Building Philanthropy for a Better Florida

ENGAGE Funders' Toolkit

Module 4: Philanthropy's Role

The Importance of Philanthropy's Voice

In an ever-changing landscape of leadership turnover, policy changes, and shifting (but ever-present) political constraints, many across the education sector rely only on trusted partners and trusted sources of information. Even as they realize that circle of influence or knowledge may not be large enough to know and achieve all they wish to accomplish.

Leaders matter. 

At all levels: district, school-level, classroom and in the community. They influence and shape the culture and create conditions to deliver on their vision for excellent instruction.

But leaders leave.

No one knows how to counteract the churn, which seems to be growing. Fatigue and retraction sets in if there are not leaders at other levels, or in other roles, who can maintain the vision.

Public Understanding and Will

Education leaders, funders and stakeholders in the community can be transformative in building and creating coalitions that can live and last beyond leadership turnover. They can be beneficial in fostering a collective education vision created with input, that results in buy-in and creates supporters who can keep the vision alive throughout turnover.

This requires knowledge, capacity, the will to spearhead such a process and engaging with partners who know what rich instructional content is.

MANY AGREE: We need better messaging strategies to communicate the “why” behind sticking with the hard work of achieving excellent instruction that has come with the transition to the Florida Standards.

Opportunities for Involvement

To education funders, conversations with local educational organizations on improving education and monitoring changes to Florida Standards may seem normal, but many districts don’t realize the untapped potential for innovative partnerships.

“We have not actively pursued outside funders other than competitive grant opportunities,” said Superintendent Kurt Browning. Outside funders eager to entertain funding for implementation and quality education efforts was a new concept to the Pasco County Superintendent of Schools. “Historically, public education systems don’t seek private money to do the work.”

HISTORICALLY, public education systems don’t seek private money to do the work."

- Kurt Browning, Pasco County Superintendent

Partnerships between philanthropy and the public education system is still a relatively new frontier, said Marlene Spalten, president & CEO of Community Foundation of Tampa Bay.

“It’s tricky. In Hillsborough County, our regional South Shore council has been funding specific projects from individual teachers” she said. “But we knew we needed to be at a higher level.”

Philanthropy needs to be supportive and aligned with district needs, Spalten said. And so the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay team met with the regional superintendent to determine areas where the community foundation could support larger education initiatives without replacing public dollars.

Identifying District Needs

One way funders are supporting Florida Standards implementation is through diagnostic reviews conducted by TNTP with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Pasco County is one of five districts in the Florida Pilot Implementation Network, a network of districts created under the leadership of TNTP. The network’s goal is that students and teachers are more often engaged in teaching and learning that is aligned with the expectations of the Florida Standards.

A 2015 diagnostic report found that not enough Pasco teachers were delivering standards-aligned curriculum. The diagnostic wasn’t easy for Pasco, but it was a game-changer for the county, said Vanessa Engel Hilton, Pasco County Assistant Superintendent for Student Achievement.

One lesson from the TNTP diagnostic into Pasco County resulted in the revamp of recruitment and retention in Pasco County, including moving hiring events earlier in the year, working directly with area colleges and universities and moving human resources into the schools.

“We’ve created a position called Human Capital Partners that are assigned to a group of schools, and they interface the needs of that school back into the personnel system, from recruitment to retention to onboarding,” Browning said.

Funders should work directly with districts to identify customized funding plans to address district-specific and community needs.

Collective Commitment

Florida Standards implementation is a statewide effort, Browning said, calling for a collective superintendent commitment. “Superintendents as a whole must be instructional leaders and instructional advocates. If we want to get results on FSA, we have to teach the standards and teach them to the rigor that they are intended to be taught.”

Through TNTP, Pasco County identified their vision of excellence and relentlessly pursued the indicators of rigorous instruction in the classroom, working toward both outstanding student achievements and improvement in staff efficacy.

The vision of excellence is critical, because it informs everything else from strategy to resource allocation to new approaches in the classroom. Without clear expectations on instruction, schools will find it difficult to choose the right materials for rigorous instruction and standards-aligned curriculum, Hilton said.

This type of intensive professional learning, continuous coaching and support at the school-based level, quality materials in the hands of our teachers...can move a system forward."

