Beyond Boston, Mass. School Districts Look to Nonprofits for Reform

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February 11, 2012; Source: Boston Globe | Bigger is not necessarily better. At least that’s mantra of Brockton, Mass. Schools Superintendent Matthew Malone. Malone and other superintendents of smaller cities in the state are trying to promote and attract partnerships between their schools and nonprofits and foundations as incubators for reforms in education.

Since 2010, nearly three-quarters of underperforming schools in Massachusetts are located in cities on the outskirts of Boston, such as Brockton.

Collaborations between these smaller school districts and nonprofits hold the potential for amplified services in tutoring, teacher training, technology upgrades, out-of-school time enrichment, dental care services and a plethora of other initiatives. However, the fragmentation of these smaller Massachusetts cities, which collectively serve nearly 230,000 students per year, can be a large deterrent for potential partners; nonprofits and foundations often focus on bigger cities, where the promise of greater impact—or need—often lies. This may be why big name partners like the Wallace Foundation and the Gates Foundation have gravitated towards Boston public schools as opposed to nearby cities.

Boston has gained status as one of the nation’s better-performing large, urban school systems. Its stable leadership gives nonprofits and foundations confidence that their financial investments will not suffer amid metamorphosing educational priorities. Yet small school districts make up three-quarters of the underperforming schools in the state.

For instance, in nearby Revere, Superintendent Paul Dakin reports that he has not been able to entice a single university to work with his 6,000 students and 11 schools. “We are here with similar problems and demographics as the Boston public schools,” Dakin says. Dakin’s district has, however, been able to enlist the help of Teach for America.

Massachusetts schools outside of Boston have an opportunity to “show the world what’s possible,” according to Joshua Biber, executive director of Teach for America Greater Boston. Biber says nearly two-thirds of Massachusetts Teach for America members work in schools outside of Boston, where, he says, they “feel very welcomed and valued.”

Meanwhile, about 80 percent of Massachusetts schools and 90 percent of the state’s school districts were deemed as failing under the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. President Obama recently granted a waiver to free several states, including Massachusetts, from NCLB’s requirements. If NCLB didn’t work, then it’s conceivable that smaller school districts may look to nonprofits and foundations as keys to educational reform with increasing frequency. Will nonprofits and foundations reciprocate by looking beyond “the usual suspects” when making grants or considering partnerships with school districts? –Saras Chung