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Episode 44 December 20, 2016 | 39min

Helping NYC Public Schools

Our co-founders talk to Colin Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Change for Kids.

Show Notes

Creating change for New York City kids: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade split the episode in two, with dual conversations about children and learning. First they talk about their own kids’ relationships with technology and feelings about teaching them to code. Then they sit down with Colin Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Change for Kids, which works with motivated principals to help give students at New York’s poorest public schools access to pathways for success.

Paul Ford: Richard Ziade.

Rich Ziade: Paul Ford.

Paul: Well, we’re back here again at the studio in our office at Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City.

Rich: Yup. We are rolling.

Paul: And we’re busy, we’re working, we’re doing stuff, and we’re here recording another episode of Track Changes, our official podcast.

Rich: Yes, baby.

Paul: Trackchanges.postlight.com. Now listen, we’ve got a two-part show.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Paul: Two!

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Usually we just do one, but we’re breaking it up. We’re gonna try to change it up a little bit going into 2017. It’s gonna be a pretty exciting, challenging year, so, one of the things we’re gonna do is change the podcast up a little bit, adapt to the times.

Rich: Sure.

Paul: Get with it. So, let me ask you a question. It’s Christmas in about five days.

Rich: OK.

Paul: What’d you get your kids?

Rich: Very little. They have too much stuff.

Paul: Yeah, mine too.

Rich: I would love for them to have less stuff. I can’t control what family, like, relatives, are gonna bring.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: You can’t tell them no gifts for Christmas.

Paul: I know your brother got your four-year-old son an electric guitar for his birthday.

Rich: Which is bananas, right? He’s four years old.

Paul: How did your wife not kill him? That’s just such a —

Rich: It’s just been hidden.

Paul: Yeah, he doesn’t —

Rich: It’s the size of my kid. It’s too big for him and it’s loud.

Paul: He never needs to know he owns an electric guitar.

Rich: I mean in years from now he can —

Paul: He’ll come back and listen to this podcast.

Rich: But, yeah, stuff like that. So something really gestural, real small, no piles of toys and stuff. They just have too much stuff.

Paul: Couple books, a few things…

Rich: Couple of books, a couple little things and call it a day.

Paul: Stuff to open under the tree.

Rich: And the Santa thing is the real deal right now. Like, they’re all bought in to it and so, there is gonna be a cookie and there’ll be milk.

Paul: We do carrots for reindeer to eat.

Rich: Interesting.

Paul: There’s a lot of stress because we live in an apartment building, so they wonder how Santa gets there.

Rich: Into the building?

Paul: Yeah, because he’s landing on the roof and they been up there for July 4th to see the fireworks. They’re like, does he take the elevator or the stairs?

Rich: Right.

Paul: So we do a thing where we make sure that the door to the roof is unlocked, which it has to be kind of by law anyway.

Rich: OK.

Paul: So, we go up there, usually my wife will take them up. I have five-year-old twins and they’ll check that Santa can safely land on the roof, get down to the fourth floor, feed his reindeer a carrot.

Rich: There you go.

Paul: They’re not processing that the reindeer would have to come down.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And…

Rich: You could talk around this. They’ll get there.

Paul: I thought about this and I decided not to do it. I almost bought my kids, you know what a Raspberry Pi is, right?

Rich: I do.

Paul: OK. So, it’s a little computer.

Rich: Yeah, very little.

Paul: It’s a little, very cheap and you can, for like, $150 or $200 bucks, get it fully kitted-out, comes with a screen, a keyboard, a little mouse, everything you need to be a Raspberry Pi explorer.

Rich: Right.

Paul: And educational software built in and all sorts of stuff, because they wanna, they like to type, they love speech synthesis, but they haven’t had a lot of screen time.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: And I’ve been thinking about it but I just am not ready for them to go full-on on the computer. My son needs to run, my daughter needs to be good at handwriting. For their, they both need to know how to write and read and they’re getting there.

Rich: Physical activity and, and…

Paul: Especially for my boy. He has to keep moving.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And the screen can stop you from moving, I know that.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: It’s been tricky because I want to give them access to that world but I think five is probably too young.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: What do you think?

Rich: Um…they can have pockets of time where there’s like a session, it’s like here, you get 45 minutes to play with something where they’re sitting down at a table and focusing for a minute and they don’t have to run around.

Paul: See the problem is that they’re exhausting though, right? So you’ll be there and they’ll be like, Daddy, can I have another half hour? And you’re sitting on the sofa checking your phone.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: And then I’ll be like yeah, you know, they’re learning, it’s fine, go ahead guys.

