In communities across the country, local philanthropists have given generously to save arts and music programs, buy laptops, hire tutors, and finance charter schools. These investments make a difference, sometimes a big one, but only for the small number of students who can benefit.
The real question is, 'How can local philanthropic dollars do more to improve how schools develop the education and career potential of all students in a community?'
In our conversations with districts, this realization is just becoming clear. We believe, in the near future, this dichotomy will force districts to work across boundaries to serve constituencies of similar needs, be they access to technology or academics support.
Looking at what makes local education donors successful in other parts of the country offers clues to folks here in the Bay Area seeking to increase the impact of their giving, in areas they care about most. Among the important lessons: Donors need to hold themselves accountable for not only success but for monitoring and measuring impact of growth and be willing to make tough choices.
Consider what is happening in Charlotte, N.C., the nation's 18th-largest school system. Collaboration among donors illustrates the key elements of what it takes for donors to increase student achievement:
Working hand in hand with the school district on strategies to ensure that every student graduates ready for college and career. Donors need to ensure that they are working with a strong capable district leadership team and that the district has a credible, long-term strategy focused on effective teaching in every classroom and the right support for every student.
Denise Watts serves as the Project L.I.F.T. Learning Community superintendent.
Local donors can provide the money schools don't have handy to design new approaches and figure out how to spread them to every school.
In Charlotte, donors felt they had found that kind of leadership to deal with the problems the district faced in student achievement.
Local philanthropist Anna Spangler Nelson explains : "We had several high schools with a graduation rate in the mid-50-percent range. It was such a screaming issue that it was hard not to respond."
The school district and the local donors immediately forged a close working relationship. Ann Clark, the deputy superintendent, recalled how in late 2010 she, the superintendent, and a group of local philanthropists began to do the research for a new strategy. What emerged from many months of planning was Project L.I.F.T. (Leadership and Investment for Transformation), which pooled funds under the umbrella of the 'Foundation for the Carolinas'.
Denise Watts, the Project L.I.F.T. superintendent in charge of the nine West Charlotte schools, serves as a bridge between the schools and the donors by reporting directly to both, thus ensuring a strong link between what is happening in the Project L.I.F.T. schools and what is happening in the whole district.
Investing together over multiple years to advance shared strategies. The Charlotte donors are not simply trying to raise the largest possible pool of money but rather to direct the largest possible pool toward a credible long-term strategy for transformation of all districts. Each donor has committed donations for at least four years. The donors describe a need to continuously adapt and evolve their approach, and to respond to the challenges and setbacks that inevitably arise.
The governing board meets monthly with the Superintendent, Heath Morrison, Deputy Superintendent Clark, and Project L.I.F.T. staff members. The board monitors progress and tackles implementation. For example, it handled the politically difficult choice of which group of Charlotte schools would get the initial investment, and it decided to end support for one of two summer-program providers when students in the program failed to show the same gains as those served by the other provider.
Long-term strategies also highlight the need for donors to measure their progress and impact. Says Brian Collier of the Foundation for the Carolinas: "We'd had opportunities to work together through much smaller pooled funds and were starting to understand that we always hold nonprofits accountable. But until now, we have rarely had the conversation about holding ourselves accountable."
Engaging the community is key to shaping and sustaining the work. All too often, school-improvement efforts trigger years of tension—political, economic, and racial. Effective donors get everybody in a community involved, and that is where local donors may have a real edge over national ones. This means pursuing a dialogue among the district, philanthropists, government agencies, neighborhood associations, parents, and students to create a shared understanding of what it takes to achieve real results
EAST SIDE ALLIANCE
Here, in the Bay Area working with the East Side Alliance, The Calculus Roundtable works to support the efforts of nine districts to collaborate on solutions to raise math standards for all students but particularly for students of color. We are working with teachers, administrators at the district and county levels, community partners, and especially parents, with the goal of building trust and a sense of shared purpose.
The voices of local residents can help shape a regional approach to change. We must see the community as a resource. However, this can only be done with a greater understanding of families needs. In our internal survey of parents from our first 2 cohorts, we found that "Parents still have concerns about the digital divide, access to technology and 'online curriculum support'."
One to one interviews with parents and key stakeholders during our DORS online extended learning pilot program prompts us to recommend a stronger approach to defining extended learning time, which was at first perceived by some parents as nothing more than a longer school day. Relabeling extended learning as an investment in "continuous learning" and apart of the school's learning objective emphasizes the combined contribution of in-school and out-of-school learning.
"Schools must look beyond the scarcity of resources and
toward the abundance of an entire community."
As we review Charlotte's progress to date the results are encouraging. In four of its nine West Charlotte schools, Project L.I.F.T. has been able to increase the hours students spend in school and in summer learning programs. Some of it's more controversial efforts sought to improve performance by repositioning a large number of teachers and principals.
One school in particular, West Charlotte High School has achieved a 15-point increase in the graduation rate, compared with a system-wide 5 percent increase.
There have been real challenges in Charlotte as well, including staff turnover and difficulties in securing the number of high-quality out-of-school-time slots needed to implement the continuous-learning calendar.
Charlotte has a ways to go to reach its ultimate goal. But in the face of one of America's most daunting challenges—making sure all public-school students are ready for college and career—we believe that the structure, scale, and energy of donor partnerships like Charlotte's demonstrate what it takes to transform student outcomes.