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Fall 2010

Solid Foundation

In the very visible arena of public education reform, the decisionmakers directly involved -- parents, teachers, superintendents, and politicians -- are all recognized as the drivers when it comes to making change. But another group -- nonprofit foundations -- also exerts influence on the process and outcomes of reform efforts by supporting initiatives that lead to specific changes in the system.

For example, the Boston Foundation played a significant role in shaping Massachusetts' recent education reform legislation, which will double the number of charter schools and equip superintendents with a broad new authority to intervene decisively in underperforming schools.

"We began supporting the charter schools eight to nine years ago," says Paul Grogan, Ed.M.'79, president of the foundation, "when we developed the conviction that dramatic structural change was going to be necessary in Boston and other urban public school systems in order to generate broad improvement in the academic achievement of the mostly low-income, minority students who populate these districts today."

Grogan believes that because the parent constituency of inner-city schools is not politically powerful, foundations serve as necessary advocates for education reform, pushing for improvements and using their influence and resources on behalf of these families. He also praises charter schools as educational entrepreneurs, free to reimagine what it might take for broad improvement to occur.

"These schools allow educators -- unencumbered by the way things have always been done -- to develop flexible, innovative approaches," he says. The result, according to Boston Foundation research, including work done in collaboration with Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Tom Kane, shows that the charters are performing at a higher level than the regular public schools with the same population.

Innovative school transformation also has earned the support of the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Foundation in Washington, D.C., where 13 public schools are converting to theme-based curriculums as part of the DC Catalyst Project. Each school, which will fully implement its new format in fall 2010, is refocusing its strategic design and content delivery by adopting one of three themes: STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), arts integration, and world cultures.

The Meyer Foundation is backing the initiative by investing in the DC Public Education Fund, an independent nonprofit working directly with the schools to develop the catalyst programs. Through the efforts of the fund, local nonprofit organizations participate as strategic partners.

"The organization must have the operating capacity and the internal infrastructure to partner with the public school system," says Danielle Reyes, Ed.M.'01, program officer for the Meyer Foundation. "For example, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Washington Institute for Dance, and Lifepieces to Masterpieces all work directly with [public schools in D.C.] to bring their own successful curriculums, which weave some level of art -- dance, choir, painting, or musical instrument instruction -- into the arts integration schools' curriculum."

However, providing financial support is only part of the Meyer Foundation's involvement in local education reform efforts. Like many other foundations, it also serves as a strategic convener, organizing and hosting collaborations of nonprofits and funders to coordinate these grant-making opportunities.

Before these reform efforts even begin, foundations also generate awareness and enthusiasm. The Arizona Community Foundation, along with other organizations and businesses, pooled their resources to create Expect More Arizona, an advocacy group designed to raise the public's expectations for its public schools. Based on the premise that a strong education system leads to the development of a more talented workforce and vibrant economy, the group has tried to build public support and make public education the state's top priority.

Steve Seleznow, Ed.M.'89, Ed.D.'94, president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation, explains, "Through forums and public education campaigns, Expect More Arizona will help broaden the base of people who are interested in seeing policies passed to improve education throughout the state."

But initially, Seleznow acknowledges, it is the generosity of donors with a genuine desire to improve education that makes reform possible.

"Our staff is constantly evaluating the best organizations that are making a difference for children," he says, "and we then help donors identify the best high-impact investments in education. From services such as tutoring, mentoring, and college readiness programs to larger efforts to fundamentally reform a district -- all is done through private foundations."