Building on What's Working: A Funder Doubles Down on an English Learning Model in California

A good time to pay close attention to foundations is when a big anniversary year comes up. Some funders mark the milestone quietly without any publicity, while others use the date to make a big commitment or outline new plans for the future. Whether it’s 10 years or 100, we’ve noticed a lot of foundations around the country making bigger deals about their anniversary dates.

A case in point is Bay Area-based Sobrato Family Foundation (SFF), which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and used the two-decade milestone to launch a 10-year commitment to improve the language and literacy skills of English learners in California. The investment kicked off with an initial $29 million in funding to support the Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL) educational model.

SEAL is aligned with Common Core Standards and includes everything from coaching sessions for preschool and elementary teachers to hands-on science workshops and artist residents in classrooms. From the beginning, SEAL has had a lot of moving parts. But it seems to be working well and is gaining momentum, thanks to some recent legislation. 

The Sobratos' new grant and even bigger long-term commitment send a clear message that education for children in California will be a top focus for this deeply philanthropic family going forward. The California Department of Education stats say that almost 25 percent of public school students in the state are learning English as a second language, and that most of these students are in elementary school. In just the past year, restrictions have been lightened in California regarding how ESL lessons are taught. Following the passing of Proposition 58, the Sobratos may have seen this as an opportunity to push their model even further.

The big goal is to develop new bilingual and language immersion programs, especially to serve children who don’t have access the type of teaching that values their background and builds upon it. The goal is not to dismiss the primary language and cultural traditions of students from immigrant families. Instead, the Sobratos are pushing for ways to keep those old traditions alive while simultaneously helping kids succeed in traditional American schools. There’s also an underlying goal of boosting parent involvement, which could mean a little English education for parents, too.

But for the foreseeable future, the key focus of Sobrato giving in this area is improving teacher capacity in pre-K through third grade classrooms. The momentum is strong right now, and the stakes are high for California's future, given the enormous number of young children in the state's schools who come from ESL households. SFF wants to get this model into more school districts and attract support from other foundations, as well. Early assessments of the SEAL model have been positive. It started as a Silicon Valley pilot project in 2008 and has since expanded to 87 schools within 16 California districts. This a great example of a foundation really drilling deeply into a critical area—and then building on that investment to ramp things up even further. 

You can learn more about SEAL here. Silicon Valley continues to be the greatest priority for SFF, especially nonprofits in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Southern Alameda counties.