A gift of good fortune

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When a Seattle businessman offered to donate millions to a struggling inner city school, people were wary. Now, some say his plan could become a model for other philanthropic efforts.


Three years ago, Tracie Holiday-Robinson did all she could to ensure her son, Marlon, would not attend T.T. Minor Elementary School.

T.T. Minor was a "throwaway school," says Holiday-Robinson, who attended the school herself when she was a girl. "Instead of dealing with young black males, they put them in special ed."

So she enrolled Marlon in an another neighborhood school with a better reputation.

But by this fall, Holiday-Robinson's attitude about her alma mater had completely changed. When T.T. Minor opened its doors Sept. 8, she happily escorted her 4-year-old daughter, Traciemichael, inside to a gleaming new prekindergarten room.

T.T. Minor will be a different place, Holiday-Robinson hopes, because of a philanthropic gift that may be the largest ever targeted to a single U.S. public school by an individual donor.

Under an agreement worked out with district officials here, local businessman Stuart Sloan has pledged to give the struggling inner-city school at least $8 million over the next eight years. His goal is to make it a national model on how to educate the "whole child."

"I can't think of any better place to return the good fortune I've had other than with kids," says Sloan, a co-founder of Egghead Inc., a software company, and the former chairman of Quality Food Centers Inc., a grocery-store chain. "Kids are the best place I could make my investment. They are the future of our community and our country."

This year, most of Sloan's initial $1 million gift is going toward a new pre-K program and kindergarten classes. In what is known here as the school's "Enhanced Program," all children in those grades are participating in a revamped curriculum and attending class with no more than 20 pupils.

Many are at the school from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. each weekday and receive breakfast, lunch, and an afternoon snack.

While most pupils aren't yet in the Enhanced Program--T.T. Minor will phase in one grade each year--some changes are already transforming the entire pre-K-5 school. The principal and all but three teachers are new to T.T. Minor; the school now runs year-round; and parents of all students will soon have access to a wide range of school-based social services.

"This is going to be one of the best--if not the best--resourced schools of any type, public or private, in the country," acting district Superintendent Joseph Olchefske boasts. "Money buys improved programming, more intensive programming, more extensive programming."

"I've never seen anything like this or heard about a person giving a grant of this magnitude ... to a particular elementary school," says Ann Kaplan, the research director for the American Association of Fund-raising Council in New York City, an organization that studies giving by foundations and philanthropists.

If it works, the public-private arrangement could be a model for other philanthropic efforts, adds Joseph Arnow, the spokesman for the I Have a Dream Foundation, a New York City-based scholarship program for at-risk students. The program, now in 63 cities, was founded by Eugene B. Lang, who promised a class of 6th graders at an East Harlem public school in 1981 that he would help them pay for college if they graduated from high school.

"To take over an entire school is a very interesting and extraordinary thing to do," Arnow says. "If [Sloan] does a very successful job at reversing the school, other people who do have means will observe what he has done and will start their own project."

Sloan's plan to reform public education began seven years ago as a conversation with friends about welfare reform. Citizens can't be productive without a good education, he reasoned.

For the next several years, his thoughts returned to the successes and failures of the American education system. Changing it all at once would be impossible, he knew, but changing one urban elementary school one grade at a time would be feasible.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with putting money in and spreading it out amongst a number of schools. It's just not the way I wanted to do it," Sloan, a slender 54-year-old with impeccable silver hair, says during an interview in the downtown headquarters of Sloan Capital Cos. "What I'd like to do is focus our efforts in one neighborhood."

By 1995, he had hired a project manager and begun sketching out an education plan based on the Beginning With Children School, a successful inner-city program started by philanthropists Carol and Joseph Reich in New York City. The K-7 public school, located in a former pharmaceutical warehouse, attempts to meet the needs of the whole child and links families to social services. Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company, collaborates on the project.

Sloan is wise to start by trying to improve only one school, says Laura C. Bell, the executive director of the Beginning With Children Foundation.

"People tend to jump right in and want to do whole-hog, districtwide reform when they haven't yet developed a single model," Bell says. "You have to know how to allocate the dollars to produce the results our kids need. If you do it systemwide, you lose that ability."

Sloan pitched his idea to Seattle district officials in 1995, suggesting they choose a school in the central part of the city, an area he often drove through on his way to work.

He envisioned a neighborhood school as a community center where children would receive a world-class education in addition to basic necessities. It would be a place where their parents could find information about health care and build their résumés on school computers. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and neighbors would volunteer regularly in the classroom, and neighborhood residents could hold civic forums in the library.