Rich: Yeah, you don’t want them to veg out on the thing. You want them to still run around. I mean, there’s so many toys now that are like trying to teach kids to program when they’re four years old. It’s a little infuriating actually. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I can’t tell. There’s a lot of, like, board games that supposedly teach you how to program and —

Paul: I mean the reality is I don’t think there’s any particular science here, right? Like it’s not like…like there’s science that you could learn a foreign language as a very small kid and that will stick with you longer.

Rich: Right.

Paul: There’s evidence along those lines. But there’s no evidence that a four-year-old will make a better programmer later if they learn to program right now.

Rich: I don’t think there is that evidence.

Paul: There are kids who start really early and they’re —

Rich: And it’s become, you know, my little boy’s gonna be going into kindergarten and they mention that they start to teach them, like, basic concepts of programming from kindergarten. They have like these little —

Paul: Yeah, no, they do. They do.

Rich: Which is fascinating to me. I’m curious to see what that even is or what that that means.

Paul: Did you learn anything about programming and computers when you were in school?

Rich: Elementary?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: No. I was too young.

Paul: I did in fourth grade. It was a teacher made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and we had to give him instructions.

Rich: What does that mean?

Paul: So it would be like, you guys in the class tell me how to make this peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And he had peanut butter and he had jelly and he had bread. And we were like put the bread down.

Rich: How is that computers?

Paul: And he put it down on the ground.

Rich: OK.

Paul: And then we’d say put the bread on the table.

Rich: OK.

Paul: And he’d put it on the table but he’d lean it the wrong way. And so it was basically about edge cases and how you can introduce bugs into a system unintentionally.

Rich: That’s what you were being taught?

Paul: That and we had a, I think we played one interactive fiction game.

Rich: OK. I had like choose your own adventure books.

Paul: Yeah, we had some of those.

Rich: Which is sort of like, you know, go left and you go to this page and go right and you go to this page. They were awful, they were terrible.

Paul: See I have a profound memory of the peanut butter and jelly. Like, I want to do that here at work.

Rich: But that’s not computers. How is that computers?

Paul: It teaches you about, like, how specific you have to be in order to program a computer.

Rich: I see.

Paul: It was something a teacher could do without, like, a Logo robot or a computer. They could just be like hey, here is what computers are, they work like this.

Rich: Interesting. Yeah, I was not getting that kind of education.

Paul: You didn’t have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich robot?

Rich: I didn’t have any sort of, like, thinking around programming or anything like that in elementary school. I got to high school and there were a bunch of Apple IIes and we used to hack them right in the class because the teacher didn’t understand what she was doing. She was trained up to give a very particular curriculum and we would do the work in like a minute.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: For the whole hour, and then the rest of the time we’d be screwing around.

Paul: I had that in high school. My friend Matt hacked into all the labs and would change the names of the hard drives to be offensive things about the teachers.

Rich: So I don’t know what, what is computer lab today for a 7-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old? I have no idea.

Paul: What do you want them to learn?

Rich: That’s a good question. I don’t know. You know, I…I don’t know if I want them to think about programming when they’re seven years old. I don’t know, I’m not sure.

Paul: I don’t know if I do either.

Rich: I don’t know yet.

Paul: What I want is for them to have power over their environment. Like, I want them to look at the Toy Story movie and know that that was made by people using a computer to make all those shapes.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: I want them to understand that Amazon is a place and when you order something from Amazon, I wouldn’t mind explaining to them, like by the time they’re 10, I would love them to be able to explain how an order happens on Amazon.

Rich: Right.

Paul: Just the basics of the material world around them that get affected by the digital stuff.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: But I think there’s a real fantasy that somehow programming is a magical clue to power.

Rich: And I think there’s an assumption, look, you better get your kid ready because most jobs are gonna require some level of…

Paul: Teach them Mandarin and JavaScript.

Rich: Yeah. There’s that, right?

Paul: Those are the two.

Rich: There’s a lot of that right, today, too and it’s incredibly competitive and we’re dealing with schools right now and it’s just awful. I mean, it’s not awful, it’s just the idea of getting your kid ready for a job or positioning them for a job at six years old is kind of comical to me. I’d rather let them just sort of figure out and play a little bit and see what the world is about, you know. That’s my thinking but what do I know?

Paul: People do it. This means that your son will end up a poet or a —

Rich: Make no money ever.

Paul: Yeah, I mean there’s a —

Rich: That’s fine.

Paul: Likelihood of that. No, but I’m in the same boat. I just, kind of want them to do it just because it will give us something to talk about if they were into it.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: That’d be fun. Like to have some, some, in a couple years, to have these eight-year-old Python programmers. That’d be cool, but, I think in reality I’m gonna just see what the aptitude is and if it’s there, I’ll get them a little machine, but I’m not gonna push it on them. They’re five.

