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Walton Family Foundation K-12 Chief on Coronavirus and Schools

By Rick Hess — May 05, 2020 5 min read
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As families, educators, and community leaders wrestle with COVID-19, we’ll be trying to bring conversations to readers that will be helpful in confronting the challenge.

Marc Sternberg runs the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Education Program. Marc started his career as a 4th grade teacher in the Bronx and went on to found and lead the Bronx Lab School and serve as senior deputy chancellor at the New York Department of Education. Walton is one of the nation’s largest K-12 education donors, with a long-standing interest in new forms of educational delivery. I reached out to Marc to see what Walton is thinking about its role during the coronavirus. Here’s what he had to say.

Rick: How is the Walton Foundation responding to the coronavirus? Have you had to shift your priorities?

Marc: As you know, for the last three decades, the Walton Family Foundation has supported efforts that put opportunity and a self-determined life in reach for more children by increasing access to excellent schools where great teaching and learning can happen. This pandemic only increases the urgency and relevance of this work.

One of our early conclusions about COVID-19 is that it exacerbates existing conditions—so what was true before COVID is more true now. Great schools continue to deliver for their children and families. But for far too many, especially America’s most vulnerable students and their families, this is likely to exacerbate gaps.

COVID-19 doesn’t change our long-term objectives, and it doesn’t change the fact that those closest to the challenges have many of the best solutions. It affirms the urgency of the mission and makes it more important than ever.

We remain focused on long-term plans and honoring commitments to partners, while we do our part to provide some immediate relief to address the needs of communities we support. In terms of immediate relief, the central question we’ve asked ourselves is: How can we ensure children keep learning? The answer isn’t simple and touches everything from food security to internet connectivity to high-quality online assessments to help educators keep kids on track. Our focus is on finding and supporting solutions to these challenges as well as advocacy efforts that eliminate barriers to access.

Rick: Where are you and your staff getting your sense of what is important to fund right now? With so much need at a time like this, how are you prioritizing?

Marc: Fifty-five million students are out of school right now, and everyone in every state is grappling with this new reality. We are listening to their frustrations, to their aspirations, and doing our best to take stock of all the incredibly inventive local solutions that are emerging in response to the moment we are in.

Two additional sources of information are helpful at this moment—polling and research. Quick and invaluable student, parent, educator, and leader perspectives were generated from surveys distributed by Education Trust, Learning Heroes, and Populace. These data, along with timely research, are reinforcing the urgency of the moment, especially findings from NWEA about how students are likely to lose about 30 percent of this year’s gains in reading and more than 50 percent in math.

Rick: OK, can you talk about some of the specific coronavirus response initiatives that you’re funding right now?

Marc: Since the pandemic started, our grantmaking has focused on four areas core to our strategy.

First, we’ve supported families and communities. We’ve done this through direct grantmaking to schools, contributions to organizations like EdNavigator and National Parents Union, as well as collective funds like One Family Los Angeles and the DC Education Equity Fund.

Second, we’ve supported organizations and platforms allowing for high-quality instruction. This includes resources for schools helping students, parents, and educators transition to digital learning, as well as organizations that provide meaningful online learning experiences. Our grant to Zearn, for example, will help the organization build infrastructure to support more students, parents, and educators using its math curriculum. We’re also supporting TNTP to train educators and leaders to design online learning and CCSSO to help its members.

Third, we’ve supported advocacy work to increase access to learning. This means helping the more than 7 million students facing the “homework gap.” It means increasing autonomy and flexibility for school leaders and educators to adapt to student needs. And it means breaking down bureaucratic barriers that stand in the way of meaningful instruction.

Finally, as always, we are focused on a research and learning agenda. Investments in organizations such as the Center for Reinventing Public Education and CREDO at Stanford University will allow us to take a rigorous look at all the activity happening during this time.

Rick: What are some of the challenges funders are facing that people might not know about that they should be aware of?

Marc: The need and the vision of partners is going to be bigger than what we alone can address. That’s why I am so enthusiastic about the level of collaboration between funders on all of the work I described above. It’s fairly unprecedented, and I hope this coordination continues because it will only result in greater impact and more resources for those who need it.

Rick: What advice are you giving your staff when thinking about what’s important right now?

Marc: Our emphasis is on the values we’ve held deeply for the last three decades. One of those is the idea of steadiness. This is a time to stay connected to what we stand for and our commitment, and the Walton Family’s commitment, to long-term impact.

Changing the way we work doesn’t mean changing what we stand for. That’s true professionally, and it’s true, at least for me, in terms of how I’m approaching this time as a father, husband, and friend. Sure, there are lots of ups and downs, but there’s a comfort in the idea of at least trying to stay steady through all of this.

Rick: OK, last question. What have you seen that is most heartening in all of this?

Marc: Necessity is the mother of invention. When I was a principal in the Bronx, that was true everyday ... and boy, is it true more so than ever right now for our teachers and school leaders—and parents! We don’t know what the implications of this pandemic will be in the long run, but I am heartened by the ingenuity of individuals in the face of adversity. I think this is something that will ultimately bring us together and make our coalitions stronger.

This post has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.