Greg Taylor is nearing his first year anniversary as head of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, better known as the organization that is distributing the $100 million given to Newark by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
NJ Spotlight sat down with Taylor in his Newark office yesterday to talk about the progress so far, his thoughts on the fundraising to date — including a required $100 million match — the community’s role in the foundation’s work, and even current teacher contract talks and where Foundation for Newark’s Future could play a role. And he shared a little from a recent meeting in California with Zuckerberg, a trip he made with Cami Anderson, Newark’s new superintendent.
NJ Spotlight: Where are things with the foundation? The last came last year with the announcement of teacher grants and strategic planning to come.
Greg Taylor: We are really excited by the momentum we have going. The board has approved our partnership with Newark Charter School Fund, and we are excited to build on their leadership, commitment and understanding on the charter and school options side to help us make available as many school options as we can for kids.
NJS: How much money?
Taylor: As the group raises dollars, I fully expect we would invest in a way that supports the plan they are putting forth. It’s a little premature to talk about dollar figures. Significant resources will go to our school option strategy.
NJS: What about community engagement? It has been a criticism that the foundation has not included enough community representation.
Taylor: There are three areas where we are excited on the community engagement. One is leadership development of new voices in this community, young leaders and by that I mean 30-somethings and maybe a little younger. There are leaders in every community in every neighborhood, and we hope to provide both training and leadership for them and also platforms around issues like ed reform and community building.
Secondarily is the community advisory committee, and we are excited to name the board chair, Robert Johnson, the dean of the medical school at UMDNJ, and we are in the process of building out additional members of the advisory board.
Lastly, we know that there are existing groups of community-based organizations that could use a level of resources, leadership development and some real capacity building. So we are hoping to network the organizations across the city who are already going after the issues we care about and also frankly working on other issues important to this community.
We will make grants in all of those areas to the right partners. For 2012, we will put a little less than $1 million, about $900,000 as investment across all three.
NJS: What has taken so long with the advisory board?
Taylor: It has taken longer, but in fairness, partly because we wanted to do it right and in part we had worked through what the advisory board would be. We want it to be an authentic entity. It has taken longer but not for the lack of work and taking the time to uncovering the emerging leaders in this community who have a tremendous voice.
NJS: What else are you planning?
Taylor: Newark is ripe for investment in early childhood, so we are excited to invest in a quality rating and improvement system for providers. It will help to provide what are the particular markers of quality, the ratio of teachers to students, the size of classrooms, the materials. As the individual organizations achieve those markers, they get compensation from the state to grow those. We will do some of the money and also leverage what the state will invest. That’s about $1.5 million.
NJS: Give me bottom line on what has been spent and raised so far, including toward the $100 million match required in the Facebook gift?
Taylor: We have spent a little over $15 million to date, and we have raised a little over $50 million. In this time, raising $50 million is no small feat. We should pause and absolutely celebrate that. I know in light of the urgency and the challenge before us, we certainly want to leverage the full $100 million. We want as many resources available to help meet the needs in a community as rich as Newark, but I want to be very clear, we are very excited that we are more than halfway to meeting our goal in the short timeframe we have been working on this.
NJS: After early success, has it been slower progress than expected in fundraising?
Taylor: In the spirit of fundraising, part of what happened was the fanfare initially and folks met that challenge, and we have consistently raised the dollars going forward. Now what happens is the dollars to be raised will be on strategy and leadership and results, and that’s a fair place to be. But rest assured, $50 million is an extraordinary accomplishment.
NJS: On the grants, what have you done lately?
Taylor: We have invested in Education Pioneers, which is a pipeline for education professionals to work in the education space and community building space to really help do some projects, planning and other efforts. They could be specific projects the superintendent has been working on, assigning them to different departments or community based organizations. It is a recruiting tool to help expose people to educational organizations in Newark, and an on-ramp for organizations that have a need to place folks. We view it as a human capital organization, 15 or 20 people.
The second round of teacher grants will be in June and July, so the teachers will be ready to go in the fall. We have earmarked $600,000 total. We did $200,000 in the last investment, and we’ll probably hover around that amount this time. From our standpoint, the purpose of the fund is not only get dollars in the hands of outstanding teachers, but also to network those teams of teachers. We want to keep that learning community together, we want to provide technical assistance, we want to make sure we are networking them and help them gel. That is the excitement of what the Innovation Fund was meant to do.
NJS: Some might say you are taking your time spending your money? What else is planned?
Taylor: What we are excited about is any steps that are taken that insure every student and every classroom has a high quality teacher. We know that is legislative, political and community based, but from our standpoint what is exciting is to insure the superintendent has access to a level of resources that will help her to insure there is a high performing teacher in every classroom in Newark. We don’t know what that dollar amount is going to be, but we are excited to help play a role to help insure every child has a high quality teacher. From our standpoint, we don’t know what the particular strategies are going to be, whether it’s merit pay or (dealing with) the excess pool of teachers. But we know that it will require an aggressive strategy by the superintendent to put in place what we hope will sustain the changes and insure every classroom has a talented teacher.
NJS: Do you support Anderson’s reorganization plan, which includes the closing of schools and consolidations of others?
Taylor: First and foremost, we support the superintendent’s leadership and the plan she has put in place for transforming education in the city. We know that requires tough decisions, and really have been glad to be part of the follow up meetings that resulted in increased understanding on why the decisions have been made. The community reaction is understandable in any community where a superintendent has proposed closings, its an emotional moment, it’s a tough decision. But by the same token, you have to recognize the footprint in Newark is shrinking, and the notion that the superintendent is leading an effort requires some thoughtful decisions.
NJS: Have you spoken with Zuckerberg about the progress so far?
Taylor: I have had a chance to talk with Mark, and I think he is pleased with the progress to date. He knows this is difficult work, and I think he is deeply respectful of the challenges that urban education faces nationally. He has not played any strategic role, nor is he interested in that. He recognizes he is not an education expert. He really has not. There is no question we want to keep him informed about the work, but he plays no role on strategy development.
NJS: When did you speak last?
Taylor: We met about a week ago in California, with Cami [Anderson] in that meeting. It was an hour and a half, a real chance for the superintendent to share her vision for change in this community and our chance to update him on progress to date.
NJS: Any lessons from all this so far?
Taylor: There are definite lessons, first and foremost understanding and clarifying the execution steps. You’ve heard me say before that our rhetoric got ahead of our execution, and I think that it’s fair to say there is a lesson there. It takes time to build the relationship, and while I respect the urgency, we also want to really make sure we are working in partnership with folks in the community. This is not a race, but about being diligent and thoughtful in the work.
Editor’s note: Additional excerpts have been added since the original publication of this interview.