Rich: Yeah, exactly.

Paul: Also, they’ll just fight over it nonstop. I’d have to buy two computers, so there’s a part of me that just doesn’t want to deal with all that nonsense.

Rich: Right, right.

Paul: So look, here’s the thing, that’s us trying to help our kids.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: We have a friend who tries to help lots of children.

Rich: Thousands.

Paul: He’s currently helping thousands of children.

Rich: Yup. His name is Colin Smith and that’s as WASPy as you’re gonna get [laughter] when it comes to names.

Paul: I’m trying to think what, I mean…

Colin Smith: John.

Paul: Yeah, but it’s…Brad.

Rich: And he is the president of a nonprofit that is based here in New York City called Change for Kids and that’s changeforkids.org.

Colin: That’s right.

Rich: Welcome Colin, thank you for doing this.

Colin: No, thank you guys for having me.

Paul: Well, this entire recording session is tax deductible now, it’s pretty exciting. [laughter]

Rich: I want to talk a lot about Change for Kids, because Change for Kids is a really, really cool organization, but I do want to talk about Colin Smith.

Paul: Well, let’s tell people what Change for Kids does.

Rich: I’m gonna let Colin do that and I’m gonna, Colin, you’ve got a nice 60-second summary window to jump through. Go.

Colin: So what we believe is that if kids go to a great elementary school then they’re gonna be able to be successful in life. That sets them on the right path. That means that they end up much more likely to end up in college, get into a great career. That path starts early and the schools that we work with are all very high-need public elementary schools. What we’re doing with those schools and what we see in them is that often a lot of really basic things that we had when we were growing up are missing. So, they often won’t have art classes, or music, fitness, tutoring, extra tutoring for kids.

What Change for Kids does is first, partner with a very strong principal and second, once we have identified that principal, work with them and their team to identify the resources that are gonna make the biggest possible difference for their school. So we have an on-the-ground point person working there every single day to identify OK, this school needs a great art program for the third grade, and they’re missing gym in the second grade, we can bring in a great fitness partner for that. Their computer lab is using floppy disk drives and bubble Macs from 10 years ago. We can bring in some extra computers. It’s very targeted investments with very strong leaders and you can imagine that that makes a big difference for those schools.

Paul: And how many schools is this?

Colin: It’s at 10 right now. They’re all public elementary schools and that’s about 4,000 students every year.

Paul: And is it only New York City, is it…?

Colin: All New York City based, exactly.

Rich: How many more schools do you think could benefit from this thing?

Colin: Yeah, that’s a great question. 462 is the exact answer, not to be precise, but, we’ve identified 472 concentrated poverty elementary schools just here.

Rich: 472? Out of…?

Colin: 604.

Rich: Oh my goodness.

Paul: So, you’re about 2% of the way there. [laughter]

Rich: Oh my good — but, wait a minute, that’s 75%, 80%.

Paul: 78% exactly.

Rich: 78% of New York City public schools have these needs? That’s —

Colin: Exactly. The majority of their students are below the poverty level.

Rich: 78% of students in New York City public schools are below the poverty level?

Colin: 78% of the schools in New York City have a majority of their students below the poverty level, yeah.

Rich: That’s an incredible statistic.

Colin: It’s crazy. And most are 80%-plus.

Rich: That’s an incredible statistic.

Colin: There’s very, very few students in those schools that are not in those circumstances.

Rich: Amazing. So, our connection, people are wondering, Track Changes is sort of this product, digital product technology podcast and our connection to Colin, I’ve known Colin for a while and we’ve actually, as Postlight, have done some work and we’ll probably do more work in the future for Change for Kids and that’s our sort of dotted line to Change for Kids and Colin Smith. What’s fascinating about Colin Smith is that he had all the ingredients of becoming a cocaine-fueled banker. [laughter] He’s tall.

Paul: You know, this is a tall, rangy, handsome, white guy…

Rich: He’s white, he’s handsome, and he’s got that handshake. It’s just such a…I just feel like I joined a club every time I shake hands with him.

Colin: Damn glad to meet ya’. [laughter]

Rich: Exactly.

Paul: He’s got laryngitis today, which makes it a little better. [laughter]

Rich: It does. And so —

Paul: But, no, in the context, if you walked in, I would assume you were here for a meeting to tell me about you wanted to build a new financial product, you were working in internet advertising. Like I wouldn’t expect you to come in here and be like hey, there — what’s the number again?

Rich: 78%.

Colin: 78%.

Paul: 78% of schools are, you know, consumed by poverty right now and we need to do something. So, it is interesting. This is an unusual profile.

