Interview with Josh Phillips

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students.

Josh Phillips is working to redefine the summer experience for thousands of kids across the country, particularly students from low-income and under-resourced backgrounds. In this interview with 50CAN CEO Marc Porter Magee, Phillips discusses the impetus for starting Change Summer, the benefits being accrued by participants and lessons learned for the fall and beyond.


Marc Magee: Thank you so much for everyone joining us for another video interview and I am so excited to have for this new video interview Josh Philips who I’ve known for a long time and he’s a great leader in the education space. He got a start as a history teacher. He ended up being the co-director of a great charter school in Boston. He went on to be the chief operating office of Uncommon Schools which is one of the most successful networks of charter schools in the country. And for the past five years, he’s been working in the world of summer camp. And so we’re so excited to hear from you, Josh, and I thought where we could start is to understand a little bit more about why summer. Why did you decide to go from focusing on schools to focusing on expanding summer opportunities?

Josh Phillips: Yeah. Absolutely. Marc, great to see you as always and honored to be on this and do this. Thanks so much for taking the time to do it with me. I would say a few different things. First off, for the population that we serve, for the under-resourced communities that we serve, unfortunately, summer has been kind of a white space that has been pretty underutilized and the students that we serve don’t have opportunities to do a ton of really fantastic things during the summer. Not all of them. Some of their families certainly do the best they can but just in general it’s not a space that is utilized in a really, really effective way. That’s number one. Number two, when I was at Uncommon Schools, Uncommon had a lot of success at sending kids to college and even had success graduating students from college which was the ultimate mission of the organization. At the same time, we were seeing data – both objective data and anecdotal data – that would end in conversations with our alums and their families that students, even successful students, and struggling students were having challenges in college, not necessarily related to academics.

So they could do the academic work. We had prepared them well for things like calculus and writing papers in history and English classes and so on and so forth. But where they were mostly struggling, what they were telling us, and what we saw was with some of the more social-emotional skills that are necessary for college success. Some of the “softer” skills that I think are really important. So things like time management and the ability to manage your own time and get to classes and go to office hours and visit with professors and take that initiative. Those types of skills they were really struggling with. The idea that I don’t feel really confident in this particular university. I don’t feel like I belong here. And so we felt like at Uncommon we needed to do a variety of different things to try to tackle that issue. One of them, one vehicle that we decided to utilize was summer and offer a summer program for our upper elementary and middle school students to kind of get them going when it came to their social-emotional growth and development. And so it wasn’t the only thing that was done, there were several other things that were done that were fantastic, done by other people, but this was one vehicle.

And summer is just a great opportunity to do that. If I can put you on the spot, Marc, and just say I would guess that your kids– I know you have really wonderful children I’m sure they’re doing something productive during the summer. I know my daughter goes away to summer camp and then she visits her grandmother on Cape Cod and does a variety of different things and really privileged to be able to do that. I think that we’re kidding ourselves– those of us who do ed reform work and I’ve been doing it for a long time, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that only academics is going to level the playing field. I think we have to level the playing field, not just academically. I’m a teacher at heart and a school leader at heart. So I’m all for academics. But at the same time, to truly level the playing field, I feel like we need to get a little bit further along when it comes to social-emotional growth and development.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, it’s funny you say that because I think like a lot of families, after a year and a half of being inside with COVID, this year, my wife and I decided to send our kids to summer camp for the first time. So they’re at a YMCA camp in North Carolina on the water. And so we dropped them off a week and a half ago, which is sort of traumatic for us. I think it might be harder for the parents–

Oh, it is.

–than the kids. They’ll be there for four weeks. But part of it was just we want them to have this opportunity to connect with kids, to try new things, be outdoors. And that’s going to be really healthy for them as they recharge before the school year. So I imagine that’s a motivation a lot of families have right now.

