Mercury News: Two funds raise money to help Bay Area schools

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October 21, 2012
By Sharon Noguchi

Spurred by the urgency of failing schools, two funds to nurture and spread innovation in education have launched this week, both hoping to harness technology to revolutionize the classroom.

The Silicon Schools Fund has raised half its $25 million goal to create up to 25 technology-heavy schools in the Bay Area within five years. The schools, which could be startups or transformed campuses, would feature "blended learning," combining traditional classrooms with computer-delivered lessons.

And in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, Innovate Public Schools hopes to create new charter schools and cutting-edge district schools. With $950,000 for two years, it also hopes to foster parent choice and strong accountability systems.

"We are trying to channel the urgency that families feel when their kids are stuck in a bad school," said Matt Hammer, who will lead the organization. As executive director of People Acting in Community Together for 13 years, Hammer has successfully prodded San Jose school districts and the county school board to open charter schools and create more options for low-income and immigrant children.

He will take that passion to Innovate, which will be based at the Mountain View offices of the Community Foundation.

In 2010, Hammer said, only 15 African-American male students graduated from San Mateo County public schools with the credits required to enter a California public university. That's 15 students, not 15
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percent. "That all ought to be causing a lot of us to be losing sleep," said Hammer, 44. "Obviously it's a crisis in the lives of all those families, but we need to be collectively working to solve the problem. It's more solvable now than it ever has been."

"Schools right now aren't quite doing what should be done," said Carrie Greco, a PACT parent leader, who sends her two children to Rocketship charter schools in San Jose.

But reforming schools involves more than simply adopting more technology. "We don't think dropping laptops into classrooms will solve the problem," said Brian Greenberg, founder and CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund. Like Innovate, the San Francisco-based fund hopes to incubate promising school models and scale them up. Too often, change comes hard for public education, reformers say.

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