Rich: I’d love to hear that path.

Colin : Yeah.

Rich : And you know, where you’ve been, what you were doing professionally before this, and how you ended up here.

Colin: Thanks for the, I think, kind words there.

Rich: They were kind. Read them as kind Colin. [laughter]

Colin: So in 2009, and Rich knows this well because he was one of the first people to jump aboard, I had been working in investment banking for eight years out of school. Bank of America and then a small firm in Greenwich, Connecticut and I had just joined the board of Change for Kids. I was a 27-year-old kid and a bunch of Goldman guys asked me to join a board, I said yes. I was very excited and then —

Paul: So, these were old Goldman Sachs guys. “Hey. Smith.” [laughter]

Colin: Great guys, exactly. Ted, yeah.

Rich: Ted.

Paul: Ted. [laughter]

Colin: Ted’s a great guy.

Paul: Ted’s like, “Colin, you’re young, we need a little fresh blood in here, get in here.”

Rich: What’s a good Goldman Sachs managing partner name? Isn’t there Grange, isn’t that a name?

Paul: Totally. Or actually like the name of a college like, Kenyon or …

Rich: Groton.

Paul: Groton.

Colin: Yeah, exactly. So as soon as I had joined, they all packed up. They had been there for 14 years and they wanted to move on with their lives. They moved to London and other different places and myself and a few other board members wanted to help it keep going and then the recession hit. So we had —

Rich: This is the ’08 crash and all that, yeah.

Colin: Late ’08, early ’09 crash and all of a sudden you had $75,000 of revenue, about $300,000 of expenses, you had three months of cash left and it was gonna go bankrupt.

Paul: Wait and all the people helping you are bankers?

Colin: Well, the bankers at that point had left and so, we were in a pretty tough spot at point.

Paul: They’d left the economy, too. [laughter]

Colin: Exactly. New York’s economy wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders.

Rich: So, this thing, in most cases, should have just been shut. Like it’s just like let’s shut this down gracefully and say goodbye.

Colin: Yeah. Well, I was sort of torn by two things. Number one, that I felt a personal responsibility on it and then number two, my parents had just adopted three foster kids, and so I saw the difference an opportunity made for them, I felt like I could try to do what I could to get it back up on its feet. That’s where we started. Me and one other guy, Mike Quinzio, who Rich knows well. We were in a brick office looking out on dead brick walls and that’s where we restarted. We had a $15 event with drink specials and dollar Firefly vodkas. That was our first event and that’s where it started.

Paul: That sounds like something a 28-year-old would do.

Colin: Exactly. I was 28.

Paul: OK, yeah.

Colin: How am I gonna get people to enjoy themselves? [laughter]

Paul: I know how to raise money. OK.

Colin: So we restarted there and now we’ve grown from $75K a year to about a $2 million annual budget.

Rich: That’s amazing.

Paul: What did your i-bank, i-banker peers make of you when you made this transition?

Rich: They were probably disgusted. What?

Colin: I think — what would your friends say, right? They’re like, Oh, that’s so nice, that’s so great of you, yada, yada, and then I’m sure they turned around and thought I was completely freaking nuts.

Paul: Did like you sense the number of dinner invitations going down? [laughter]

Colin: Well, it was interesting. You had that first one of just like, Yeah, how can I help? I’m so pumped to help you, and you didn’t get a lot of second dinner invitations. [laughter]

Paul: Yeah.

Colin: No, to be fair, we were so lucky, I mean we had some great folks right out of gates but that’s…that was Rich, right? And Rich was one of those guys.

Paul: How did you guys meet? I have no idea.

Colin: How did you decide, just how did you make that decision to step in, because it was rough?

Rich: It was a client of my old agency. Chris Forbes was his name and he had a company that was a client of ours that has since been acquired. He said look, you gotta check out this great organization. I think you should just peek in and see what they need. And it was part money, part technology. It’s like, you know, they need help, they need to get on, their presence online is terrible and they needed a facelift and all that. So this guy, really, I mean you have to give him a ton of credit, I mean he went on a campaign.

Colin: He was amazing. He was amazing.

Rich: So then, I connected him with a very good friend of mine named Terry McLean, so it was sort of this web took hold of just the network of people who just, they bought into the spirit of the thing and Terry continues to be involved to this day.

Paul: This is a tiny digression, but this is actually one of the roles of agencies in New York City. If you go talk to Pentagram or places like that.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Because they serve as natural networks they end up in do-gooder roles a lot because they —

Colin: Pentagram designed our logo, to your point.

Paul: Perfect, right. There you go.

Colin: Exactly.

Rich: Yup, that’s right.

Paul: Because so many people come through, they’re often able to do some good.

