Education Funding

Philanthropy Gives Grants Aimed at Leadership

By Lynn Olson — January 16, 2002 5 min read
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A national foundation gave a major boost last week to 15 states and 10 districts working to improve the quality of leadership in education.

Read more on the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund’s education leadership grant programs.

The Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund announced that 15 states have received three-year grants of $250,000 each to help shape policies and practices that will strengthen the ability of superintendents and principals to improve student learning. The states are: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia.

In addition, the foundation awarded one-year grants, ranging from $527,000 to $1.34 million, to 10 school districts within those states. The grants are renewable annually, for up to $5 million over five years, as long as the districts demonstrate progress toward their goals. The districts are: Atlanta; Fairfax County, Va.; Eugene, Ore.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Hartford, Conn.; Providence, R.I.; Springfield, Ill.; Springfield, Mass.; St. Louis; and Trenton, N.J.

Mary Lee Fitzgerald, the director of education programs for the New York City-based philanthropy, described the grants as the “centerfold” of the fund’s $150 million Leaders Count initiative, which is focused on improving leadership for instruction.

“If we’re going to try to get policy people, as well as practitioners, to think seriously about the importance of having the right people in these positions, we had to do more than simply issue individual grants,” she said. “These really are national laboratories in which we can learn a lot about the conditions required to change the performance of people who directly influence student learning.”

Political Help

In a related step, the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund is providing $1.58 million to the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government to design a program that helps veteran superintendents work more effectively in an increasingly complex political environment.

Dean Williams, a lecturer at the Kennedy School who helped draft the proposal, said: “We’re not going to be focusing on the technical expertise of education. Education schools provide that. These superintendents are already highly skilled and knowledgeable in that particular realm. But how do they operate in these complex political systems, and not only survive but thrive and actually get work done? You would assume that a school of government would have some insight into that,” he added, “and certainly at the Kennedy School, we do.”

Initial participants will be superintendents from the districts that were awarded the foundation’s new Leaders Count grants. Working with those district leaders over two years, the Center for Public Leadership will offer a series of 16-day residential workshops to give them practical tools. The program also will provide monthly coaching and consultation sessions and develop research and case studies on the work in those districts.

The Wallace Fund first launched its state initiative, known as State Action for Education Leadership, last year with $8.9 million in funding.

A national consortium—led by the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of State Boards of Education, and the Education Commission of the States—is leading the state project and selected the states that received the grants.

“The various states are looking at all kinds of ways to address policy, from legislative task forces to governors focusing on this as a number-one issue,” said Thomas Houlihan, the executive director of the CCSSO. “We just think it’s going to make a major, major difference in changing what’s going on with educational leadership in this country.”

‘A Perfect Time’

Among other state actions, for example, Connecticut plans to set up a statewide induction program for education leaders and to devise nontraditional paths into the profession. Illinois will support full-time internships for principals and superintendents in training. Kentucky hopes to provide education leaders with financial incentives linked to student results, while New Jersey wants to make it easier for school leaders from outside the state to become licensed. And Oregon plans to help its leaders make decisions based on data and to give them more discretion over school staffing and budgets.

“It comes at a perfect time for us in improving our system in administrator development,” said William W. Barkley, the director of professional accountability for the Delaware education department. Among other measures, the state plans to set up an induction program for new principals and new incentives for individuals to enter the profession. “In terms of alignment with our reform effort, it’s a perfect alignment,” Mr. Barkley said.

The 10 school districts that were selected plan to engage in a similarly wide range of activities to improve leadership and instruction within their systems.

The hope, the foundation’s Ms. Fitzgerald said, is that by working at the district and state levels simultaneously, policymakers can remove some of the barriers to change. “I know you can only go so far, unless you have some leverage at the state level to unlock some of the policies that are impeding progress,” she said.

“It’s very timely because the need for leadership development in education is critical today, given the exodus of so many of our administrators due to retirement,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the superintendent of Virginia’s 165,000-student Fairfax County schools. “In our school system, we see this as a great opportunity for us to be able to develop, internally, our future leaders.”

Specifically, the district plans to pair some of its best principals with an assistant principal and a teacher with leadership potential to help prepare future leaders.

Also last week, the Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund announced the renewal of its Ventures in Leadership program, which enables schools, districts, and a range of nonprofit groups to apply for grants of up to $50,000.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2002 edition of Education Week as Philanthropy Gives Grants Aimed at Leadership

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