money talks

Big education funders were in Memphis this week. Here’s what they talked about.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
A mural paying homage to the 1968 sanitation worker strike in Memphis is near the National Civil Rights Museum, where the Philanthropy Roundtable sponsored part of its 2017 forum on K-12 education investments. The mural is by Marcellous Lovelace.

More than 150 funders from across the nation converged on Memphis this week to learn about how they should be investing their dollars to expand education access in K-12 schools.

Held partly at the National Civil Rights Museum, the two-day forum coincided with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the assassination in Memphis of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — an observance that set the stage for discussions about education equity in America.

“Memphis is a hub of innovation where philanthropists and leaders are working to provide students from under-resourced backgrounds with access to excellent schools, teachers, and leaders,” said Katherine Haley, senior director of K-12 education programs at The Philanthropy Roundtable, which sponsored the forum through its Washington D.C.-based network of charitable donors.

Participants toured Soulsville and Power Middle School charter schools. They also learned about big lessons from investments in Memphis in the last decade. Among the speakers were Chris Barbic, founding superintendent of Tennessee’s Achievement School District; David Montague, executive director of Memphis Teacher Residency, an alternative teacher preparation program; and Pitt and Barbara Hyde of the Hyde Family Foundation, a major funder in Memphis education. (Chalkbeat receives funding from the Hyde Foundation. Read about our funding here.)

Chalkbeat spoke with Tosha Downey, advocacy director for the Memphis Education Fund, the city’s primary philanthropic organization to improve schools, and also heard from Hyde Foundation CEO Barbara Hyde. Here are three big takeaways.

1. The funding story in Memphis shows why local buy-in is crucial.

Tosha Downey

Education reformers have a history of not listening to the communities they are trying to serve, and Memphis is no exception, according to Downey.

“There’s this persona among people doing this work of ‘I got my great degree and went to great a school, so I can make assumptions about what I know and not actually talk to people impacted,’” Downey told Chalkbeat after the event. “I get the sense folks have made that mistake a lot. … I hope they walked away with concrete examples of what we’ve done here.”

Downey served on one panel discussion with Sarah Carpenter, executive director of The Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group that the forum heralded as an example of authentic community engagement.

2. The ‘portfolio model’ is in.

During one Q&A, Hyde said her foundation has placed its bets on the portfolio model of school governance, which is the idea that schools should be managed like stocks in a portfolio. That includes a diversity of models, with the most successful ones receiving the go-ahead and resources to expand.

The Hyde Foundation is among philanthropic groups betting big on this model, although success can look vastly different from city to city. Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which operates 30 schools, mostly charter schools in Memphis, has been called a “national exemplar” in pioneering the portfolio model, but the district’s academic progress has lagged.

Downey said one benefit of the portfolio model is a move away from a dynamic of pitting charter schools against traditional public schools in the fight for resources. Both types of schools can be worthy of investment, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” Downey said. “Every school being a charter school is not a goal for us. But having enough opportunity and diversity of school types and models is.”

3. Invest in quality over growth.

Hyde said Memphis grew its charter sector too quickly. About 80 operate in the city today, compared to 15 in 2010.

Her foundation has made a course correction to focus on “quality, not growth.”

“Over last five to six years, we built a robust network of high-performing charter schools,” she said. “Not all are performing at the level we’d like, but we have talent on the ground.”

She cited three ways to double down on quality: Strengthen the teacher pipeline, strengthen curriculum, fund wraparound services.

The roundtable’s next national forum on K-12 philanthropy is scheduled for April 2019 in Denver.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.