Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver is doing things a little differently.

DSST via YouTube

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Look What Happens When Venture Capitalists Get Behind School Reform

They change education — from the outside.

Chris Torres credits his high school with setting him on the path to his current job at Google. He’s a graduate of the Denver School of Science and Technology, or DSST, an open-enrollment science-and-math public school on two campuses in Denver. Founded by a former principal, DSST aims to bring quantitative education to more minority and underserved students, who typically don’t go on to careers in these fields.

Torres, 24, graduated in 2008, went on to Stanford University — the first in his family to go to college — and is now a partner operations manager at Google. He cites DSST’s teachers and staff for their help pointing him toward a career in technology, including teaching him to think creatively and guiding him toward a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“The rigorous curriculum, while difficult at the time, had me as prepared as I could’ve been to take on a full engineering course load at university,” says Torres, who now lives in San Francisco.

DSST via Facebook

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If Torres owes some of his success to DSST, the school owes something to NewSchools Venture Fund. When DSST was expanding, it turned to NewSchools, a venture-philanthropy organization based in Oakland, Calif., that funds businesses and nonprofits working with public schools. DSST founder Jacqueline Sullivan met Deborah McGriff, a managing director at NewSchools, when they served on a National Science Foundation committee together.

“We supported their scale-up because of their outstanding early results, particularly related to college readiness and success in STEM,” says Gloria Lee, NewSchools’ president and chief operating officer. The venture fund invested $1.345 million in DSST beginning in 2009. So far, NewSchools says, DSST’s Stapleton campus has a 100 percent college admissions rate for its graduates, with one in three choosing to major in math or science.

Over the last 15 years, NewSchools has invested some $250 million in 150 technology companies, schools and other entities. Founded in 1998 by education entrepreneur Kim Smith and venture capitalists John Doerr and Brook Byers of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, it has a seed fund designed for education startups.

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NewSchools finances charter school networks like KIPP, Match and Uncommon Schools. More recently the group has launched city-based funds to hone in on charter schools, community nonprofits and education-focused businesses in Washington, D.C.; Newark, N.J.; Boston; and Oakland, Calif.

NewSchools also has a Learning to Teach program that helps connect principals and teachers with the latest thinking and research on teacher training, centered around a conference the group runs biannually. Learning to Teach is helping set up teacher-training programs along new lines, mainly outside of graduate schools of education. Their new certification programs use different models, like mirroring medical residencies or using technology to give trainee teachers feedback on their techniques.

“We believe that entrepreneurs can move faster and more dramatically in ways that existing systems can’t,” Lee says.

Although she took her current position three years ago, Lee was involved with NewSchools from its inception. She was a second-year business school student at Stanford when Doerr came to campus to discuss his idea of starting a fund to help entrepreneurs transform education for underserved students. “Kim Smith went up to him after the talk and said, ‘I’ll write the business plan with you,’” Lee recalls. “She reached out to me, and I helped, as an independent-study project.” After graduation, while Smith stayed to start NewSchools, Lee went to work for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company as a management consultant, then left to help start Aspire Public Schools — which became NewSchools’ first charter-school investment.

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Executives connected to NewSchools can be found throughout the education world. Joanne Weiss, formerly the group’s chief operating officer, left in 2009 to run the Race to the Top Fund, the federal Department of Education’s $4.35 billion interstate school-reform competition. She is now chief of staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. In October, the White House announced that President Obama will nominate Ted Mitchell, the CEO of NewSchools, to be Under Secretary of Education.

DSST via Facebook

As with all institutions, public schools, which came into being more than a century ago, don’t always function the way they should. But critics, including charter-school detractors, say that NewSchools, and other funding organizations like it, have no business trying to change public schools from the outside, without regard to the parents, teachers or voters most closely allied to the schools. NewSchools counters that its programs aim to fill the gap between what exists and what education reformers think ought to exist in schools.

“NewSchools invests in things that if you were starting now and you were trying to attack X or Y problem, you would do it differently,” says Jal D. Mehta, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who studies how to create high-quality schools.

The NewSchools model depends on connecting their portfolio companies to one another. Companies belonging to the NewSchools seed fund get a network of advisers who consult with the startups on business issues like health-care plans, modeled after “keiretsu,” the cooperation among Japanese companies with interrelated owners. Jennifer Carolan, a former teacher who is managing director of the seed fund, checks in with her investments frequently, sending around research papers to the CEOs and connecting them to services and advice if they need it. It’s the same system John Doerr used at Kleiner Perkins, adapted to the education market.

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“Jen has brought some of the best practices of teaching into the entrepreneurial community,” says Betsy Corcoran, CEO of EdSurge, an education-technology firm that aims to help teachers connect with companies developing products for schools. In the summer of 2012, NewSchools invested $100,000 into EdSurge, based in Burlingame, Calif., as part of a $400,000 pre-seed funding round that also included the Washington Post Co. and several Silicon Valley angel investors.

For Corcoran, a longtime tech journalist who co-founded EdSurge in 2010, NewSchools’ investment gave her fledgling company an imprimatur of legitimacy, she says.

“It brings a web of connections, a sense that they really have done diligence on the companies and they believe there’s a mission as well as an emerging business model,” Corcoran says. “That level of credibility is at least as important as the actual money they’re giving you.”

With that seed money, EdSurge has continued to build its community of teachers and entrepreneurs. The website now has an index of some 700 education-technology products, with reviews. The company’s first summit in November 2013 in Mountain View, Calif., featured 600 teachers examining education-technology offerings from 30 companies and filling out 1,500 feedback forms, which will appear on the site.

Speaking at the event, Jennifer Carolan told the assembled teachers, “You have an enormous impact on our children, and it is my sincere hope that we can make your job just a tiny bit easier with some of the tools that you’ll see here today.”

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Chana R. Schoenberger is a business journalist in New York City.

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