A Roundtable Interview with:
Tracy McFerrin Foster
Denise St. Omer
Tracy McFerrin Foster
Vice President, Hall Family Foundation
Vice President, Education, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
Denise St. Omer
Vice President, Community Investment, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation
Carey Wilkerson Looney
Vice President and Secretary, H&R Block Foundation
Urban public education is in crisis. Evidence of poor academic performance, the struggle to recruit and retain great teachers, and the unintended consequences of low expectations are all challenges that should and must be overcome. There is no single solution that will address the urban education crisis. Districts, charter school operators, philanthropic organizations, universities, and others have poured significant resources into finding ways to bolster student achievement at a time when a great education is more critical than ever to a life of opportunity and independence.
Four foundations with long-standing commitments to urban education began working together in 2010 as the Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative to more intentionally explore the effectiveness of their respective activities and find ways to work together to improve student academic and life outcomes. The H&R Block Foundation, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, the Hall Family Foundation, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation established a set of shared beliefs and principles, then began working on ways to support schools serving lower-income students in the Kansas City area based on this common starting point.
Leaders of the organizations comprising the Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative met to discuss the origins of the group, their beliefs, and hopes for sustainable impacts on students in Kansas City's urban schools.
How did your organizations decide it was better to move forward together than alone?
Tracy McFerrin Foster, Hall Family Foundation:
The Hall Family Foundation has a history of working collaboratively on various community initiatives, so when the Kauffman Foundation convened a meeting with several education funders in late 2010 to discuss the landscape of education in Kansas City, the Foundation was eager to participate. That December, four of the foundations that came together committed to contribute at least $50,000 each to establish a fund with the goal to improve student academic outcomes in Kansas City-area schools. We agreed to be "sector-neutral." We cared about quality seats and quality education, in whatever type of school it might take place.
Carey Wilkerson Looney, H&R Block Foundation:
Collectively, we developed a vision that all children in the greater Kansas City area will have access to schools that meet or exceed state standards. We agreed to partner with schools to implement research-based best practices in teaching and learning.
Funders Collaborative Beliefs
- The solution is bigger than one person, program, or organization.
- We, as adults, are accountable for ensuring that all children have the educational opportunities they deserve.
- We have an abiding interest in, openness to, and commitment to learning from what works in other cities—and in our own.
- We are unwilling to wait for whole-system reform to improve the quality of education for low-income students. We can do something now.
- Student and school achievement data must inform decision-making.
Funders Collaborative Guiding Principles
- All children can achieve at high levels. Poverty does not justify low expectations. Children perform to the expectations we set.
- Teaching causes learning. Teacher effectiveness is the most important in-school variable related to student achievement.
- All parents deserve—and have the right to expect—quality school options for their children. All parents want what's best for their children.
- Great teachers come from both traditional and non-traditional pathways. It's what they are able to accomplish in the classroom, not the path through which they arrived there, that matters most.
- The school model—whether charter, district, or private—is irrelevant. What matters most are existing "conditions" within the school (e.g., appropriate degrees of autonomy and accountability, effectiveness of school leadership, and a positive school culture).
- Community plays an essential role in setting high expectations for our schools and for ensuring our schools meet those expectations. Informed and sustained community involvement is essential for the success of our schools.
What did the Collaborative do first?
We wanted to develop a strategy with each member having an equal say, so, in early 2011, we hired a consultant (Education First Consulting) and explored four potential strategies. They included (1) supporting teacher effectiveness, (2) supporting turnaround schools, (3) promoting public engagement in education, and (4) supporting "green shoot schools," or those with the potential to serve as proof points of best practices in urban education. "Green shoots" is where we landed. We decided we wanted to work with people who were committed to creating some proof points in Kansas City, and we felt it could be done.
Denise St. Omer, Greater Kansas City Community Foundation:
Separate and apart from their working relationship, our Collaborative members set expectations internally and laid a ground work for trust and honest, open conversation from the outset. When we meet, we have a safe space where we can disagree and challenge one another's thinking. That approach allowed the Collaborative to continue and to grow.
What has the Collaborative funded?
Our first grant was to a program called Donors Choose. While our foundations probably would not support the program individually, we felt that collectively our funding made a statement in support of public school teachers. With our goal being to expand the number of quality seats in Kansas City, we felt it was important to support the teachers in those classrooms. We were interested in helping those teachers who were motivated enough to go through the Donors Choose application process to try to get the tools and resources they needed for their students.
Aaron North, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation:
Donors Choose was a first test for what our Collaborative could do. We started in June 2011 with a matching grant of $25,000 and set up a program called "Match for KC." We focused on funding requests from teachers in area school districts with high concentrations of students eligible for free and reduced lunch, both district and charter. Since that time, the Collaborative's contribution has funded 574 projects for 224 teachers at 124 schools.
And with the matching grant framework, the Collaborative has contributed a total of $116,000 over three years, matching grants of $115,000 from other groups and individuals to support area public classrooms.
With Donors Choose going well, we decided to target professional development and invested in the 5Essentials program from the University of Chicago. In 2013, twenty-nine area schools participated in the 5Essentials evaluation process and are working with the Collaborative to identify areas for professional development that would equip teachers to improve outcomes for students. Additionally, the Collaborative offered to engage more Kansas City schools in the 5Essentials process in 2014.
Number one for all of us is: what is a good school? What does it look like? How do you define it? It was great to bring 5Essentials to Kansas City. It's research-based with a survey tool that can help schools diagnose whether they have the five essential components for school success—effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment, and ambitious instruction. It has given us a framework to make grant program decisions, and it helps schools help themselves.
