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MARCH/APRIL 2012

Improving Pre-Kindergarten through High School Education Through Philanthropy
By Susan Aurelia Gitelson, Ph.D.

There is nothing more essential than providing a basic education to young people from pre-school and kindergarten through grade 12. Yet the ongoing debates about teachers’ competence, student test scores, and public versus charter schools indicate widely divergent views and enormous criticism of what is going on in elementary education. Since the needs and the challenges are so great, there is room for different approaches by government, foundations and individuals.

The major debate, according to Joel Klein in his review of “Class Warfare” by Steven Brill, is between “traditionalists” on the one side, represented mainly by teachers’ unions arguing that to get people out of poverty, we must increase teachers’ salaries and funds for public education. On the other side are reformers, who emphasize offering incentives to better teachers and principals, and access to alternative charter schools.

Fortunately, many private individuals and foundations are contributing in substantial ways to improve K–12 education. Let me give some examples of dedicated people who want to reform and improve education, especially for disadvantaged youth.

The outstanding example is Teach for America, started in 1990 by Wendy Kopp and based on a proposal she made in her Princeton undergraduate senior thesis in 1989. The goal is to enlist top students from major colleges to teach all over the country, especially in regions with the neediest schools. By 2011, there were already about 17,000 Teach for America alumni.

Approximately 7,300 corps members taught more than 450,000 students in the 2009–2010 school year. Many alumni have continued in teaching careers, often as principals, while others have used their experience in other professions. Kopp looks on Teach for America as a social movement to improve education for the poor. “We have the potential to end educational inequity,” she said. “I truly believe that.”

Richard Barth, who originally assisted Kopp and is now her husband, went on to run the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a charter school network that improves education, especially for low-income students. KIPP was founded by two Teach for America alumni, Dave Levin and Michael Feinberg, in Houston and the Bronx. It has grown to a national network of around 100 schools. Mr. Barth said, “In a country as great as ours, why should where you’re born dictate your life outcome. … Anyone, born anywhere, should have access to high-quality schools.” Among the earliest supporters for both Teach for America and KIPP, from 2000, were Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing chain.

Since Bill Gates is concerned with the danger that deteriorating schools will lead to a small, educated upper class and large poorly educated underclass, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given around $5 billion to education grants and scholarships from 2000 to 2011 and has been supporting charter schools, especially in inner-city neighborhoods. KIPP has been a major recipient. The Gates Foundation is also sponsoring studies to evaluate teacher effectiveness and many other programs.

The Walton Family Foundation, the second-biggest private funder after the Gates Foundation, is concentrating its education improvement grants on new schools, upgrading existing facilities, education policy, Teach for America, and charter schools.

Mark Zuckerberg, who co-founded the social network Facebook, pledged $100 million in 2010 to establish his foundation, Startup: Education. He had been inspired by the experiences of his girlfriend, Priscilla Chan, as a teacher working in public schools through Teach for America. Zuckerberg was attracted to Cory Booker, Newark’s mayor, whom he met at a conference, and decided to back his plans for improving Newark’s school system.

Dedication to teaching can carry beyond an individual classroom. For example, Valerie Rowe, a former teacher, gave $1 million to Student Sponsor Partners, which grants scholarships to at-risk high school students at 26 schools, mostly Catholic ones, around New York. Each student receives a mentor to guide him or her through four years of high school. About 1,400 were part of the program in 2011, its 25th year.

Rowe began as an elementary school teacher before earning a doctorate at Fordham University and then becoming a professor of education there. Her mother and daughters have been teachers. In addition, her husband, John W. Rowe, is a physician and a faculty member of Columbia University’s School of Public Health after having been chair and CEO of Aetna Inc. He received scholarships throughout high school, college, and medical school.

Let’s say you want to make a difference, but you can’t become a teacher. You can contribute through DonorsChoose.org to your choice of classrooms. Public school teachers from all over the US post requests for what they need most: microscope slides for a biology class or musical instruments for a school recital. You can look through the project requests and give whatever amount you wish to the projects. When the funding goals for particular projects are reached, DonorsChoose will deliver the requested materials to the schools. You will get photos of your project being carried out, along with the teacher’s thank-you letter and a report showing how the funds were spent. If you give over $100, you will also get hand-written thank-you notes from the students.

They call this “citizen philanthropy,” where everyone can receive the choice, transparency and feedback usually reserved for mega-contributors. DonorsChoose.org was founded by Charles Best in 2000 when he was a social studies teacher at a Bronx high school in response to lack of educational materials at his school. He felt many people would want to help needy public school classrooms if they had some say over where their contributions were going. They could choose local schools or those in other places they were concerned about and could help in many fields.

