Inside the Samuel S. Fels Fund's Education Funding Strategy

Philadelphia's public school system has its fair share of problems, but one local philanthropy is sticking up for what they claim is actually working for students, teachers, and parents. The executive director of the Samuel S. Fels Fund, Helen Cunningham, recently teamed up with the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership, Mark Gleason, to lay out what they see as the positive transformations in Philadelphia schools.

Cunningham and Gleason want critics to focus on the upsides of the city's Renaissance schools. A Renaissance School is a school district public school that serves the students in the surrounding neighborhood, and there are three types: Innovation, Contract, and Charter. Their purpose is to bring transformative changes and improve student achievement in the city's lowest performing schools.

Philadelphia's Renaissance initiative began nearly a decade ago, when Mastery Charter School assumed management of three chronically failing schools: Thomas, in South Philadelphia; Shoemaker, in West Philadelphia; and Pickett, in Germantown. The School District of Philadelphia launched the 2013 Renaissance Schools initiative in James Alcorn Elementary School, Kenderton Elementary School, and Francis D. Pastorius Elementary School.

Cunningham and Gleason argue that Renaissance turnaround charters have measurably improved academics, increased safety, and served a higher proportion of students with special needs. They wrote, “In total, more than 20,000 students and their families have benefited from this effort, and thousands of young people—who otherwise might not have graduated—are on a path to college or meaningful work.”

In 2013, the Fels Fund awarded 30 grants to nonprofits focused on improving education in Philadelphia. Most of these grants fell between $3,000 and $30,000 in size, and last year's grants totaled $533,500. These are a few of the Fels grants related to public school improvements:

  • $100,000 to Children's Literacy Initiative for teacher training in public schools
  • $15,000 to Public Interest Projects for public education reform
  • $15,000 to Education Works to start a youth court support center for public schools
  • $10,000 to Philadelphia Young Playwrights to underwrite public school programs

Unlike some other foundations in the area, Fels won't consider funding anything for private schools. Renaissance charters are more costly for Philadelphia's cash-strapped district than traditional charters, but the Fels Fund believes they're more effective. Although the foundation has faith in Renaissance schools, it doesn't give money directly to them. Education grant proposals should be focused solely on Philadelphia's public schools and further arts instruction, college attainment, after-school programs, youth development, and teacher training. (Read Samuel S. Fels Fund: Philadelphia Grants).

“It [the school district] should set a goal to transform every one of Philadelphia's most persistently violent and academically failing schools over the next three years,” Cunningham and Gleason wrote.