In November 1996, Sloan and district leaders reached a tentative agreement. According to the plan, a board of trustees made up of community members and a parent would govern a school chosen by the district, and the school would continue to receive state and federal funding in addition to Sloan's donation. The school would remain subject to the rules and regulations of the Seattle school board.

"History has taught us that folks come in and want to do all these righteous things in their own way, and when we say, 'No, change it,' people get tired and take it away."

Sherrill Adams,
T.T. Minor Elementary

But what seemed like a logical step to Sloan and the officials initially met with opposition in the community.

Many parents in the mostly black community doubted a white man with a posh office overlooking Elliott Bay would sincerely want to help their children.

"People in the neighborhood felt that the school district wouldn't have any control over how this money would be spent," says Annie M. Jones, a district truancy specialist and a great-grandmother of a 6-year-old attending T.T. Minor.

"In inner-city communities, there's always a wait-and-see attitude," adds Sherrill Adams, the new principal. "History has taught us that folks come in and want to do all these righteous things in their own way, and when we say, 'No, change it,' people get tired and take it away."

School board members also harbored worries.

Some feared Sloan and his project manager, Holly Miller, weren't qualified to do the job, veteran school board member Ellen Roe says.

Miller was recruited for the project while working as the superintendent of the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation. Though her job history includes government positions at the local, state, and federal levels, Miller has no classroom experience. Nor does Sloan have a background in education.

There were so many concerns and logistical problems, the school board delayed the opening until this fall.

The team "had just done a poor job," Roe says. "It's not to take anything away from Mr. Sloan. It was a great gesture on his part."

"It was very frustrating," Sloan recalls. "I quit the project a couple of times. There were all kinds of excuses, but none with any substance."

Revising the plan took time, and Miller used it to garner additional community support.

Monthly newsletters describing the program and asking for input have since been mailed to more than 8,000 homes. Brainstorming sessions between school staff members and neighborhood residents have also played an important part in planning the program.

"A lot of programs directed at disadvantaged youth are other people's idea of pie in the sky," Principal Adams says. "Rarely do we allow the 'unfortunate' person to determine their own destiny. With Stuart, he's allowing them to determine how this stuff should go. He just says, 'Here's the money, tell me what you want to do.' "

By the time the school board finally approved the revised plan in August, support from the neighborhood was strong. All 80 openings for the pre-K and kindergarten classes had been filled.

In selecting T.T. Minor, district officials picked an elementary school with one of the city's most spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and one of the worst records of student performance.

Last school year, only 19 percent of T.T. Minor's 4th graders met the state standard in reading, compared with 54 percent for Seattle elementary schools as a whole. In math, the figures were 10 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

Poverty is prevalent. Of the 220 students in grades K-5 last school year, the district reported that 186 qualified for free or reduced-price lunches under federal guidelines.

The Enhanced Program assumes poor performance is linked to poverty, and it works to eliminate its effects in the classroom.

"The difference here is that we are focusing on the whole person, as opposed to just reading, writing, and arithmetic," Sloan says. "Think about the 6-year-old kid who hasn't eaten properly. What if he can't see well? How do you expect him to really learn? How do you expect him to be a productive, contributing member of society?"

A before- and after-school child-care service, which opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m., eliminates transportation problems for many families and helps relieve parents' budget constraints, says Miriam Reed, the before- and after-school coordinator.

And the children benefit by remaining in a safe environment where providers ensure they are fed a healthy breakfast. In the afternoons, the program provides a snack and activities that are linked to the curriculum.

The service is available year-round in conjunction with the expanded school year. The plan added 20 days to the school calendar; during " intersessions," children can receive remedial help and go on field trips, Miller says.

Day care "has been a tremendous help since I'm a single mother and doing this by myself," says Patricia Lewis, who has a daughter in kindergarten. " And during the summer, school keeps their minds going. That's what my child needs right now."

The program also provides families with $150 vouchers to purchase plaid school uniforms, further reducing families' financial burdens, Adams says.

Locating health and dental care is another obstacle for many families, so the school is working on a system for referring parents to doctors.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Thomas, a coordinator from a community health- care center, is conducting home visits with families to identify the sources of students' behavioral problems. Once teachers understand children's home lives, they can work with parents to rectify the problems, Thomas says.

