Billionaire makes major investment in public schools
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Barbara Dalio bought a better easel when her youngest son left the nest and planned to devote herself to her painting, but then she discovered a new passion: education.
"I never used the easel," said Dalio, who is married to the state's wealthiest man, billionaire hedge fund founder Ray Dalio, and has spent the past decade leading the Dalio Foundation's efforts to strengthen public education by investing millions in it.
During that time, Dalio's focus has shifted away from giving to charter schools and reform efforts such as Teach for America and toward troubled public school districts.
In the past three years alone, the foundation, which Barbara co-founded with her husband, has donated $50 million to public education programs in Connecticut.
"I never thought I would get into education because it's not my background, so I am learning as I go along," she said. "I love it. I don't play golf or tennis. This is my passion."
Dalio, 70, who is universally described as humble and hands-on, said in an interview last week that her shift toward traditional public school districts came about as she learned more about education and became concerned about the achievement gap and students who are disengaged from school.
Dalio said she observed that the kids who go to public charter schools have parents who are often more involved and have the initiative to seek out an alternative for their child.
But many parents, she said, don't have the time to do that.
"It's not that they don't care about the kids," Dalio said of those parents. "It's that they are burdened in many instances with just one parent having two or three jobs. That really struck me."
It's a shift that some of the wealthy donors that have focused on charters and other reform efforts are also making in recent years, some experts say.
A few years ago, there was a feeling among some wealthy donors that giving to local neighborhood schools might be a waste of money, said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies with the American Enterprise Institute.
"Now the zeitgeist has changed," said Hess. "TFA (Teach for America) and charter schooling are more controversial than they were eight or 10 years ago for various reasons and after the teacher strikes, teachers are more sympathetic. There's a sense that if you're a wealthy person and you're trying to give away dollars in a way that you feel good about, you might make different choices in 2018 than you did in 2008."
When Dalio arrived as an immigrant from Spain in her 20s, she knew very little about the American educational system except that she saw it is as inspiring.
"One of the things that struck me was all the people that succeeded or were able to have a very good education just through the public schools," Dalio said. "I just admire that democratic side that the United States has. I don't know if it still has it but I thought it was so amazing that anyone of any social class can just go to a public school and get a great education."
Dalio, who lives in Greenwich, learned more about the public schools as she raised her four sons who attended both public and private schools and had very different needs and learning styles.
"I didn't have a formula that would work for all of them, so I had to be very nimble and had to rely on teachers to help me help them," Dalio said. "So that's how my love for teachers started because they were always really there for me and for them. They were very caring."
As the family's foundation was expanding, Dalio said, "I really felt for the public schools and I really wanted to be helpful."
But she realized she needed to be educated. So she began volunteering at an alternative high school in Norwalk where she started coming in once every two weeks and soon was up to two or three times a week.
"I learned really how many needs the kids have because they had kids with learning differences, kids that have had trauma in their lives, kids with emotional needs," Dalio said, as well as kids who are hungry. "So it really is challenging for the school, the teachers to address all of those needs, especially with (budget) cuts" that eliminate social workers or mental health programs, she said.
Dalio said she learned through the alternative school and also with her own children, one of whom has bipolar disorder, that all children can succeed if given the right the services and help.
Her own son is in very good shape now, she said, "but it took a lot of resources and patience and time and you know if we didn't succeed, he could have been just one of those kids."
"So I always feel a bit for the underdog . or the kids that don't have opportunities and I see that if you give them what they need, which is sometimes not that much, (with) just a little attention and love, you can really turn them around."
Along the way, Dalio said she heard about Achievement First, the charter school organization which has schools in Hartford and New Haven.
She also heard about Teach for America, which provides a short route for top college graduates without teaching backgrounds to become teachers in troubled schools.
Many wealthy private donors — including the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — have seen charter schools and alternative teaching programs as ways to fast-track improved educational opportunities to inner-city children.
In 2016, Dalio provided $3.25 million to Achievement First and $2.25 million to Teach for America. But by fiscal year 2018, those figures were down to zero. Meanwhile, the funding Dalio gave to public school districts increased from $4.2 million to $4.8 million.
Those who have worked closely with Dalio can't say enough about how well she listens and how much she wants to learn and provide the best help she can.
"It sounds like it's too good to be true, but (Dalio) is truly a partner," said Erin Benham, president of Meriden's teachers' union and a member of the State Board of Education. "She sits with us, listens to us. She laughs. She loves being with students and she loves being with teachers."
Anne Marie Mancini, deputy superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, said Dalio has been "fantastic, supporting any initiative we have brought forward. We brainstorm together and she works right along with us. She's like any other educator."
Dalio has been working with teachers and administrators in Hartford, East Hartford, Meriden and New Haven as part of the foundation's Connecticut RISE Network, which works to empower teachers and provide them with needed resources.
Another major focus for Dalio has been trying to help youth who are disengaged from school reconnect and get on track for graduation through its Connecticut Opportunity Project.
The initiatives funded through Dalio at the network schools have included summer leadership programs for high school students, the funding of full-time counselors who work closely with ninth graders to help keep them on track, funding for SAT prep and extensive professional development for teachers and administrators at the University of Chicago and other education centers.
Teachers and administrators say she also quietly does countless acts of kindness, including providing thousands of coats to students who don't have them and lunch to teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day.
David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, said he hopes "other philanthropists will pay attention to what (Dalio is) doing and the hands-on immersive approach she's taken, which is how philanthropy should operate if it doesn't want to alienate the people it needs to engage to succeed."
"If Barbara ever gets focused on the national level," Callahan said, "I think that could be a big deal, given her mindset and the sensibility she brings to this space."
Last week, Dalio was in Hartford and several other Connecticut cities for another initiative.
The foundation has been collaborating with DonorsChoose.org, an online platform for giving to public schools by matching funds raised by Connecticut teachers.
But last week, Dalio awarded $10,000 grants to five teachers who had drawn the attention of the foundation after posting on DonorsChoose.
In addition, the foundation announced a new program to match projects posted on DonorsChoose by Connecticut teachers at a ratio of 10:1 while funds last.
Hartford Public High School English teacher Liz Matthews, one of the winners, said she plans to use the $10,000 to start a student center at the high school that will include after school enrichment programs and homework help.
As she stood waiting to speak at Hartford Public High School, Dalio said she finds such trips "very invigorating."
Later, amid the cheering for Matthews and her award, Dalio told students: "It's so exciting to be here and to see what Mrs. Matthews has done and the love of her students and how excited she is about all of you. . I always feel inspired by teachers."
Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com