Lisa Villarreal, The San Francisco Foundation

TITLE: Program Officer, Education

FUNDING AREAS: Early childhood and K-12 education

CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)

IP TAKE: With more than 30 years of service in public education, Villarreal is an expert on the issues faced by schools in the region. She's applied that expertise to drive a robust education program focused on ensuring academic success for the city's most vulnerable students.

PROFILE: Since becoming program officer in 2005, Lisa Villarreal has left a mark on The San Francisco Foundation's education program, providing a direction toward three strategic goals: early childhood education, equity building projects, and full-service community schools. The latter is the foundation's "signature area," and in recent years the program has stopped providing funding for stand-alone programs that "are not part of a full-service community school partnership, a school-wide equity intervention program, or a comprehensive early childcare education program."

In a blog post describing the core project, It Takes a Neighborhood, the foundation describes the idea behind community schools: "The community schools philosophy looks at students within the context of their families and support networks, and ensures that those networks are strong and thriving." Area schools build partnerships throughout the community, seek to engage parents, and provide students solid social and emotional support, among other things.

Villarreal has long been active in advocating for community schools, and she has been chair of the National Coalition for Community Schools since 2000. Organizations that truly embrace this model for education reform and focus on providing support for students, teachers and their families have consistently received money from the foundation.

Writing in a blog post for the foundation, Villarreal noted what the program looks for in candidate:

We look for rising star organizations who are embracing the term en loco parentis with open arms, assessing the strengths and needs of all students, and turning their schools and school communities into thriving oases for all children and youth to thrive.

When we asked Villarreal what advise she would give to prospective grantees, this was her response: 

The first thing I’d recommend is often shared, but it’s a tried and true one, and that’s that doing your research is key. Take a look at what we fund and why, and who we’ve funded in the past. For the education program, the extensive research that has been done on early childhood equity and community schools is central to our strategy and grantmaking. Community schools create the necessary conditions for learning by taking a holistic view of issues impacting students’ lives. Everything from what’s happening in their homes to quality teachers and after school programs: tutoring, counseling, health services, parent education, youth leadership activities. When you invest in early childhood, every dollar invested is returned 17 fold.

The San Francisco Foundation is one of the largest funders of education in the region, annually doling out grants totaling more than $15 million. The majority of their grants are between $10,000 and $25,000, with one of the largest, $50,000, going to the San Francisco School Alliance. Most education grantees work in partnership with a public school in the area. These grantees tend to make an impact on the lowest performing schools and create opportunities for poverty-stricken students. 

Along with the focus on full-service public schools, the program also funds projects that "support leadership and professional development for the creation" of early childhood education programs. And creating equity in education is also a major objective of the foundation, focused on programs that "support long-term implementation of climate and culture-changing interventions, designed to address persistent achievement gaps."

That focus of culture changing and transforming plays out a lot in Villarreal's funding direction.

"With nearly 30% of our children now living in poverty, their parents underemployed, poorly housed, underinsured, and at times, underprepared to coach them to succeed in school, our public and private systems must all band together to create a floor of equity, below which no child will fall into the flood," she wrote in a blog post for the foundation. "A floor of equity that insures that both academic and nonacademic conditions for learning are met in every school community."

The Campaign for Hope SF focuses on generational poverty and public housing in the Bayview, Potrero Hill, and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods of San Francisco. Villarreal describes this public-private partnership as a way to boost school attentdance, provide the skills needed to attain a living-wage job, and turn the tide on health disparities in the southeast sector of San Francisco. The program invests in solutions to reduce chronic absence in schools, which will lead to stronger performance in the classoom and better economic opportunities down the road. 

Villarreal told the following to IP, which gives a great perspective on her passionate role at the foundation:

"What we’re talking about is closing opportunity gaps. And focusing on the life of each individual child. Students who do well do well because they have a whole, well-rounded life -- not just school. Caring parents, medical care, after school programs, a safe environment, a warm home, food on the table and the list goes on and on. We have to bring the partners to school. After 25 years in public education, this is how I see the work. That until we eliminate the barriers to learning, we’re not going to close the gaps."


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