Communities In Schools, the national organization that provides wraparound services to students in high-poverty schools, will receive up to $165 million from the Ballmer Group, the largest gift in the organization’s 45-year history.
The announcement comes just a little more than a year after MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist and writer, gave a no-strings-attached $133.5 million gift to Communities In Schools’ national office and select state affiliates to expand its in-school support services to low-income students.
The latest gift from the Ballmer Group, which was founded by Connie and Steve Ballmer will go toward taking the Communities In Schools’ student-support model to 1,000 more schools, both in new locations and in places where the organization already operates. Steve Ballmer is the former Microsoft CEO.
Rey Saldaña, Communities In Schools’ president and CEO, called the gift “a welcome boost of adrenaline” that will give the organization a chance to make the kind of generational impact that many nonprofits, which often operate on year-to-year funding cycles affected by the political climate, can only dream of.
“This is not about pouring buckets into the ocean; this is about shifting the tide of the wave to move in a different direction to support public education in a way that focuses on non-academic supports,” said Saldaña, who often credits the Communities In Schools’ site coordinator at South San High School in San Antonio with setting him on the path to college. “That’s what our students need right now.”
The Ballmer Group gives to programs connected to improving economic mobility with initiatives that have supported formerly incarcerated women in Los Angeles, homeless and unaccompanied minors in Washington state, and Aspire Public Schools, a charter management organization in California.
“This investment is designed to show how school site coordinators using the CIS model can meet students’ needs on an ongoing basis in order to improve high school graduation rates and, ultimately, economic mobility,” Steve Ballmer said in a statement about the donation.
“With schools being asked to do more than ever, CIS has demonstrated how important it is to have dedicated staff who receive comprehensive supports to ensure K-12 students and families have access to high-quality resources that meet pressing needs in real time and help overcome barriers to learning in the classroom.”
Expanding to 1,000 schools
Communities In Schools has long dreamed of taking its brand of student-support services—through which a trained school-based coordinator works with principals to connect students with services such as housing, food, healthcare, and even facilitating college visits—into to every Title I school in the country. Coordinators also collaborate with principals on student attendance and graduation goals.
The organization operates in 2,900 schools in 26 states and serves 1.6 million children. It hopes the growth from the new financial commitment will put its program in close to 4,000 schools and reach another half a million students.
The gift comes at a time when many of the students the organization serves are dealing with the fallout from the pandemic—including family deaths, job losses, and even the stress of becoming breadwinners themselves, Saldaña said.
“Oftentimes we think about our work as connecting the disconnected,” he said. “There are so many resources that exist for students all across their communities that oftentimes it takes a Ph.D. in systems to navigate how to access the local housing authority, or the food bank, or mental healthcare services, or medical support.”
How the new funding will work
Local affiliates will be able to apply to the national organization to expand the number of schools in the areas where they operate. They will need matching local funding—from the school district or local funding source—for the first three years and a commitment to cover the program’s cost over time.
Saldaña is hoping that 600 of the new schools will be in the areas in which the organization already works, and the remaining 400 will come through licensed partnerships, where Communities In Schools trains school and district staff to use and implement the group’s model.
Licensed partnerships are a relatively new approach, but the group has tried it, including in West Virginia, where it’s worked with the state to grow to 191 schools from nine in 2018, Saldaña said. The new grant could give Communities In Schools the means to expand to every Title I-eligible school in the state.
“Can we do it in Vermont, Rhode Island, North Dakota?” he said. “If we do it in Newark, can we do it in Jackson, Mississippi, or Montgomery, Alabama? For us, it is growing through nonprofit affiliates, but [also] thinking about how to teach school districts how to use existing staff to do this.”
The big donation was more than a year in the making. The Ballmer Group had given to Communities In School before, including a $15 million, no-strings-attached grant in 2018.
“The impact from that was significant in our mind, both contributing to what they have achieved in improving high school graduation rates and by innovating by finding new ways to scale through their licensure approach,” said Jeff Edmondson, the executive director of community impact at the Ballmer Group.
While discussing another $20 million gift, the Ballmer Group asked Communities In Schools to think about what it would look like to scale up the program into new communities, and bring along state and local community partners.
The last time the organization did something similar was in 2018, when it got a $12 million grant from a Chicago-based pharmaceutical company and asked local affiliates to expand into 145 schools. After three years, it had exceeded the goal, adding 161 schools, Saldaña said.
The organization kept working with the Ballmer Group to figure out what it would cost to grow from 200 schools to 500, he said. The back-and-forth challenged the organization to remember what had always been its North Star, he said.
“We truly just stopped ourselves. We said, ‘Look, here’s the truth: It’s our goal to get to every eligible Title I school in the country. There are 70,000 Title I schools, serving majority students living in poverty, suffering from the impact of what the pandemic has done, what the recession has done to many of our families. So the scale is 70,000 Title I schools.’
“They said, ‘OK, we can’t fund 70,000 Title I schools. That’s a role for the federal government, that’s the role for state governments. But what can philanthropy do to allow you to really figure out how to use your evidence base and your infrastructure and … within the next five years to prove what’s possible?’”
Edmondson, from the Ballmer Group, had worked as a peaceable schools coordinator—a kind of violence prevention staffer—at the then-Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, now Jackson-Reed High School, in the District of Columbia. He said a proactive approach like the Communities In Schools model—backed by training, professional development, and data—would have been more effective in meeting students’ and families’ needs when he was working in schools.
“We are just really excited about [the] next five years to see this type of growth,” he said. “Our hope is that more and more local communities will begin to prioritize investment in this type of work that gives teachers and administrators a trusted partner, to bring in community resources and do case management with students who need it most, to make sure that all of their learning barriers are addressed. We just can’t wait to see what happens.”