Battling the city's traditional suspicion of outsiders, president and CEO Gregory Taylor aims to engage the community and award larger gifts from the $100 million pledge made last year by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg to help transform Newark's underperforming school district, the reports.
Although the foundation's efforts to distribute the Zuckerberg gift to Newark public schools have been criticized for a perceived lack of transparency, Taylor — who spent the last eight years working at the — is starting to win over some of its detractors. Since joining the foundation in June, he has hired five new staff members (a number expected to grow to twelve), has developed a strategic plan, and drafted a $1.5 million operating budget for the organization.
Taylor's plan emphasizes five broad focus areas, including early childhood education, teaching quality/principal leadership, school options, community engagement, and out-of-school youth. Prior to his arrival, the foundation had awarded about twenty grants totaling some $7 million, but Taylor plans to shift its approach to funding bigger, more transformative programs. "Let's get after this and make big plays and make transformation as opposed to the drip, drip, drip that sometimes characterizes education reform," Taylor told the Times. "I mean multimillion-dollar plays. Tens of millions of dollars. The way in which it gets invested and to whom, we're figuring out. One of the problems with education reform in general is how long it takes. The urgency we have matches the urgency people have for their kids."
Some question, however, whether money alone is enough to fix a dysfunctional education system in a city that already spends $22,000 per pupil on education, more than twice the national average. With 35 percent of Newark's children living below the poverty line, 18 percent living in families where neither parent has a job, 71 percent on Medicaid or the state equivalent, and 62 percent receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school, the city's 40,000-student school district faces significant challenges. Still, many residents are cautiously optimistic and willing to give Taylor and the foundation a chance to prove themselves.
"I had some concerns in the spring around making sure that we engage our parents and our community in intelligent ways," said Shavar D. Jeffries, a school board member and lawyer at the at Seton Hall University. "From what he said I think his goals are the right ones. Obviously the proof is in the pudding, so we shall see in the months ahead if the process and investments reflect those priorities."