Yeah, absolutely. We have two camps going right now, currently, as we speak. One of them is in partnership with Uncommon Schools. So we started the camp under the– the first camp under the Uncommon umbrella. We spun it off into its own nonprofit called Change Summer. We have an agreement with Uncommon to run their camps still. So that camp is up and running. And then we have a new camp that we started this year in partnership with Achievement First. And both are running at the same time in Bristol, Rhode Island at Roger Williams University right on the water, actually. It’s gorgeous. We have about 500 campers from each camp. 250 go per session for two weeks. Then we have another 250. And then the second camp the same thing, 250 and 250. And families essentially are saying the same thing, which is our campers, our students have been cooped up for a long period of time. And some got to go back to school for a little bit of time. And some did it in a hybrid fashion. But many of them just were out of school completely during the 2021 school year. And so you mentioned your kids getting the opportunity to go outside and spend time socializing and being curious about different activities and building independence. So that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

And it’s not this unbelievably robust program with all sorts of fancy stuff and wonderful, amazing activities. Our program is really strong. We offer things like athletics and dance and music and theatre and nature and hiking and all those kinds of things. But really when it boils down to it, this is really about kids from under-resourced communities being able to be themselves and to take their masks off for a little bit, decompress, get away from the stress, certainly the stress of COVID and the stress of life, and just have fun. And so the two most popular activities at our camps are swimming and gaga ball, which is really dodgeball. And so it’s in this little pit. If we did that all day, our kids would be thrilled. We wouldn’t have to do anything else. They’d be thrilled because they just want to hang out with each other and they just want to have fun and they just want to be kids, especially post-COVID. And our families really wanted that for them, which is excellent.

Yeah, absolutely. And when we were taking a step back, we’ve been spending so much time with our teams thinking about what we can do for kids. We kind of concluded we can’t just return to normal. That’s not enough for kids right now and so you may have seen the framework that we rolled out called Believe In Better and the spirit of it is let’s really get creative about all the things kids need right now. Yes, they need strong academics. Yes, they need strong typical kind of school-time things, but they need so much more than that. And it seems like you’ve been really out in front recognizing this need, building out the programming. I’d love to get your thoughts on what that means to you to believe in better and how do we think more creatively about all the things we can give with kids right now.

Yeah. I appreciate that question. I mean, I would say that for 10-plus years of my career, I had a little bit of tunnel vision, head in the sand, wasn’t a parent yet, and was just saying, “We just got to go for academic rigor here and we got to get our kids prepared for college,” and in one sense, that’s good. That’s okay. You need that. Again, I’m all for that, but as I’ve matured professionally, as I’ve matured personally and become a parent, you can close that one gap. You can close that one academic achievement gap and that’s very good for schools that are doing that, but I think as a society, unless we really pay attention to this whole other social-emotional gap between under-resourced communities and more affluent communities, again, I think we’re not really seeing the whole picture and so I think we have to put resources towards this. I think schools just have to rethink how they’re doing their school day, and certainly, that doesn’t mean lessening the academic rigor and saying, “We’re going to lower the bar.”

I don’t think we need to do that academically, but I think we need to create spaces similar to things that are happening at Valor Collegiate and other really good high-performing, leading charter organizations and other school organizations not even in the charter space that are really thinking about, okay, so how do we meet children where they are when it comes to their social-emotional needs? So what programs, what dedicated programs do we need to put in place during the school day? What do we need to do after the school day? What do we need to provide on weekends? What do we need to provide during the summer? And I think unless we look at this holistically and really just say, “Okay, if I just start to think through all of the things that we’re– I have a 14-year-old daughter who’s going to be– 15, actually, now, who’s going to be a sophomore in high school. If I just look at– she goes to a great school. That’s number one. Great school academically. It’s not much better at all than any of the other leading schools that I know out there, some of them uncommon and some of them otherwise. I would put them about at equal playing field when it comes to academics.”

We just pump her with all of this other stuff whether it’s soccer or dance or summer camp or vacation or this program or that program and that’s great because I’m a privileged person and I’m able to do that. My family is able to do that. But again, that’s just a massive gap. So when she is applying to college or when she is in college or when she is applying for jobs and interviewing for jobs and having conversations in a board room, around a board table, it’s just not fair. It’s not equitable. It’s not fair. And so I just think we need to think through, all right, so the end game for students who who want a college trajectory is X. Here, all the things that are necessary in order to get to X, well, let’s then backward-plan from kindergarten on and think through what are the different pieces that we need to give kids. It’s going to take time, it’s going to cost money, there’s no question about that. But again, I think we’re sort of head-in-the-sand unless we just start to think through all of these things in a real holistic manner.

