Grantor: Pfizer Inc., New York, New York
Grantee: The Adobe Foundation
Perhaps because it was the only country of eastern and central Europe that experienced a violent transition from communism, Romania has been the slowest of its formerly socialist neighbors to develop democratic and free market institutions. Nothing more poignantly illustrates the social and economic devastation wrought by communism in Romania—and provides a reminder of how far the country has yet to go—than the faces of Romania’s orphans. This gift, along with generous support from the Lauder Foundation, the Krongrad Foundation and COMPAQ computers, is working to change conditions for a group of parentless children in one city in Romania, and in so doing, helping to nurture a nascent civil society.
Seth Cropsey, chairman of the Adobe Foundation, first became interested in the plight of Romanian orphans when a group visited the southern German town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen where he is a distinguished professor at the Marshall Center, a U.S. Department of Defense facility. Cropsey, who spends his days teaching applied democracy to officials of former Soviet bloc nations, saw an opportunity not only to improve the lives of some Romanian children, but to put into practice the principles of private initiative and strong, effective civil society that are taught at the Marshall Center. So in 1995, he and a group of colleagues formed the Adobe Foundation.
Their immediate goal is to improve the living conditions for orphans in the western Romanian town of Sintana, “home” to about 180 orphans living in seven separate state-run orphanages. Seeking to move these children from state-run facilities to private, family-style residences, the Adobe Foundation purchased a house in Sintana that is now in the final stages of renovation. The structure, which formerly had no plumbing and electrical wiring for only three outlets, will soon be the home of 10 to 12 kids.
Although the Foundation is looking to acquire yet another, larger residence for the orphans of Sintana, Cropsey has his eyes on a much larger prize. He wants to instill a spirit of private initiative in Sintana, and through that help nurse back to life a civil society virtually extinguished by decades of communist dictatorship.
“The things we take for granted living in a community—parades, barbeques, events that involve people getting together—don’t exist there,” says Cropsey. “My goal is to make it clear that this is not an effort of the United States government but of individuals taking affairs into their own hands. I want to impart the message that government is not the only place Romanians can go to help themselves.”
The obstacles for the Adobe Foundation are structural and logistical as well as political. With a gift of computer equipment from COMPAQ, the Foundation recently set out to link the orphanages of Sintana to each other and to the internet. The problem was, Sintana, a town of 16,000, had only three international phone connections: one for the mayor, one for the police chief and one for a gas station that had recently gone out of business. According to Cropsey, it took a lot of “politicking” to secure the gas station’s old connection for the orphans. “I had to use the best techniques that I learned in Washington,” he says. But he succeeded. One small step into cyberspace; one giant leap for 180 Romanian orphans.
Grantor: The Michael L. and Rosalind C. Keiser Charitable Trust, Chicago, Illinois
Grantee: The Friends of Marva Collins Foundation
Chicago businessman and philanthropist Mike Keiser’s description of educator Marva Collins self-consciously echos Collins’ promise to her students. “She is a true modern hero and cannot be allowed to fail,” says Keiser. And that’s just what Collins tells her students, mostly inner-city Chicago kids deemed uneducable by the public school system: “I will not let you fail.”
Keiser teamed up with businessman Michael Miller and philanthropist Bob Russell to establish the Friends of Marva Collins Foundation in 1995 to support a woman who has been simultaneously an innovator in education in Chicago, and a thorn in the side of the Chicago education establishment. Since 1975, when she left a career in teaching in the Chicago public schools in frustration, Collins has operated alternative schools for Chicago kids—and offered alternative methods to teachers nationwide.
Collins began her first school, the Westside Preparatory School, with $5,000 of her retirement money in the second floor of her brownstone. Her students were two of her own children and four of her neighbor’s children in West Garfield Park, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Collins salvaged textbooks from schoolyard trash bins and hand-copied texts when there were not enough to go around. Within three years, 28 children were enrolled, with a waiting list of 175 applicants. Today, the Marva Collins Preparatory School educates 220 children grades K through 8.
Friends of Marva Collins Foundation President Michael Miller is looking to expand the reach of Collins’ remarkable pedagogy, which emphasizes discipline and education basics—and typically has inner city kids reading Shakespeare, studying Latin and geometry, and performing above their grade level. For Miller, that means concentrating on physical plant. “We’re really in the school business,” he says. “We’re renovating schools, seeking new markets.” The foundation is in the process of buying an additional building at the site of the Marva Collins Preparatory School, into which they hope to add 150 new students each year for the next three years. They are also looking at creating another school to serve Chicago’s south side.
For all her accomplishments, according to Keiser, Collins’ “biggest triumph” came when she was selected last year to manage three failing public schools in Chicago. Although the first six months of her tenure as “probation manager” of the schools was supposed to be devoted to training teachers in her educational methods, Collins didn’t wait to go to work with her students. By mid-year, the reading scores of students at two of her schools had doubled and math scores had risen by 50 percent.
Grantor: The WKBJ Foundation, Denville, New Jersey
Grantee: North Star Academy Charter School
After looking at 72 properties over eight months, Norman Atkins finally found it. “The best building was right in the downtown of Newark. The problem is that it was not available for lease. It was for sale. I went to the largest community development foundation in the state, the New Community Corporation, and they purchased the building and are renting it to us for ten years.”
That building—10 Washington Place—opens this September as a charter school for 72 lucky Newark 5th and 6th graders, selected by lottery from more than two-hundred applicants. North Star is one of 18 charter schools approved by New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman this January, and one of about a dozen expected to actually open this fall.
Charter schools receive public funding but are given free reign to operate and experiment without the suffocating oversight of the local education bureaucracy. Norm Atkins is the school’s co-founder: “The beauty of the charter school concept is that it allows the school to operate independently of the local board of education. The school’s board of trustees is basically its own board of education.”
That freedom allows North Star to do things a little differently from most public schools. To begin with, all North Star pupils will wear uniforms. Students must agree to a code of conduct. Parents have to get involved. Says Atkins: “All the parents pledge to get deeply involved in the school, to make sure their kids come to school on time every day, to make sure the kids have quiet time at home at night to do their homework, [and] to support the discipline code.” The school day starts with an assembly and some “inspirational words.” Says Atkins: “We want the whole community to see each other and make sure everybody gets fired up before the day begins.”
But the state that grants the charter can also revoke it. “You get freedom, and in exchange you get accountability,” says Atkins. “If you do something wrong, you can be closed down. If you do well, then you continue getting the [state] money.”
Even before opening, North Star is proving a big hit with local residents. The school had three times as many applications as spaces available in the school, and some parents can’t contain themselves. Newark resident and mother of three Denice Hicks says she is “thrilled and grateful. I feel this terrific sense of accomplishment at how far we’ve come and a renewed devotion to the task of creating a first-class school for our children in Newark.” Adds Hicks: “There is not even a handful of public schools in Newark that have the academic curriculum and standards that I want for my children.”
Hicks’s son, Asim, will be eligible to attend North Star beginning in the 1998-1999 school year. The New Community Corporation’s below-market rental agreement was not the only foundation support received by North Star. It so happens that Atkins is a trustee of the WKBJ Foundation (1997 assets approximately $3 million). WKBJ was founded in 1990 with a Wall Street money management partner’s anonymous donation of appreciated stock.