Rich: And there’s such a social dynamic to agency, right? If you’ve got an agency and you want to be successful, you’re socializing and you’re really taking care of that network that’s in front of you. And so it was such a natural move to take one of my clients, who cared about a thing, and connect him to another one of my clients, who was actually also a good friend of mine and say hey, this makes a lot of sense, I’m not a finance person, somebody’s got to manage these books and help, you know, do modeling and budgets and all that.

Colin: That’s Terry.

Rich: He’s great at it and that’s Terry. So he came in and volunteered his time and, and it snowballs from there because, without a doubt, Terry, who has harassed others to step forward and say look, I’m not a creative, this thing needs creatives. So part of it was money, but part of it was just, you’re sort of cobbling together a team of leadership that was gonna help this thing get on its feet. And you know, Pentagram made the logo but Pentagram didn’t — that was its contribution.

Paul: Sure.

Rich: Which is worth probably —

Paul: Significant —

Rich: A lot of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Paul: It’s a big deal to get a Pentagram logo.

Rich: Exactly.

Colin: That’s right.

Rich: And I think what Colin did so well was understand from a management perspective how these pieces needed to come together, beyond just like hey, please make a donation. He saw that OK, you know what? This person will provide some time, some energy, et cetera.

Colin: That’s great to hear that that’s your takeaway. I think those ethos have really continued for the organization right to Postlight’s involvement, where Postlight has very kindly given some financial support. They have come out to schools, they volunteered in our schools, and you volunteered in the capacity-building way by helping us build out our volunteering efforts and that’s just a few months into the relationship. So it’s very, to your point, Rich, we’ve had great conversations, as you guys, know about potential things coming down the pike. I think what we’ve always tried to do is say that there are a tremendous amount of resources here in New York City volunteering, collection drives, and funds, of course, and yet you have these incredibly high-need elementary schools that are right down the block from where we are right now. So if Change for Kids can serve as a way to connect those two things in an incredibly efficient and effective way, then the opportunity there is dramatic, as you can expect.

Rich: That’s what’s amazing about New York City, right?

Colin: Yeah.

Rich: I mean, you could be at a $200 prix fixe restaurant and be 500 feet away from just a destroyed elementary school. You could tell it’s just poverty right there nearby. And that is New York and I think that’s one of your goals, which is how do I get these two pieces to connect here because we tend to just completely insulate ourselves and just live in our own bubbles, right?

Paul: How many of your donors send their kids to public school?

Rich: Ooh, he’s not gonna answer that question, Paul. That’s a terrible question to ask this guy. [laughter]

Colin: I’m not sure that I can…yeah.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Don’t go there.

Paul: Yeah, it’s a little squirmy. Sorry, sorry.

Colin: It’s not 50%.

Paul: It’s lower than 50…OK, OK. This is tricky right?

Colin: Yes. It is.

Paul: I mean, that’s a characteristic of this place.

Colin: Yes.

Paul: Is that the vast majority of schools are underserved and even the people who want to help feel pressured to not send their kids to those schools.

Colin: Well we talked about, to your point there, Paul, there are a good chunk that probably do send their kids to public schools but, you have a very different world here. I talked about 604 total schools, total district public elementary schools in New York City. 478 that are — 472, excuse me, that are high-need. Well, the ones that are not high-need, so, in the top 100 most affluent public elementary schools in New York City, the average PTA at those schools gives $152,000 a year of supplemental funding that can go to whatever their principal —

Rich: Just do their own, they just raise their own funds.

Colin: Exactly. Whatever that principal wants.

Rich: Yup.

Colin: And our schools, the bottom 472, that community, the average PTA raises $1,400. So, just think of that apples to apples discrepancy, right. $152K, $1,400 and…

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: So they’re getting 1% of that sort of incidental resources.

Colin: Exactly.

Rich: And they need it the most because usually you’ve got, I mean I live in Brooklyn.

Paul: PS 321 is severely oversubscribed, really.

Rich: Severely and the —

Paul: People move to be close to it.

Rich: That’s right.

Paul: They give it money, they give it resources, and then they go insane when they redistrict and say that they’re gonna send their kids somewhere else.

Colin: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And that’s why, I mean, you can call — they’re both public schools but the experience at those two schools are dramatically different.

Rich: Sure. How many schools today have you guys taken in?

Colin: So we’re at 10.

Rich: Right.

Colin: We’ve gone from about one under our model, to 10 over the last few years and we want to go to 30 over the next 5 years. We think that 30, tripling at schools will set us up to be able to go to those other 472 and a lot of other geographies.

Paul: So Change for Kids shows up one day at my school. What happens then?