The 5Essentials program really focuses on school culture, and I think the results really challenged the perceptions of many schools that participated. For us as funders, it challenged our ideas of where and how we can be helpful to schools. We're coming together and getting feedback from the schools on where philanthropy can help them the most.
The feedback we're getting is, if they could address just one Essential, the majority would choose ambitious instruction.
We know as funders that we are not going to be in a position to make grants to every school. I think one of the unintended benefits of our convening 5Essentials sessions is that the participating schools are starting to look for ways to come together, share resources and, then, approach us as funders in a way that will allow us to leverage our dollars and have a greater impact.
There are many things about school culture that you don't need money in order to address." — Tracy McFerrin Foster
Have you found other unforeseen benefits of the Collaborative's outreach?
We expressed to the schools when we were starting with the 5Essentials that there are many things about school culture that you don't need money in order to address.
I've been proud of the schools and the conversations we've heard in these sessions. The schools have been very open about their survey results. A lot of the schools really owned the areas for improvement because these are indicators for higher performance, not measurements tied to any one standard or test. As a Collaborative, it gave us an apples-to-apples comparison and also an enhancement over the raw data we typically get. Ideally, the schools will also hold each other accountable for their ideas. It's harder to sit there and say, "I need $100,000 for project X, Y or Z," if another school is looking at you and saying, "Do you really need that?"
The schools identified their biggest needs to be collaborative teachers and ambitious instruction. So, the discussion turned to opportunities for professional development (PD). One idea raised was that the funders could bring in a national program or leader in PD, and the schools could coordinate their school calendars so their PD days would be the same.
Our investment has been modest on the front end. Like Donors Choose, we're looking for ways to provide targeted support with the potential for high impact.
Funder leverage can be more than money. During the strategic planning process with Education First Consulting, the Collaborative learned that it could strive to be a critical voice on education issues, giving the seal of approval or advocating for a specific action. It could help to conceptualize an idea through analysis, fact-finding, and focused attention. It could also try to be a catalyst, to convene, initiate, and provide a non-partisan point of view. I think that's the space the Collaborative has occupied to this point – we have not provided big grant dollars. As we move forward, I think we'll be even more focused on how to support schools (leaders and teachers) to really get to the nuts and bolts of improving academic achievement for their students.
How do you balance the interests and initiatives of the Collaborative with those of your individual foundations?
The Collaborative allows the H&R Block Foundation to increase staff knowledge of education efforts that are supported by our peers, improve knowledge of best practices in education, and invest in opportunities that otherwise would not fit within traditional guidelines of our foundation. Personally, working with the Collaborative has been an outstanding professional development opportunity for me, providing invaluable insight into best practices that could be implemented locally for the benefit of Kansas City students.
An interesting offshoot of our group is that it has led to the launch of a similar collaborative in early childhood education. I think the way the early childhood collaborative works and functions will be very different, but, at its core, it's the same idea. Are there areas where we can come together? Can we fund efforts together that we might not be able to fund individually? It's changing the landscape of how funders interact.
A huge part of this is simply demonstrating the value of the communication. I feel people show up to our meetings because they want to know what's going on, but they also want to share what they're doing and hear what others think. They answer questions about projects or initiatives, and then ask questions of others.
We're sending a clear message that we, as funders, work well together, meet regularly, and share information. Hopefully, that's made it easier for organizations to approach us collectively for funding, understanding that there truly is shared communication.
What lessons have you learned?
The first thing that comes to mind is the need to establish a trusting relationship within the collaboration. You establish the rules of the game. Anything that's said in the meeting stays in the meeting. You're free to give your unvarnished opinion about things, and everyone's views are respected. Another lesson is that successful collaborations take time. They take work.
We decided that no matter how much money your foundation put in, each organization gets one vote—and majority rules. We also rotate where we meet so each organization has ownership. Establishing those operating principles was an important early step.
We try to document what we do and the feedback we receive. Individuals change roles, but we want the Collaborative to have continuity and sustainability of focus.
I would add to the list that it takes time. Get started, build slowly, find a couple of early initiatives that are at appropriate scale and for which you can set target outcomes. For us, Donors Choose was one level of complexity; then, 5Essentials was a much different level of complexity and potential. And our next initiative may build on that.
When we first started, we purposely tried to stay under the radar. We did not publicize that there was a Kansas City Education Funders Collaborative. We didn't want people to think, "Oh, here's another pool of funding. How can we apply?" We never envisioned this being a group that sat around and waited for people to show up and ask for funding.
The last lesson learned is that if you start off saying, "We're about student outcomes, and this is how we believe this can happen," it can be sector neutral, and we want to work with people who want to work on this in a really meaningful way. This is how we set up the Collaborative—focusing on student outcomes—and I think that was a great part of defining the principles and values to which we've been committed.
Finally, what do you all see as the biggest challenges in public education?
For me, the challenges are not unique to Kansas City, and my answer has changed from when I first started this work in 2010. I really think that the biggest challenge is the complexity of the issue. When you think about public education in most of our major cities, you've got to think about the public policy environment, poverty, culture, attracting and keeping effective teachers and leaders, governance, and the list goes on and on. There are so many varied elements that go into delivering a high quality education, that it is just so complex. But that said, I can't think of any issue that is more important to the health and vitality of a community, so we have to find a way to meet the challenge.
I think for me personally, the biggest challenge is how we change the culture of low expectations. We know that all children can achieve. But what we also know is for children to be able to achieve it is critical that the adults have high expectations for them. And I worry sometimes that we don't have high enough expectations. As a community, we face a lot of challenges. I think we need to be careful that we don't allow those challenges to become excuses for poor performance. I think we hear that a lot of these children can't achieve because they are poor, or they live in a bad neighborhood. Those are challenges, not excuses.