In his latest effort to bolster his education track record in his last two years in office, Mayor Bill de Blasio has teamed up with Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, and the Robin Hood foundation, to create 20 new schools and restructure 20 existing public schools. 

Teams of students, educators, and community members will compete for the roughly $16 million in private funding, matched by $16 million in public funding, to launch their new or reconfigured schools under the “Imagine Schools NYC” program, the administration announced Thursday. The initiative was first reported by the New York Times. Half of these winners will be high schools without selective admissions; the others will be a mix of elementary and middle schools. 

Applications are due Nov. 6, though some design teams have already begun forming across the city, according to the de Blasio administration. Selected teams will advance to additional rounds this winter and spring, with the first round of the new and reconfigured schools — branded as “Imagine” and “Reimagine” schools — announced in May 2020. The schools are expected to open or re-launch in the fall of 2021 or the following September.

[Related: 3 things to know about XQ, the Laurene Powell Jobs-backed group set to help create new schools in NYC]

De Blasio had not previously made the creation of new schools a centerpiece of his agenda. Instead, he had been focused on a major pre-K initiative for 3- and 4-year-olds and on finding ways to bolster low-performing schools through a $773 million program that largely failed to rapidly improve long-struggling schools.

The city scrapped that turnaround program, and school improvement efforts under Chancellor Richard Carranza have yet to take a clear shape. More recently, attention has been focused on how the city can improve diversity in one of the most segregated school systems in the nation.

Michael Mulgrew, head of the city’s teachers union, said department officials approached him last spring about the contest, partly as a way of addressing overcrowded schools in certain districts. He was sold on the notion that communities would play an active role in designing new schools.

“It’s about what does the community want from its school. It’s not about saying, ‘We’re pushing an agenda,’” Mulgrew added. He said the 20 reconfigured schools would be “laboratories of innovation” that others could copy. It is not intended to be a program to turn around struggling schools, he added.

The new plan will rely heavily on its private partners to lead the effort. It remains unclear where these new schools would be housed given the constraints of the city’s real estate market and whether existing schools would be closed to make way for these new or restructured schools. Officials said they would create at least one new school in each borough.

“Some of this is re-engineering existing schools; some of it is starting new schools,,” de Blasio said at an unrelated press conference on Thursday. “It can sometimes come with a closure, but it doesn’t have to.”

The announcement is among the highest-profile education initiatives de Blasio has advanced in recent years. Though he often says that education is his top priority, he has not put forward many new education policy initiatives, preferring to slowly expand ones he promised in his first term.

Powell Jobs’ XQ Institute is committing $10 million to support up to 10 high school plans. The organization has given millions to launch contests across the nation to create new models for public schools. It spent $127 million between 2015 and 2017 and committed to spend millions more since then to help teams that its competitions for innovative designs for charters and district schools.

Despite the organization’s splashy efforts and rhetoric to create novel kinds of schools, XQ has faced some serious practical issues: unfriendly school boards and questions about low test scores. In fact, three of the initiative’s 19 schools have not opened or expanded as planned. Another one closed this year. (XQ Institute is supported by Emerson Collective, which is a funder of Chalkbeat through the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.)

Robin Hood, an anti-poverty foundation, is spending $5 million to help create 10 of the 20 new schools that will be created from scratch and will be “dedicated to serving historically under-resourced students,” according to the announcement. It will spend an additional $1 million to expand the education department’s professional development for district and charter schools.

Education philanthropists have helped shape city schools stretching back decades, and their influence grew under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who courted big donors to advance his education agenda. The Gates Foundation spent at least $135 million to break up large comprehensive schools to create many new small ones. Private groups have also helped fuel the expansion of the city’s charter sector, which now serves over 10% of the city’s students, though state lawmakers recently capped their growth. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of Chalkbeat.)

The de Blasio administration has also relied on outside funding for some of its core initiatives, including his Computer Science for All initiative, though the role of education philanthropy has diminished during his tenure.

This new initiative is seeking community-driven designs for innovative, inclusive and rigorous schools. Some ideas that might be considered include schools that emphasize real world learning through internships and community projects or schools that have a focus on the arts, civic engagement or technology. 

“This is about creating new schools with an eye towards the 22nd century,” Carranza told Chalkbeat.

Additional reporting by Matt Barnum.