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.”


Aurora’s superintendent will get a contract extension

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

The Aurora school board is offering superintendent Rico Munn a contract extension.

Marques Ivey, the school board president, made the announcement during Tuesday’s regular board meeting.

“The board of education believes we are headed in the right direction,” Ivey said. Munn can keep the district going in the right direction, he added.

The contract extension has not been approved yet. Munn said Tuesday night that it had been sent to his lawyer, but he had not had time to review it.

Munn took the leadership position in Aurora Public Schools in 2013. His current contract is set to expire at the end of June.

Munn indicated he intends to sign the new contract after he has time to review it. If he does so, district leaders expect the contract to be on the agenda of the board’s next meeting, April 3, for a first review, and then for a vote at the following meeting.

Details about the new offer, including the length of the extension or any salary increases, have not been made public.

Four of the seven members currently on the board were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate. Many voiced disapproval of some of the superintendent’s reform strategies such as his invitation to charter school network DSST to open in Aurora.

In their first major vote as a new board, the board also voted against the superintendent’s recommendation for the turnaround of an elementary school, signaling a disagreement with the district’s turnaround strategies.

But while several Aurora schools remain low performing, last year the district earned a high enough rating from the state to avoid a path toward state action.

cooling off

New York City charter leader Eva Moskowitz says Betsy DeVos is not ‘ready for prime time’

PHOTO: Chalkbeat
Success Academy CEO and founder Eva Moskowitz seemed to be cooling her support for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has been a lone voice of support for the controversial U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But even Moskowitz appears to be cooling on the secretary following an embarrassing interview.

“I believe her heart is in the right place,” Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy, said of DeVos at an unrelated press conference. “But as the recent interviews indicate, I don’t believe she’s ready for primetime in terms of answering all of the complex questions that need to be answered on the topic of public education and choice.”

That is an apparent reference to DeVos’s roundly criticized appearance on 60 Minutes, which recently aired a 30-minute segment in which the secretary admits she hasn’t visited struggling schools in her tenure. Even advocates of school choice, DeVos’s signature issue, called her performance an “embarrassment,” and “Saturday Night Live” poked fun at her.  

Moskowitz’s comments are an about-face from when the education secretary was first appointed. While the rest of the New York City charter school community was mostly quiet after DeVos was tapped for the position, Moskowitz was the exception, tweeting that she was “thrilled.” She doubled-down on her support months later in an interview with Chalkbeat.

“I believe that education reform has to be a bipartisan issue,” she said.

During Monday’s press conference, which Success Academy officials called to push the city for more space for its growing network, Moskowitz also denied rumors, fueled by a tweet from AFT President Randi Weingarten, that Success officials had recently met with members of the Trump administration.

Shortly after the election, Moskowitz met with Trump amid speculation she was being considered for the education secretary position. This time around, she said it was “untrue” that any visits had taken place.

“You all know that a while back, I was asked to meet with the president-elect. I thought it was important to take his call,” she said. “I was troubled at the time by the Trump administration. I’m even more troubled now. And so, there has been no such meeting.”