After navigating leadership change at City Hall, New Visions prepares for one of its own

PHOTO: New Visions for Public Schools/Julienne Schaer
New Visions for Public Schools President Robert Hughes is moving to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where he will oversee K-12 education strategy.

When incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio needed a schools chancellor, the name Robert Hughes was quickly floated.

That’s because Hughes, as president of the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools for the past 15 years, has often resembled a big-city schools chief. Under him, the organization helped open 99 district schools and seven charters, and has trained teachers and provided data-crunching tools to dozens of others.

Hughes didn’t become chancellor. But he did position New Visions to continue to play a prominent role in the new administration — a remarkable feat, considering that the group was closely associated with the previous administration’s tactic of replacing struggling schools with new ones, which de Blasio has rejected.

Now, the 25-year-old organization is preparing to weather yet another major transition as Hughes moves to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the often-controversial philanthropy that has bankrolled some of New Visions’ key initiatives. (Disclosure: Chalkbeat shares a board member with New Visions, and receives funding from the Gates Foundation.)

With city contracts and private grants in place for the next several years, Hughes said he’s leaving the institution he helped build in good shape.

“Now is a good time to go, when it’s clear the next three or four years are strong and lots of good things are going to continue to happen,” he said in an interview this week. “New Visions has never been stronger.”

The nonprofit, which has maintained a low profile among non-educators, occupies a perch in the rare middle ground of today’s polarized educational terrain.

Its close attention to the nuts and bolts of instruction and efforts to involve parents has led to partnerships with the city teachers union (whose chief sits on New Visions’ board) and parent-organizing groups. New Visions launched a civic-activism training program for parents last year, and is working with the teachers union to distribute New Visions-made teaching materials and tests.

At the same time, its creation of new schools and emphasis on data analysis appealed to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who clashed bitterly with the union, and to other groups pushing dramatic, data-driven changes. Those interested in New Visions’ work included the Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into often-controversial education initiatives such as the new Common Core standards, teacher evaluations, and charter schools.

New Visions has “been able to thread the needle between school reformers,” said Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor at Teachers College, “and educators who are not viewed as part of the reform camp.”

The connection between the Gates Foundation and New Visions has been strong for years.

Gates has contributed $14.6 million to New Visions’ efforts to help teachers transition to the Common Core, through coaching and custom-made curriculum materials.

The foundation also largely financed the work that New Visions is best known for: the scores of small schools it opened beginning in the early 2000s. The foundation gave each new school a $400,000 start-up grant before it pivoted away from small schools.

More recently, the foundation encouraged New Visions to design its own charter high schools using the lessons it learned opening district schools, according to New Visions founder and chairman Richard Beattie, who said the group is aiming to establish 12 charter schools over time.

All told, Gates has given $76 million to New Visions projects under Hughes, including $56.5 million for school creation, according to a New Visions spokesman.

“If one were to imagine where Bob Hughes would be going based on New Visions’ history, Gates is a pretty obvious destination,” Pallas said.

New Visions recently navigated another leadership change — the one at City Hall. Even with its ties to de Blasio’s close ally, the teachers union, it was still unclear two years ago how the group would fare under the de Blasio administration.

The small schools it designed were essential to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policy of closing large, low-performing high schools — a tactic despised by many parents and educators, and condemned by de Blasio. De Blasio’s schools chief, Carmen Fariña, expressed skepticism about a multiyear study that found that students who enrolled at the small schools were more likely to graduate and attend college than peers who ended up at other high schools.

When Fariña was preparing to overhaul Bloomberg’s school-support system, New Visions board members grew so concerned that they met with a top official at City Hall to argue for a continuing role under the new structure.

In the end, they were successful. New Visions has a five-year, $20 million school-support contract with the city that continues through 2018, an education department spokesman said, which involves 70 schools.

The education department also recently signed a $2 million contract with the group to share data tools it created with an additional 130 schools. The tools use Google’s online software to compile student information from several unwieldy databases into easy-to-use spreadsheets, allowing the schools to analyze absences or determine whether students are on track to graduate.

“The chancellor doesn’t seem to fully appreciate the small high schools record,” said Beattie, New Visions’ founder. “But she certainly appreciates the help we do with data analysis.”

Hughes will begin at Gates in June, where he will oversee their K-12 education strategy. He said he will focus particularly on schools’ implementation of the Common Core standards and on efforts to improve teacher effectiveness.

In the meantime, New Visions’ board will form a search committee to find a new president. Beattie said it will be hard to replace Hughes, but that the team and partnerships Hughes cultivated would outlast him.

“New Visions will be in good shape because they do well what anyone in education has to do well: which is, they learn,” said Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg, adding, “I will miss Bob terribly.”

Mirza Sánchez-Medina, the principal of Manhattan Bridges High School, a small school with an above-average graduation rate that serves many recent immigrants, said New Visions had helped her recruit teachers, provide staff training, refine curriculum, and analyze data. She said Hughes often stopped by the school to visit classes and ask her about any challenges — support she believes will continue after he leaves.

“I’m sad to see Bob go,” she said, “but I’m not concerned it’s going to fall apart.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.