- Vanessa Engel Hilton, Pasco County Assistant Superintendent for Student Achievement

“These strategies – this type of intensive professional learning, continuous coaching and support at the school-based level, quality materials in the hands of our teachers – those are the things that can move a system forward,” Hilton said.

District leadership also has an obligation to think innovatively on how they use existing funds and what kind of new programs can support teacher training to ensure standards-alignment curriculum.

And that’s exactly where funders can support their local districts. “[Funders] cannot fund public education,” Spalten said. “One role funders can play is to take a risk on a pilot or new program that might be hard for a school district to get buy-in from stakeholders.”

Investment Opportunities

Funders should work directly with districts to identify customized funding plans to address district-specific and community needs. This is not meant to be a complete or instructive list. Each situation will generation its own unique opportunities for investments.

Non-financial investment opportunities

Be an advocate for higher-quality education and educators in your community.

  • Support efforts to educate the public and elected officials on the importance of achieving the potential of Standards-aligned teaching and learning and the role this could play in ensuring a successful future for Florida’s students. Investing in Florida’s teachers and better student outcomes is a shared role for taxpayers and funders alike.

Encourage higher education institutions to better address national and/or state standards in their curriculum for aspiring teachers.

  • Start or join conversations about the need to train standards and alignment in colleges of education at universities.

Lend your voice to community conversations and discussions, including attending local government meetings for educational issues.

  • Regardless of whether you have school-aged children, your interest in education is tied to the future of your community. Engagement at the local level – including supporting quality candidates for school boards – supports local control of education where stakeholders are most in tune with the community’s needs.

Financial Investment opportunities

A common theme among funders is encouraging grantmakers to invest in pilot programs, innovative techniques and experimentation that the district may not be able to explore on their own. This influx of innovative funding can help discover new ways to approach teacher support for the Florida Standards implementation. Below are some examples of how Florida funders can invest in K-12 education and Florida Standards Implementation.

  • Develop “train the trainer” programs for teachers and district leaders to maximize professional development in your district.
  • New curriculum trainings and roll-out, particularly with teachers responsible for meeting more than one study area.
  • Identify areas of improvement and invite national organizations to share best practices and support local efforts.
  • Support district-wide training development and execution during the summer months.
  • Help fund research and diagnostic analyses to improve schools through informed, strategic measures.

Questions to Ask District Leadership

Philanthropy’s role needs to be supportive and aligned with district needs, advises Marlene Spalten, president & CEO of Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. Funders should be upfront and transparent about what they can and can support; likewise district leadership should be candid about the needs of their schools and when well-intentioned efforts don’t align with district needs.

Both sides of the partnership should stay true to what they know and what they do best. Here are a few questions you can ask district leadership to identify partnership opportunities:

What is the need?

  • Is the request for issue-based or solution-based? Is the need for research to identify potential solutions or has the district already determined ways to support a particular concern?

Does the district have the capacity to address this need beyond funding support?

  • For instance, if the need is for new curriculum materials, are the teachers prepared to implement the new materials? If the need is training in new teaching methods, do the schools have the physical space for collaborative learning?
  • Do the schools have the right capacity (physical space, time, resources, personnel) to support the best possible use of funding?

Why this potential program?

  • How does funding this issue or solution support quality education as a whole? How does this issue relate to Florida Standards implementation?

What is the level of parental involvement and/or support for this need?

  • Are there levels of expectation for uniformity between schools? How will parents be involved in pilot programs?

What is my role as a funder?

  • Funders cannot replace tax dollars or funding into the public education system, but they can complement these efforts by supporting district-wide or school-specific pilot programs where other stakeholders may not have the flexibility or backing to take risks. But a clearly defined role for the funder is of utmost importance when identifying potential partnerships.
  • Some funders may be more equipped to fund research or larger, systems-wide changes, while other funders can fund time-sensitive issues or specific initiatives in part or whole.
  • Know what your role and expectations are from the beginning so that you don’t overextend yourself, and be candid with districts on how you can support Florida Standards implementation so that you don’t miss an opportunity to contribute.

ENGAGE is an initiative of Florida Philanthropic Network in partnership with its Education Affinity Group and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Special thanks to Jacksonville Public Education Fund, The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Conn Memorial Foundation, TNTP and Pasco County Schools for their insight, time and contributions to the ENGAGE toolkit.