Grantor: Lewy Family Foundation, New York City
Grantee: The S.E.E.D. School
No one who follows education can fail to have noticed that the charter school movement is shaking up the assumptions of parents and school districts. Some of the most exciting charter schools are those which offer kids wh they are currently trapped.
But what about those children for whom school is not the only failing institution? Coming from a broken family is tough, but what about those kids whose families are “broken” beyond any recognition as a “family”? The problems of children swirling in the vortex of familial freefall don’t start and end with the classroom bell.
One problem at a time, you say? That’s not the way the founders of the S.E.E.D. School see it. The S.E.E.D. School (that’s “Schools for Educational Evolution and Development”) in Washington, D.C., is the first charter school conceived as a boarding school—and as a pilot for a hoped-for national trend.
Rajiv “Raj” Vinnakota, a 29-year old Princeton graduate who in 1997 quit his day job as a management consultant to co-found S.E.E.D. along with colleague Eric Adler, explains that for many children from the most “difficult circumstances,” a boarding school environment is precisely what they need. Why spend all your time worrying about (and attempting to remediate) the problems besetting these kids when they aren’t at school when you can create a secure and stable 24-hour-a-day learning environment.
It’s not for everyone. Indeed, it’s not for most kids. But for some kids, the soup-to-nuts boarding school approach to learning might be the single decisive choice that diverts their life from a downward spiral of ever-diminishing expectations into a life of promise and achievement.
This kind of intensive approach requires a demanding blend of energy, intelligence, and resourcefulness. Fortunately, that’s just what the people at S.E.E.D. have in abundance. They expect a lot from their students, describing the school as a college prep program, not, Vinnakota is quick to emphasize, “as a juvenile center or a foster care facility.”
Vinnakota has learned that “kids respond to structure,” even (perhaps especially) those who might not have had much structure in their lives. “The biggest problem isn’t the kids adapting—it’s the parents adapting.”
Early results are encouraging. All 40 students who started the first year’s class finished out the year, a remarkable achievement considering the broad-net selection criteria the school used. Vinnakota recounts the challenge of trying to accommodate students with such divergent—and in some cases only the most rudimentary—educational backgrounds: “Some of the kids would say, ‘I’m a 7th grader,’ and we’d have to say ‘No, you’re not—you’ve been lied to by the school system.’”
This businesslike sense of realism extends to the school’s finances. “Charter schools can fail in a number of ways, the first of which is fiscally.” And while they have been quite successful at fundraising, garnering enthusiastic grants from local donors as well as others further afield, their ambitious plans are going to require finding some new—and generous—supporters (Vinnakota and Adler have already lobbied Congress, successfully, to change District of Columbia law to provide support for boarding charter schools).
Glen Lewy, an investment banker and board member of the New York City-based Lewy Family Foundation, explains why he is attracted to the program: “I love the S.E.E.D. School. I got involved very early—Raj was a friend of my son’s and he knew that I had been interested in education and involved in education projects. Raj showed me their business plan. I gave him some advice, and became a donor.”
Adds Lewy, “I’m a venture capitalist [and] what was most appealing to me was that Raj and Eric bring to it all of the same skills that I see in the entrepreneurial world. What the best entrepreneurs do today is look at a business and say ‘what is not being done here, what can be done better here?’ And that’s what they’ve done. They bring an entrepreneurial spirit to the nonprofit world. And in the nonprofit world there are not enough people with that.”