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Professional Opinion

Foundations to the rescue for K12 schools

How to maximize funding, from nonpublic sources, to aid district innovation
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut. Lois B. Lehman is the district’s coordinator of grants and special projects.
Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut. Lois B. Lehman is the district’s coordinator of grants and special projects.

Faced with budget challenges, shrinking municipal and state support, and intense public scrutiny, public schools may find allies in organizations that have traditionally supported charter schools and private providers.

Now, foundations are questioning their investment in charters and turning their attention to public school systems that are committed to innovation, equity and success for all students.

Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut is recognized for its innovation, union and management collaboration, and willingness to partner with outside agencies and education foundations.

Foundation support

District leaders have launched expanded-learning-time elementary schools in which all neighborhood students attend an additional 100 minutes of class each day, or 40 additional school days per year.

This innovation was funded by the American Federation of Teachers’ Innovation Fund, the National Center on Time and Learning, and the Ford Foundation.

Creating student-centered learning environments has helped our district achieve its highest test scores ever, as well as its highest graduation rates and lowest percentages of school-based exclusions.

This program was funded with financial and technical support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

Ensuring ninth-graders are on track with college and career readiness was Meriden’s next initiative. Transition support specialists work closely with small groups of students identified as at-risk for falling behind as freshmen.

Academic data, attendance records and behavioral reports help target students for additional support. This program is funded by the Dalio Foundation Connecticut RISE Network.

Effective principals are the key to staff success. We work closely with leaders at the University of Connecticut and the Wallace Foundation to ensure we have the data we need to drive school improvement.

Meriden Public Schools’ creative partnership with the Middlesex Community College Foundation led to a community college campus located at one of our high schools. In exchange for free space, the college provides five tuition-free seats to our students in every college course offered there.

High school students have the opportunity to enroll in college courses, earn free college credits and broaden their horizons.

Lastly, we partnered with the School Superintendents Association and the Walmart Foundation to launch creative grab-and-go breakfast programs. This year, district students receive free breakfast and lunch.

Encouraging foundation support

Here are three keys to getting more funding from foundations.

  • Publish. Every public school district has something to be proud of—something that makes a difference for students. Tell your story. Other leaders are looking for their next innovation, and it could be yours.

    We share our best practices, our successes and the challenges that lie ahead.
     
  • Present. State, regional and national conferences want to highlight the great work occurring in your schools. Pull your team together and submit a presentation proposal. A conference might also lead to your next innovation.
     
  • Build relationships. Partnering with foundations opens a realm of meaningful relationships outside the education setting.

    We have always been willing to engage in honest conversations, to welcome visitors into our schools, and to foster authentic dialogues with central staff, principals, teachers, students and parents.

The influence of foundations on education policy and practices will only expand as public funding becomes more strained. Public schools across our nation are doing some of the most innovative work in education.

It is time for us to open the doors of opportunity by publishing, presenting and building relationships. When we do, foundations committed to high-quality education for all will take notice.


Mark D. Benigni is superintendent of the Meriden Public Schools in Connecticut. Lois B. Lehman is the district’s coordinator of grants and special projects.