PHILADELPHIA -- Seven school districts committed to working with charter schools to improve student achievement will split about $25 million in grants from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, officials announced Wednesday.
The funding is designed to deepen the collaborations among educators in Philadelphia; Boston; Denver; New Orleans; New York; Hartford, Conn.; and Spring Branch, Texas.
"These cities are particularly committed to advancing college-ready strategies in both district and charter schools," said Vicki Phillips, education director for the foundation's College Ready program in the U.S. "What we're most excited about is the common ground that's getting established."
Charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of school districts, have been a lightning rod in the debate over education reform. Supporters say they provide innovative and sometimes safer alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools. Opponents contend they drain resources from school districts without providing a better education.
The seven grant recipients are among 16 communities that entered into compacts designed to reduce tension between districts and charters. By signing the agreements, which entail sharing resources and best practices, districts received $100,000 and qualified for further funding.
Over the next few years, Hartford will get nearly $5 million and Denver about $4 million. The other districts will receive between $2.2 million and $3.7 million each.
Funds will go toward projects including universal enrollment systems, leadership training for aspiring principals and joint professional development for charter and district teachers.
Chris Gibbons, the CEO of Strive Prep Charter Network in Denver, said the compacts are formal recognitions "that resources of the public sector are available to all students ... (and that) the responsibility to educate all students well is the shared responsibility of an entire city."
In Philadelphia, the compact includes collaboration with private and Catholic schools. Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer, said Philadelphia needs all types of high-achieving schools to reduce poverty, enhance public safety and attract economic development.
She also acknowledged that managing charter growth has been a contentious issue in the financially struggling district, where about 30 percent of the 207,000 students attend charters.
Shorr said some tension stems from "early animosities" about charters that have hardened and led to misunderstandings and misperceptions. The important thing, she said, is to "put adult foolishness aside" and focus on what's best for students.
Spring Branch, a district that includes part of Houston and its suburbs, is slated to receive nearly $2.2 million. Superintendent Duncan Klussmann said a new partnership with two charter school operators is designed to spur innovation and a cultural change in the district, which is striving to double the number of students who obtain a degree or certificate in higher education.
"To do that, we have to have strong partnerships and collaboration," Klussmann said.