The Latest on an Effort to Fund Nontraditional High School Models in New England


Last summer, we wrote that the Boston-based Barr Foundation was taking a new direction with its education program and encouraging New England educators and nonprofits to look beyond traditional high school models. Barr launched a $30 million, five-year effort to make high schools more flexible and relevant in the modern world.

This concept is certainly nothing new in the philanthropy sector; the Carnegie Corporation has long worked to reinvent high school, while Laurene Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective has recently invested here, as well. Barr's high school work flowed from a larger reboot of its education funding, as a result of a strategic reassessment a few years ago. The funder's operative premise is that high schools need to change how they operate to become more relevant—both for students and for a fast-changing economy. (See a full program description here.) At same time, Barr doesn't have a preordained view of exactly how high schools need to change. Instead, it's backing different approaches, as well as putting up money for evaluation, to see what works.  

Now in the initiative’s second year, Barr made a new $4.5 million commitment last month that includes five new grantees.

Related: Here's a Funder That Wants to "Do High School Differently"

Barr's high school grantmaking is regional, ranging well beyond its home city of Boston, which tends to be the central locus of its giving. None of the five new grantees were based in Boston. Instead, they hail from Somerville, Lawrence and Fall River in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island.

Each of the five new grant recipients are receiving $150,000 each, which is the same amount as last year. However, there is more money where this came from if the quality of the grantees’ plans is up to par. Current grantees may be invited to apply for two-year implantation grants of up to $750,000 for a subsequent award in 2019.

The foundation is making good on its earlier promise to keep an open mind about what kinds of institutions can bring new thinking to high school education. The recent grantees include traditional district public schools, charter public schools, preparatory academies, regional schools, and even a university that is designing a new university high school model.  

Meanwhile, the bigger news from this grantmaking round is that is that foundation is giving $3,750,000 to five organizations that received planning support last year, when the new high school initiative was first rolled out. The groups—based in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine—must have lived up to Barr’s standards because they are now getting bigger funds to scale the ideas they pitched to capture the funder’s attention in the first place.

One important thing to keep in mind about Barr's high school funding is that the foundation is focused on backing models that help students who aren’t on track to graduate. These kids are especially likely to be turned off by traditional school models. Ed reformers have had some success, especially in New York City, of designing high schools that are tailored to the needs of disaffected students who are likely to drop out. 

All that said, Leah Hamilton, Barr’s director of education, wrote in a blog post:

While this initiative focuses on students who are most in need, we believe that what works for those who struggle most with our current, inflexible system will point the way to better opportunities for all secondary students.

Barr plans to release its third (and likely final) request for proposals for this initiative later this year. You can follow the hashtag #doingHSdifferently to keep up with conversations on the topic and what Barr and its grantees are up to.