Colin: Yeah. Well, first thing, they’ve run through an extensive application process, so last year we had —

Paul: So they came to you?

Colin: Exactly.

Paul: OK.

Colin: So we have a lot of recommendations and referrals that are done through existing schools, through existing program partners that we have, through superintendents, and they will suggest that those schools apply when we have an open application process. That process opens up in January. They then go through, as I said, a robust process that involves our education committee, that involves great educators there. We go out to the school, we interview the principal, speak with parents, with teachers, really try to get an understanding of the culture and the goals of that community in the school. So last year, we had 20 schools apply and we could take 2, so it’s an extremely intensive process.

Rich: I have to imagine that the mindset of the principal is key here.

Colin: Oh, 100%.

Paul: What makes a good principal?

Colin: I think that you have to be, I would ask you what makes a great manager, right? I think you need someone whose vision —

Paul: God, trust me Colin —

Rich: I have no idea.

Paul: Rich and I are the wrong people to ask, but OK.

Colin: Well the fun thing is, with my job in banking, that was one of the most important ingredients, right? You had to have a good manager, a good executive there or the company wasn’t gonna be successful. And it’s very interesting to me that we have all these education experts who are fantastic at what they do on our board, but I also thoroughly enjoy the interview process, because you see good leaders do some more things: they answer a question, they’re visionary, right? They know where they want to be able to take their schools. They can clearly articulate the road map to get there, that these types of investments, that these goals along the way will help them achieve it.

We really like distributive leaders. Not all of them are there from day one, but it’s something that we’re really trying to develop in them as an ability to empower their assistant principal and their teachers and set up committees within their schools. They really are trying to be a good delegator and distributive leader and I think the last thing I’d mention on it is they’re incredibly intentional with their time. Unlike a lot of for-profit firms, you really do have a limited amount of time here. Those kids are there from 8 til 3 and you have to make sure that you’re maximizing every single hour of that.

The one last thing I would add on it, just because I find it interesting is, I used to ask principals how they respond to charter schools. How do they compete? And I found the answer always very compelling because you had some who would say, we can’t compete with those guys. They’re gonna get what they’re gonna get, et cetera and sort of the defeatist attitude. And I loved the principals who said, we need this, this, and this and we are gonna be the best darn school that is in this community for every single child out there. And they were ready to, you know, not go to battle because we’re talking about educating kids, but really do whatever they needed to do to be the best school that they could be. And that’s who you want to partner with.

Rich: They were competitive.

Colin: Exactly.

Rich: They wanted to do well.

Colin: They wanted to and you wanted someone who is committed and driven to do that.

Paul: What kind of interaction do good principals have with the students? Is it none, lots, is it variable by principal?

Colin: That’s a great question. You know, I think the first thing that you’ll notice is the interaction with teachers. I’ll get to students in a sec, but when we walk into a classroom with a principal, you can see how do teachers respond? Are they surprised? Are they used to this? Or are they totally comfortable —

Rich: So, you’re eyeballing that?

Colin: Oh 100%. Absolutely.

Rich: It’s not just a matter of Q&A, you’re actually looking at that dynamic, aren’t you?

Colin: Absolutely we are, yeah.

Rich: Interesting.

Colin: And you’re seeing, what is that dynamic there, how comfortable are they? Are they excited and enthusiastic about it? So that’s a big one right of the bat. Number two, to your point, how do the students react, right? If they are used to it, if they turn around, are excited to see the principal, that’s usually not made up. You can’t fake that with first grade kids. They turn around and they’re used to that. That’s telling.

Paul: There’s a respect there.

Colin: Absolutely.

Paul: So you really see these patterns? I mean there’s —

Colin: Yeah, absolutely we do.

Paul: How long do you need before you know someplace is a good, well-run, well-intentioned elementary school?

Colin: Well I think that you have two levels of that. First the principal, and then the rest of the school community. I feel like, as with most people who you interview, you usually know within about 20 or 30 minutes. You know, obviously not answering every single question, right? Some people can dupe you. But for the most part, within 20 minutes of talking to someone, you can see whether they have their stuff together or not.

Paul: And they have their stuff together enough to apply, right?

Colin: Exactly.

Paul: So that’s a filter.

Colin: Yes. Yes. But it’s totally different to apply — you take some boilerplate grant material that you have and slap it onto a piece of paper — and another thing to actually have some very, very smart education-focused people there pinging you with some questions and what is your goal. You just can tell, right? Why do you need music? Well our kids need music. OK. Well then another principal comes in and says we are specifically targeting music to be able to develop creativity, to be able to make connections to math and that this particular grade needs that connection for X, Y, and Z reason. That intentional piece is huge.

Paul: Got it.

