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.

Vol. 18, Issue 9, Pages 32-37

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