Yeah. And it feels like this is the time to do that. We know that there’s a huge need right now, there’s been all these disruptions. But sometimes we can come up with creative things amidst those disruptions. And then, we do have $120 billion of federal money that is largely passing with no strings attached. No small amount, so let’s say you have to focus on learning loss. So I’d just be interested in your thoughts on that. Are you seeing people starting to think creatively about how to spend their money? And are there philanthropic resources that are being focused in new ways?

I would say, yes and no. I mean, I have heard of organizations that are doing what you’re suggesting, and I was just talking about and really just kind of like, “Okay, let’s hit the pause button here. We’re at a real, real inflection point. We have oodles of resources. They’re not going to last forever, but how do we take advantage of that and really utilize that for students and for families?” I think other organizations are not necessarily doing that and thinking about doing other things with that money, and I think that just is part of this and always will be unfortunately. I just think we first need to– this is something we tried to do for this summer. And we’re just a small kind of snapshot and maybe leading in terms of time. And so hopefully others will start to pick up on some of this. But we really talked to our families first. And we really reached out and said, “Hey, listen, we’re running camp this summer, we’re going to put together a ton of different COVID protocols. Camp’s going to be different. We can’t run all of our programming, we have to have kids in pods, we have to do all these kinds of testing, so on and so forth. But what do you want? You tell us.”

We sent out a ton of surveys, we did focus groups, we talked to our families. And we just said, “Tell us about your student, right now, tell us about your camper, where are they at? And what do they need?” And so I think it’s general, but I would just say, “I think we need to meet students where they are, I think we need to meet them where they are academically. And I think we need to meet them where they are in terms of mental health. And I just think it has to be even more so of a wraparound kind of approach to student learning and student growth than we’ve ever really thought about before. And final thing I’ll say about that. Most of my interactions are with Achievement First and with Uncommon Schools right now. We’re growing, next summer we’ll hopefully be adding a minimum of one, if not two camps, and I won’t give away who those are but they’re leading organizations. In any event, when I’ve been speaking with Uncommon and AF, it was I think March or April. We had a board meeting, a Change Summer board meeting. I was talking to folks on the Change Summer board, two of whom are senior leaders at Uncommon and AF.

And I said, “Listen, should we be shifting a little bit and doing more academically this summer? There’s a big push for academic learning loss and credit recovery, and so on, so forth. We can pivot, we have the ability to pivot.” And the folks at AF and Uncommon were adamant about us not doing that. About us staying the course, and sticking with what our sweet spot is, and really focusing in on socioemotional growth. And we have this core Discovery Program that’s all about identity and really focusing on that. And talking in more detail with them, essentially they were saying, “This is a two-pronged approach and we’re not going to be able to make up the losses academically in a two-four-six week stretch over the course of the summer. Certainly Summer Academy is great and Credit Recovery is great, but there also has to be this other piece.” And so I am seeing some creativity. I wish there was even more of a step back to say, “All right, what can we really do?” But again Marc, I’ve been head down in the summer, so I don’t know exactly what’s going on in the larger space. I’m sure people are doing great work. I can only imagine.

Yeah, absolutely. Well, we’re big fans of bottom-up change and using proof points to drive a larger conversation. So I think it starts with entrepreneurs like you and your team creating new opportunities and us learning from them. So thank you for making time. I know we had to pull you out of camp work–

All good.

–here at camp and you found a quiet room for us. So that’s great. So maybe just last question is, how can we continue to learn and follow along as you go forward in the next few weeks this summer?

Yeah, no, I appreciate it, I would say a few different things. First off, if there’s anyone out there who wants to visit, we are taking visitors as long as you’re vaccinated. We’re 20 minutes from Newport, Rhode Island. So we got another 10 days left or so of camp, so anybody wants to come visit through the 31st, they can. That’s number one. You can hit our website, which is just And then we are on Instagram, it’s @changesummer, @afcamp, @campuncommon. And I would love to talk to any school folks who are interested in partnering and providing really strong summer programs for their students. And again, I just think summer is one way to do it. But it really is a kind of a white space that you can utilize in a variety of different ways. So I very much appreciate you having me Marc, it’s always great to talk to you and to hang out for a little bit.

Yeah, absolutely. And it was a real pleasure Josh, when I got to hear you originally thinking about these ideas. And to see you turn it into these amazing, vibrant camps in a pretty short period of time is just really inspiring. So thank you, and we’re excited to see where you go next.

Thanks, Marc. Appreciate it. You were part of that. So know that I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

More Interviews
Share This