Why did your organization start? What is your mission/vision?

I founded Innovate Public Schools in late 2012 because I saw the need for a new kind of organization that could be a catalyst for urgent school reform in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Many people assume that this region – with its strong economy, high-paying jobs, and renowned universities – should have good, if not great, public schools. This is certainly true in the wealthiest parts of the region, which boast some of the top test scores in the state. But across the Bay Area, the vast majority of Latino, African-American, and low-income students are being left behind, unready for college and unable to compete in the new economy. In this region, just 23 percent of Latino students and just 16 percent of African American students graduated high school in four years with the credits to enter a state university in 2013.

There are some high-quality schools in the region serving low-income students that are proving what’s possible. But there simply aren’t enough of them. Our mission is to build the parent and community demand for world-class public schools, and accelerate the growth of these schools, particularly for low-income students and students of color.

How is your organization working across the four strategic levers?

Our strategy aligns closely to these three of the levers:

High-quality schools

We support the creation of new, world-class public schools by working with school leaders from both charter schools and school districts to launch new schools and turn around low-performing schools via our Start-up Schools Fellowship.

Supportive policy

We publish easy-to-understand school quality data and research that highlights both urgent problems and solutions – effective policies and practices that support the growth of high-performing schools. All our reports are parent-friendly and bilingual, designed to move parents and elected officials to action and show a path forward.

Community engagement

We organize parents in high-needs communities, providing intensive training and support so they can effectively advocate for great schools.

We’ve seen first-hand the synergy of these areas in our work in Redwood City. In 2013, Innovate released our first research report, “Broken Promises: The Children Left Behind in Silicon Valley Public Schools,” which found that Redwood City has several of the lowest-performing schools for Latinos in the entire region. Two years ago, we started organizing with low-income parents and this report emboldened them, because it showed in data what they had been experiencing first-hand – that far too many kids weren’t reading well by third grade and weren’t graduating eligible for college. It also highlighted schools in the region that were posting dramatically better academic results for children just like theirs. They pushed to bring new school options to the community, engaging more than 900 parents over the course of the campaign, meeting with dozens of elected officials and hosting two community action forums of 300+ parents. Thanks to their efforts, this fall, KIPP and Rocketship will be opening two new charter schools. At the same time, the district has focused efforts on turning around one of its persistently low-performing schools and that school’s leader has been participating in our Start-up Schools Fellowship to roll out major changes at the site this year.

What are the biggest challenges in your work in Silicon Valley?

One of the key challenges is simply the sheer number of school districts and elected leaders. Across the entire five counties of the Bay Area, there are a total of nearly 100 school districts, serving some 825,000 students, which are represented by more than 500 school board members. This creates several powerful forces that bolster the status quo and makes education simultaneously everyone’s problem and no one’s problem. For instance, the Mayor of San Jose has 19 different school districts in the city – some effective, some not. Consequently, failing public schools isn’t an obvious, unifying issue for top elected officials, as is the case in many other big metropolitan areas with just one or few districts, like Los Angeles, Denver or New York.

You end up with little islands of excellence – good ideas spread slowly, if at all. Each district functions autonomously so it is rare that effective practices and programs spread quickly to other districts. There are also few spaces for cross-sector collaboration between districts and charter schools or between individual school sites. Our Start-up Schools Fellowship has become a rare space for that kind of collaboration – and many participants said this was one of the aspects they found most powerful.

Where are you poised to have the greatest impact over the next year?

Currently, low-income parents aren’t organized to effectively pressure the system. Many frustrated middle or upper class parents simply move to a nearby district or buy a private education for their children. However, a large number of low-income parents don’t have the option of moving, due to the high cost of housing. Many can’t afford private schools, face long wait lists at nearby charter or magnet schools, or find a spot at a school far away but can’t manage the transportation due to parents’ work schedules.

With parents facing these challenges and feeling isolated, Innovate’s experienced staff of community organizers know how to break through and spark hope in parents who are desperate for better schools for their children. We are creating local parent organizations in various high-need communities of Silicon Valley, and then network parent leaders together through the Innovate Parent Action Network. This June, we are holding our first national Parent Leader Institute to train about 80 parents from the Bay Area and elsewhere in the key orientations and skills of grassroots leadership and community organizing to create world-class public schools.

We’re also poised to expand the reach of our research and policy work to many more parents across the Bay Area through a new partnership with GreatSchools, whose website with school data and resources reaches over half of Bay Area families. We’ve teamed up to develop a powerful, new, fully bilingual online platform that we hope will be a model for how to use parent-friendly school data and advocacy tools to drive school reform. The project will connect parent leaders and education advocates doing work on the ground with the new tools available online and help them leverage these tools effectively. We will also engage visitors to the GreatSchools website to move from looking at local school data online to taking action to advocate for new and better options in high-need neighborhoods. We plan to go live in early 2016.

This year will be the third cohort of our Start-up Schools Fellowship, with Fellows having launched nine new schools as of this fall and three district school turnarounds. I’m tremendously excited to see the impact these schools will have in the years to come.

What do you hope to learn from the Education Cities network?

It’s always very helpful to talk to people who are further down the road, whether by a few months or a few years to hear about the challenges they encountered and how they took those on. We engage the community both at the grassroots and the “grasstops” level and are very interested to learn about efforts in other areas to organize people at both those levels to create more excellent public schools.