New Linkages: A Closer Look at a K-12 Collaboration Between Two Top Funders

 photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

photo: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

The Together for Students initiative recently announced the 10 communities that will receive about $150,000 each to work on supporting local students and families. The initiative—which Inside Philanthropy first reported when it was called the “Students at the Center Challenge”—is a $1.5 million collaboration between the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Ford Foundation.

The partnership represents a cooperation between the country’s largest legacy foundation and a prominent newcomer. In the past, the Ford Foundation focused its education efforts on after-school programs, before ending such grantmaking in favor of focusing more broadly on fighting inequality. Education equity remains a big part of its giving, but falls under that larger umbrella.

Meanwhile, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made education a priority in its giving, and has emerged as a big backer of personalized learning in the last few years. This project fits with the funder’s exploration of student-centered learning. The community projects chosen share an emphasis on equity in education systems and creating learning environments that center on students.

The price tag on Together for Students isn’t terribly high for these two funders—CZI is backstopped by one of tech's largest fortunes and Ford has an endowment of more than $12 billion—but initiatives like this one can act as bellwethers, hinting at where grants may flow in the future.

Related: What's Interesting About the Latest K-12 Move by Chan Zuckerberg

The big thing we’ve learned since the initiative was announced last fall, in addition to which communities and organizations will participate, is that the grants will support work outside the classroom. The projects will address needs like health, food and shelter, in addition to mentorship and enrichment activities.

This decision to include work outside the classroom fits with Ford’s focus on inequality more broadly and the foundation’s progressive reputation. CZI also has shown an interest in the socioeconomic factors that influence student success. Priscilla Chan is the founder of the Primary School in East Palo Alto, which "provides a continuous, coordinated, and personalized system of supports for each child," including health services. 

Two of the organizing nonprofits behind Together for Children—Coalition for Community Schools and Communities In Schools—emphasize finding resources for students’ and families’ outside-the-classroom needs. The third organization, StriveTogether, works with communities to activate cross-sector collaboration to strengthen education outcomes. Both CIS and StriveTogether have received major support from the Ballmer Group, an increasingly important education funder that's also addressing the nexus of education and poverty.

The move comes as some prominent education reform funders are becoming more open to the role social and economic factors outside of school affect performance in the classroom. The Gates Foundation recently announced an initiative to take on domestic poverty after hearing from education leaders that it's essential to addressing factors at home and in communities that affect student success.

The communities chosen to participate in Together for Students stretch across the U.S., though two of the 10 are located in Tennessee alone. Birmingham, Chicago, Dayton, Ohio, Fresno, California, Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, Nashville, Memphis, Tennessee, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Vancouver, Washington, and Washington, D.C. are set to participate.

Perhaps more interesting are the organizations chosen to lead the work in each city. Eighty-six groups applied. Notably, there are no charter networks participating in the initiative. Two public school districts will lead work, as will the D.C. Public Education Fund, which raises money for the District’s public schools. In Chicago, Dayton, Fresno and Memphis, education nonprofits with broad cradle-to-career focuses will organize cross-sector work. Local United Ways are taking up the initiative in Birmingham, Lehigh Valley and Milwaukee.

As we mentioned, this fits with CZI’s education giving. The funder has worked both with charter and traditional public schools, but has shown little interest in picking sides. Lately, the funder’s giving has favored public schools somewhat. Recently, CZI gave $14 million to Chicago Public Schools and a local nonprofit to scale personalized learning in the city. It's also working closely with public schools in Rhode Island. 

The bigger takeaway about Together for Students is that both funders committed to a holistic approach to education funding with this project—both in the three national organizations they chose to run it and the mandate for local nonprofits to bring together multiple sectors within their communities to work on education outcomes. This initiative is a good example of a K-12 funding landscape that keeps evolving in interesting directions. 

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