Newark schools mark Facebook donation anniversary

By SAMANTHA HENRY/Associated Press
Sept. 21, 2011 at 4:21 a.m.

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Newark teachers will have access to $600,000 in grant money meant to encourage innovative teaching methods that can be replicated district-wide, education officials announced Wednesday.

Money for the creation of the Newark Teachers Innovation Fund comes from a $100 million donation by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, given to Newark schools exactly one year ago. An additional $47 million in philanthropic donations have been raised so far toward matching Zuckerberg's grant.

Newark school officials, Mayor Cory Booker and members of the Foundation for Newark's Future - which was set up to administer the Zuckerberg donation and raise more money - said more than $7 million of the philanthropic funds had gone to school-related programs since Zuckerberg announced the gift last September on "Oprah."

Newark's school district, which has nearly 40,000 students and is under state control, has been looking at ways of blending private philanthropy and public dollars to create new educational models that can start to reverse a trend where nearly half the students don't graduate.

"I think we have a rare moment in time where there's a thoughtful alignment between the state, district and city with regards to resources and focus toward that ultimate goal of every child in this community being college and career-ready by the time they finish high school," said Greg Taylor, CEO of the Foundation for Newark's Future.

The $7 million administered by the foundation so far has gone to programs including the establishment of a parent call center, renovating school playgrounds, extending the learning time at 15 local schools, and supporting three district high schools and two charter schools, according to Taylor.

The foundation hopes to have $200 million or more in philanthropic money to allocate over the course of five years. Its focus is on innovative teaching methods, early childhood education, re-engaging out-of-school youth and community involvement, according to Taylor. He said the total in donated funds only equals about one-quarter of the Newark public schools operating budget.

Responding to criticism of the foundation's perceived lack of transparency by some Newark parents, Taylor said the entity's annual report, audit and list of grants will be available on its website. He added that involving the parents and community stakeholders in the grant-making process, and the establishment of a community advisory board, were priorities of the foundation.

Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso said he welcomed the teacher-focused grant.

"This is the first time we really heard about the initiatives that would be tied to the Zuckerberg money," Del Grosso said. "I'm pleased that the practitioners - the teachers - will be the initiators of the innovation, because I believe that's where change can really come from and I think teachers will be excited about the prospect of some of their initiatives being funded and maybe expanded."

The teacher grants will be awarded in $10,000 increments for proposals that allow teachers the time and space to innovate, train, share and replicate best practices across the district, according to Taylor.

Mayor Booker said teachers were in the best position to know what their schools need.

"This is turning to the people in our city that are the most important, beyond parents, when it comes to educating our children, and that's teachers," Booker said. "It's providing an innovation fund that will help stimulate and pull from our teachers the best ideas to empowering our kids; because that's the truth of Newark: there is greatness already within our community."

Zuckerberg hasn't been involved with the minutiae of his matching grant, but appointed representative Jennifer Holleran, who is on the board of the Foundation for Newark's Future, to monitor the investment. Holleran said Wednesday that Zuckerberg was pleased with the teacher grant and felt the focus was in the right place.


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