Rich: Out of the 20 that applied, you said you gave it to two.

Colin: Yeah.

Rich: How many could you have given it to? How many did you feel good about out of the 20?

Colin: I think four or five I would have liked to have —

Rich: OK, so your process is still pretty…it’s not like your 14 out of the 20 were a go. Very interesting.

Colin: No. No, I mean you need that…it’s all the things I said, and what I didn’t even delve into is, but it’s obvious, is the commitment.

Rich: Yeah.

Colin: Is you need someone who’s really gonna be committed to this partnership because if we’re gonna go out, work with someone for a number of years, you know, I’m not in this to feel good about myself. I’m in this personally because I want to make a difference. I know that’s what everyone on our staff and board feels as well and so if you’re not really committed to this things, I’m not interested in going out and busting my butt so that, you know, if we’re not gonna make a difference.

Rich: This is what I like about this is that as a former capitalist, you’re…

Colin: [laughter] I’m still a capitalist.

Rich: He is still a capitalist. But you view it as a competitive marketplace, that the resources are tight and if you want to compete for them, go ahead and compete for them and I think to have that mindset in a non-profit that doesn’t have unlimited funds, doesn’t have unlimited resources, I think is so good. And I think it’s also it’s less a crutch and more an enabler, in a sense. It’s not just charity that you’re just tossing out there and hoping for the best but saying, hey look, you’re gonna work with us here. You could fail. Like, there’s failure here, that is real, I think is really, really attractive.

Paul: I feel that this is the model for modern philanthropy, too. I feel that the old days of like well, let’s just see what works, are over.

Rich: Right, there’s real analysis, there’s real thinking that goes into…

Paul: It’s done in a spreadsheet. It doesn’t matter, I mean, I don’t even think it’s a pre- or post-capitalist thing. I think it’s just like that’s the whole philanthropic world went towards a metrics-driven approach.

Colin: And it doesn’t mean you can’t do R&D, right? You still need to be able to test some things out and I think we, as a society, have to be comfortable with that, even being numbers-driven. But yeah, you want results, right? I don’t have any interest and I don’t think anyone around this table does in just trying things to feel better about ourselves.

Paul: Right.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: There are models for that. I remember learning a lot about an organization called the Vera Institute in criminal justice and they create pilot programs with the metrics, like really, clearly defined and it’s an incubator. They incubate, like, community policing. Maybe if people from the community walk with a cop, that will lower the rate of certain incidents. And then, they track that in the community and then if that succeeds, they’ll go get the money, they’ll partner with the Department of Justice —

Rich: They test. It’s testing.

Paul: And they’ve been around for, like, 30 years. I think that it’s taken a long time for the world of do-gooder-dom to realize that that accountability is actually really good.

Rich: Yeah.

Colin: Well I wouldn’t even — I think that’s philanthropic. I think that’s gonna be forced on governments, I think that’s gonna be forced on all of society, right? I mean, it’s more natural within the for-profit world but, you know, we don’t have an unlimited amount of money and we have massive problems outside of just education, so I think that we’ve gotta be able to do that.

Paul: Do you find yourself reacting to, like, obviously there’s a big change about to come down at the national level in terms of education. We’re gonna get a new education secretary. There are a lot of strong opinions. When you’re in a world like the world you’re in, are you aware of that, are you thinking about that, or is that just kind of fairly distant?

Colin: Yeah. I think we always are. We know what the opportunities, threats, all those things are to our business, I think, like any group, and policy for us, I’ll give you an example of it: we are heavily relying, as we’ve talked about already, on a being able to have principal autonomy and being able to help find a principal and then work with them directly. The old model within New York City was less amenable to that. When you had a lot of decisions that principals were not responsible for. They weren’t responsible for their own budget, the superintendents made a lot of those decisions or school boards made those decisions, in terms of what programs you could put in, what your budget can be spent on. Those are always policy risks for us because we really do trust so much in the autonomy of the principal to be able to know what they need.

So that’s a policy risk. I think that school choice, we already sort of have a level of school choice. Most people don’t understand in New York City schools there are a good chunk of quote-unquote “choice schools” in New York City and then when you apply for middle school and high school, there’s a level of choice as well. There’s a part of that that’s already been implemented within the city.

Rich: If people want to get involved, in terms of your events and how to reach out and whatnot, what should people do?

Colin: Yeah, I think first of all, the website’s always best. Changeforkids.org. What we have on that website are volunteering opportunities. We’ll have a number of those in the spring. You can go out and volunteer at schools. You can do everything from painting, doing clean-up days, to we have this fun creative writing feedback event where you provide feedback to kids’ creative stories. We have the ability to do different stations, like sport stations and art stations on a Saturday with kids. There’s lots of fun opportunities at schools.