For some educators, the goal is to provide the tools for faculty and students to use the latest technology to do significant research and teaching. For example, Dr. Charlotte K. Frank, who is senior vice president of research and development at McGraw-Hill Education, has established the Dr. Charlotte K. Frank Center for Mathematics Education at the City College of New York, where she received her bachelor’s in business administration degree, majoring in math and minoring in statistics. In addition, she gave $100,000 to Hunter College, where she received her MS.Ed., to create a new model classroom with the latest technology for teaching in P–12 schools.

She also gave another $100,000 to NYU, where she received her Ph.D., to establish a Science/STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Center. She also donated the Frank Family Virtual Planetarium and telescope facility at the Arad High School for Aviation and Aerospace in Israel. After receiving more than sixty awards for her work, Dr. Frank was inducted into the Association of Education Publishers 2011 Hall of Fame (www.aepweb.org).

Principals count, too, in improving school. The Wallace Foundation is committing $75 million over five years to training and supporting principals in six school districts in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Maryland, as well as Detroit and New York City. The districts were chosen because they already have rigorous programs for training principals.

Individuals continue to reach out to help poorer families, many of them because they grew up poor and, through education, were able to advance themselves. Steven B. Klinsky, who benefitted from daily tutoring by his older brother, was determined to help early childhood education after his brother died. He searched for a school where the need was greatest and decided on a poor school in Brooklyn, where a teacher could train children in reading, math and language skills in groups of 20. The original group was replicated in four other Brooklyn schools, so by 2011, about 1,000 students were being helped.

Another advocacy effort for children is the Citizens’ Committee for Children in New York, which is being assisted by Ricki Tigert Helfer and Michael Helfer. They became involved after Ms. Helfer took their multi-week community leadership course, which brings volunteers to learn more about children’s issues, including poverty, juvenile detention and health care, through their playing the roles of parents who face many challenges when they are attempting to get services for their children.

A program to use yoga to enhance learning in the classroom is aimed at students in disadvantaged schools to help the young people be more attentive, energized and focused in school. The Rachel Greene Memorial Fund at Kripalu in Stockbridge, Mass., established by Zina Greene in memory of her daughter, who was a yoga teacher, awards scholarships and stipends to yoga, classroom and gym teachers for training to bring yoga into disadvantaged schools. With the help of additional sponsors, teachers trained by the fund’s scholarships and stipends have, since 2006, spread throughout the country, from Appalachia to Dade County to Boston.

To help visually impaired preschool children, Ethel LeFrak is giving $2 million to Lighthouse International to provide technology to help upgrade their program.

What happens to people who have had to drop out of school? One way to bring them back into advancement opportunities is to enable them to get high school equivalency diplomas (GEDs).

Margaret Grace has been an inspiring leader for reaching out to low-income women of all ages in the Grace Outreach Group established in 2004 in the South Bronx (www.graceoutreachbronx.org). The co-chair of the group, Kelley Millet, has given more than $100,000 to them to help women complete their GED qualifications out of gratitude for the way his parents encouraged him to complete his education. In the program’s first seven years, it enabled about 700 women to receive their diplomas. Some of them have returned to the program as tutors and mentors to prepare the next group of women to attain their GEDs.

Some donors believe in the benefits of music and art education for less advantaged students. For example, Edmund Schroeder, co-founded Education Through Music, which supports music classes at elementary and middle schools that would not be able to offer them otherwise. By 2011, the organization was serving 19,000 schoolchildren in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They have also provided consulting services to school districts in New Haven, Conn, Philadelphia and St. Louis.

Since 2004, the Harmony Program at the City University of New York has been training college music students to teach disadvantaged elementary school students to play instruments in daily after-school music lessons. One of the major supporters is Roy Niederhoffer, who feels that the training helps the students learn skills and develop discipline. The program also provides approximately 100 students with instruments, books, and the chance to attend cultural events.

Lin Arison gave about $39 million to endow the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts in Miami, which she and her late husband, Ted Arison, founded in 1981 to help young artists in their careers. Proceeds from the new endowment will support new arts-education programs for high school students and teachers at a time of tightened budgets.

LeRoy Neiman, a well-known artist, has given $1 million to Arts Horizons, a non-profit organization for education in art, music, dance and theater in the New York area, to found the LeRoy Neiman Art Center in central Harlem. The goal is to have professionals teach low-cost classes for people of all ages.

Another innovative approach for education comes from Angelica Berrie of Teaneck, N.J., who has given money to an organization in Israel to retrofit buses with computers and modern technology, including robots, to become mobile classrooms. There are now eight such buses going to 60 communities.

So much has been done and so much more needs to be done to enhance education from pre-kindergarten through high school. Your contributions can be meaningful at whatever level you choose: local, national or international. #

Dr. Susan Aurelia Gitelson is the former president of International Consultants, Inc. and has been consulting for international business, educational, cultural and other institutions. She is the author of “Giving is Not Just For The Very Rich:  A How-to Guide for Giving and Philanthropy.”

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