April 02, 2003 2 min read

Helping Hand

For years, the name Ewing Marion Kauffman has been as indelibly linked to life in Kansas City as jazz and barbecue.

The legacy of the renowned philanthropist and pharmaceuticals magnate, who died in 1993, spread to his hometown’s middle schools this month, with a decision by his foundation to establish a $70 million program to help at least 2,300 children from urban neighborhoods make the often-difficult trek from 7th grade through college.

The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s initiative would provide students with tutoring, counseling, career planning, and internship opportunities, beginning in middle school. The foundation, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., is still setting the criteria for selecting the students. But the plan is to select pupils from the next eight years of 7th grade classes as part of an overall program that would track them for 19 years.

The initiative, known as “Kauffman Scholars,” would specifically target students from low-income families in the Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo., school systems. The overall goal would be to prepare them for life success, but the program is also offering to provide at least partial college scholarships to those students, foundation spokeswoman Joy Torchia said.

A World War II veteran, Mr. Kauffman left a job as a pharmaceuticals salesman during the 1950s to start his own business: grinding up discarded oyster shells into calcium pills in the basement of his Kansas City home. Eventually, that small-time operation evolved into Marion Laboratories, which by the time it was sold in 1989 had annual sales of $1 billion. Mr. Kauffman’s name was also associated with another beloved institution among residents of the metropolis on the banks of the Missouri River: He was the longtime owner of the Kansas City Royals baseball franchise.

Kauffman Scholars evolved out of Project Choice, a dropout-prevention program that operated from 1988 to 2001. It encouraged high school students to stay in school, with the promise of a college scholarship or funding for other kinds of postsecondary education. But foundation officials said that experience taught them they needed to intervene in disadvantaged students’ lives even earlier than 9th grade.

“The kids who didn’t make it were struggling already when we got to them,” said Bernard Franklin, who will direct the foundation’s scholars program. A central question for the latest effort, he says, is “How can you do things to encourage the middle-schooler to hang in there?”

—Sean Cavanagh