Paul: And it’s not just individuals, it’s organizations, right?

Colin: Yeah. That’s a huge group of what we do.

Paul: OK, so companies come to you and…

Colin: All the time, yeah.

Rich: It’s a cool company outing actually, versus like let’s just go play volleyball at the park. It’s actually a lot of fun.

Colin: And it’s also something so many companies are looking for, right? The millennials like employee engagement. So I think that… [laughter]

Rich: He didn’t mean that in a snarky way. He was being genuine. [laughter]

Colin: In all seriousness, I think that a lot of our schools — a lot of the groups that we do work with, that’s such a driver for them. The volunteer opportunities for employees. So, that’s number one. Number two, events, like you mentioned, we have a black tie event in February that sells out in about an hour or two, usually every year. We sell out 800 tickets, called the Penguin Party, so that will be February 24th. With have a super chefs event in November, so it’s a little bit farther out, but this great food tasting event. We have golf events, we’re gonna have a, can’t call it spinning, but, an indoor riding or whatever it is you have to call it. Spinning is evidently…

Rich: Why can’t you call it spinning?

Colin: Trademarked.

Paul: Trademark.

Rich: What?

Colin: Yeah.

Rich: Who trademark spinning?

Colin: Some group out in California.

Rich: Seriously?

Paul: It’s a powerful digression for our podcast. We’ll move on.

Rich: That’s bullshit. Seriously?

Paul: I know. Look, don’t look at me. What am I? Am I the trademark authority?

Rich: Just say it.

Colin: Someone in California. Indoor cycling.

Rich: If somebody’s like “riding indoors,” I mean what does that mean? [laughter]

Paul: You don’t want to get Colin a letter from a lawyer. [laughter]

Rich: All right, OK, fair enough. Keep going Colin.

Colin: And the last one is just sort of holiday drives, right? We’re coming up on those. This is the end of the year and it is something that we have found powerful is that this years tax rates, very likely, will be higher than in future years so, you get a bigger deduction this year by making a donation.

Rich: Cool. Well this was great. Great organization.

Colin: Thank you.

Rich: As both personally and as a company, Postlight, I’m happy to be connected and I’m hoping we’re gonna be more connected in the future.

Colin: Thank you.

Rich: Thanks for doing this. This is a different podcast, but a worthwhile podcast for us.

Paul: No, this is a great organization.

Rich: Yup, very cool.

Paul: I mean straightforward —

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Good for kids sort of thing. Thank you for coming in.

Rich: Thanks Colin.

Colin: Thank you. Thanks so much for your time.

Paul: Well Rich, when I talk to you the next time, it will be after Christmas.

Rich: Is that true?

Paul: Yeah, when we get through the next few days…

Rich: You’re right.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: It will be after Christmas.

Paul: And all the, all the wrapping paper will be in a trash bag on the stoop.

Rich: Yup.

Paul: That was kind of a nice holiday topic to think about helping all those children.

Rich: It was.

Paul: It’s a little less nice when you think about the, like, three or four hundred thousand others that need help.

Rich: Well, that statistic is staggering, right? That 78% statistic is kind of incredible.

Paul: We might need to give a couple extra bucks to Change for Kids.

Rich: I think, I think we should.

Paul: All right, let’s do that.

Rich: I think others should too. They should go to changeforkids.org and read up on that organization. It’s a really good place. It’s a really great —

Paul: You want to give them…should we drop, I don’t know, $500 bucks between us?

Rich: Sure.

Paul: Let’s do it. Let’s make Track Changes not just a marketing vehicle for Postlight, but a force for good in the world.

Rich: Great.

Paul: I’ll chip in $250, you chip in $250 and then we’re out of here.

Rich: We’re on our way.

Paul: All right, well that’s good. That’s at least a little Christmas good deed.

Rich: And I hope everyone has a great holiday.

Paul: Yeah, so, lots of people at Postlight, you and I are talking about Christmas here, you’re a Lebanese Maronite Christian. I’m a non-believer. There’s lots of people with lots of different faiths at Postlight and it’s just kind of good to point that out.

Rich: Happy everything.

Paul: So we should let people know this is Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio in New York City. We love having you as a listener, give us five stars on iTunes, please. We need it, honestly, we just need it. And if you want to get in touch with us, you can send an email to [email protected]. [email protected]. And you know, we still have a couple copies of our book of extracts from the Track Changes podcast. The book’s called Practice. It’s a nice little book. People sent us a few emails about it and we send them out in the mail. So send us your address. You can use [email protected] and we’ll send you a little book. Thanks.

Rich: Thanks, guys.