Carolyn Dickson, O’Donnell Foundation

TITLE: Executive Director




FUNDING AREAS: K-12, Advanced Placement, teacher training, higher education, and STEM education




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IP TAKE: Dickson and the O'Donnell Foundation are big champions of Advanced Placement courses and increased academic rigor in high schools.




PROFILE: For Carolyn Bacon Dickson, executive director of the O'Donnell Foundation, improving student achievement, especially in mathematics and science, and preparing students for success in college doesn't require magic or special programs. If students take academically rigorous courses taught by knowledgeable, qualified teachers, they are far more likely to achieve success in college and in the workplace.




That is why the O'Donnell Foundation has long championed initiatives designed to strengthen teacher knowledge so that they can better prepare students to take Advanced Placement (AP) and pre-AP courses in high school. Building on its work in the 1990s with a Texas public schools system, the O'Donnell Foundation has created non-profit organizations and funded programs designed to create outstanding teachers who can deliver an academically challenging curriculum, especially in math and science. This is a rather narrow focus for O'Donnell, but an important one. And Dickson is definitely a go-to person for all things AP. 




"Research convinced us the best predictor of college success is the rigor of courses a student takes in high school," Dickson testified in 2012 to the U.S. Senate's Health, Education and Labor Committee. "A challenging high school curriculum frequently can overcome the deficits of family background or income."


For Dickson and the O'Donnell Foundation, College Board's AP program is the ideal vehicle for bringing more rigorous academics into secondary schools. AP courses involve the teaching of college-level material in high school, delivered by qualified teachers who have undergone AP training.




Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, the O'Donnell Foundation was founded in 1957 by Dallas banker and philanthropist Peter O'Donnell and his wife, Edith. The foundation's interest in improving student achievement in math and science extends back to the 1980s, when O'Donnell funded an expansion of the AP program in Texas schools at the time that the state was trying to attract the now-defunct Superconducting Supercollider project.




From the beginning, the O'Donnell Foundation has focused its work in education on the state of Texas. As more school systems in Texas began to implement the AP program, Dickson and the foundation created a non-profit organization called AP Strategies to train AP teachers. However, Dickson and her team saw a need for better preparation of students in middle school and those early high school years to equip them for the demands of AP courses. The result was Laying the Foundation, an initiative that focuses on training and development for teachers in grades 6-12. Laying the Foundation stresses training in content and pedagogy for AP and pre-AP teachers.




Although Dickson and the foundation focus their efforts on Texas, the Dallas Morning News reported in 2012 that Laying the Foundation has training contracts in eight states. Since 2008, Dickson and the foundation have provided more than $4 million in funding for Laying the Foundation.




At the end of 2011, Laying the Foundation merged with the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), expanding the reach of the AP teacher training effort that Dickson and the O'Donnell Foundation funded.  Dickson, who served on Laying the Foundation's board, became a member of NMSI's board as part of the merger.




Dickson's work with the O'Donnell Foundation has emphasized teacher training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, but that doesn't mean she is not interested in other academic areas. The foundation also has supported AP incentive programs in art and music. 




Dickson's advocacy of greater academic rigor is not limited to AP-related programs in secondary schools or to traditional public schools. O'Donnell also has supported charter schools, giving grants such as $337,000 in 2010 to Dallas-based Uplift Education, a charter school operator. So if you're a charter school operator that's serious about challenging your students academically to better prepare them for success in college, Dickson is a funder you should get to know. It's important to remember, however, that the foundation concentrates most of its work in Texas. In addition, O'Donnell does not award grants or fellowships to individuals.




In addition to its K-12 programs, the O'Donnell Foundation under Dickson has supported higher education programs that emphasize STEM-related fields.