District of Columbia to improve the number of high-quality teachers in our region. Nationally accredited, Relay offers graduate degrees and credentials in teacher education and school leadership. A particularly important aspect of their program requires teachers to demonstrate their ability to improve student achievement by one grade level. In addition to helping to bring Relay to the District, our investment will help Relay evaluate the long-term impact of this approach on students. This work will not just help strengthen the model locally, but serve the organization (and the students it reaches) on the national level. Our investment will also support strategies that strengthen family engagement and cultural competency – so teachers work effectively with parents as key partners in their children’s education and also understand and appropriately respond to the unique cultural variables and the full range of diversity in our region.
We are especially pleased that this investment will not only build on and continue to strengthen our past investments, but will also directly benefit many of our partners. Teachers from AppleTree, KIPP DC and Friendship Public Charter School are in the first cohort of Relay graduate students.
Ultimately, supporting organizations that help bring, train and retain teachers in our region is critical to improving outcomes for young people in Greater Washington. We know that teachers play a critical role and we are dedicated to investing in strategies that create a better environment to help youth attain the knowledge, skills and confidence they need to be successful.
As we reflect on the passing year, we at VPP are committed to leveraging our performance in 2017 to strengthen our potential – and that of young people in our community – in the future. I look forward to working together in 2018.