Sloan and Miller spent months shopping for a new curriculum for T.T. Minor. After several site visits to schools around the country, they settled on two well-regarded child-centered programs.

The High/Scope curriculum, developed in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the 1960s and now used in classrooms nationwide, was chosen for the prekindergarten and kindergarten classes. The program empowers children to direct their own education and teaches through hands-on learning. A long-range study of 123 at-risk African-American youngsters who participated in a High/Scope program between 1962 and 1967 showed that, as adults, they generally earned higher salaries than nonparticipants and were less likely to be arrested for a crime.

The Purpose-Centered System of Education, developed at Audrey Cohen College in New York City, will be used in grades 1-5. Like the High/Scope curriculum, the program focuses on placing concepts in context and tries to ensure that children have a respect for themselves and the world around them.

The two curricula "help children to become more responsible for their own education," says Debra Sullivan, a member of the T.T. Minor board of trustees and the dean of Pacific Oaks College Northwest, a teachers' college in Seattle. "It shows them what they're learning is relevant to what happens when they leave the school building."

The first thing many parents notice about the revamped prekindergarten and kindergarten classrooms is the absence of desks. In their place are play stations--instructional tools that are part of the curriculum chosen to emphasize learning through doing.

In one corner of Martha MacPhee's prekindergarten room, three pupils wearing floppy hats and adult-sized clothes romp around a pretend kitchen. In other areas of the classroom, children mold clay, read stories, and swish through suds at the water table.

Each day, the children are instructed to plan out their activities and choose their "work." A child who decides to "play house," for example, wears a "house" necklace and is expected to spend time completing that task. Allowing children to allocate school time builds a sense of empowerment, Miller says.

The day's structure also includes small-group and large-group interaction, outside activities, nap time, and cleanup.

Teachers are not dictating events in the classroom, but guiding children in self-discovery, Miller says. Instructors assess children's development on a daily basis and take frequent notes on their behavior, experiences, and interests.

The one concern some people still have about Sloan's gift is that more students don't benefit from it.

Many T.T. Minor parents asked Sloan to implement the Enhanced Program throughout the school this year, rather than integrating it one grade at a time, Miller says. They say it's not fair that only the youngest students get to participate, while older siblings and other children are left out.

But Miller says implementing the program in four classrooms is hard enough. Moreover, many of the benefits of the Enhanced Program, such as a planned computer network, will reach children in other grades, she adds.

Others in the community says they wished the gift extended beyond the walls of T.T. Minor.

"I probably would have liked for [the donation] to be distributed to more than one school," says Edward O. Johnson, the principal of the nearby Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. "It is Mr. Sloan's money, and he certainly has the choice. But, like many urban schools, whenever there are extra dollars, we are certainly appreciative."

But Miller points out that schools don't necessarily need $8 million to replicate the Enhanced Program.

Community and parental support is free, as are volunteers who help in the classroom, she says. And numerous grants are available to schools with small budgets.

But she hopes other philanthropists will follow Sloan's example.

"We hope that the work we are doing in developing the private-public agreement will pave the way for others to become similarly involved," Miller says. "Many people would like to become substantively involved in public education, but the bureaucracy and the structure of the system can be quite daunting even when everyone wants to make something different happen."

All who are involved in transforming T.T. Minor Elementary School realize that expectations for success are high.

The school has already been profiled numerous times in the Seattle media, and Sloan has hired a consultant from the University of Washington to monitor the program's progress.

But Principal Adams cautions that improvements will take time.

"Our society loves instantaneous results, but when you are molding children you don't get instantaneous results," she says. "When you are changing attitudes, it doesn't change overnight."

Miller notes that the program is designed to be flexible and that staff members are willing to make changes throughout the year.

In one small example, Miller saw that nap time in prekindergarten was getting chaotic due to the number of children who can't--or won't--go to sleep.

During a parent meeting, she asked for volunteers to come in to rub students' backs and read stories. Even though she got takers, she says she'll consider hiring additional aides to help keep quiet time quiet.

"There's no recipe for this, there's no magic," Miller says. "You do the best you can to figure out what is going to work."

So far, the most important evaluations of the program are coming from students like Traciemichael Holiday-Robinson. Like many 4-year-olds, she didn't like the idea of school at first.

"My daughter cried the first week and a half," Tracie Holiday-Robinson reports. "Now she says, 'Mommy, hurry, I'm going to be late.'"

Vol. 18, Issue 09, Pages 32-37

Published in Print: October 28, 1998, as A gift of good fortune
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