Hurricane Isabel could dim some of the lights, but not the students’ enthusiasm at Gaston College Preparatory School in North Carolina. Though school was officially closed due to the storm—and only a third of the rooms had electricity—over forty students showed up for The Philanthropy Roundtable’s visit in September. Such dedication is not what you would expect from the typical middle school.
But not much at Gaston College Preparatory—the kids call it GCP—is typical. The school opened its doors in fall 2001 with 80 fifth-grade students. According to state tests, fewer than half were working at or above grade level in math and reading. Two years later, nearly every student works at or above grade level, making Gaston Prep the sixth-highest-performing school in all of North Carolina.
The students are hardly privileged. Over 85 percent of the students—most of whom are African-American—receive free or reduced-price lunch. The school is located in Northampton County near the Virginia border on land that was formerly a peanut and soybean farm. The county is economically distressed, and none of the schools in the region are known for their academic rigor. None, that is, except Gaston Prep.
From the moment you enter the school’s low-rise building, you know that things are different here. Every classroom has curtains in its windows. Sayings such as, “Make no excuses. Take no shortcuts. Be the change you want to see in the world,” are posted on the walls. And the student lockers have no locks, because, as seventh-grader Walia Brodie says, “We don’t need them. We should be able to trust each other.”
The students are quiet and well-behaved. Yet they participate in their lessons with intensity. When science teacher Michelle Stallings asks a question, nearly every hand goes up. And the questions aren’t easy. At GCP, every sixth-grader takes pre-Algebra. Every seventh-grader takes Algebra. No exceptions.
“The high academic standards convinced the Challenge Foundation to give the school a $118,000 seed grant,” says B. J. Steinbrook, executive director. Founded in 1989, the Challenge Foundation is a private family foundation that supports model charter schools. The main office is located in Plano, Texas, but the foundation’s grantmaking is nationwide.
Charter schools face enormous financial obstacles to opening and remaining open; obstacles that traditional public schools do not face. And one simple seed grant—strategically channeled—can make all the difference.
The Challenge Foundation’s seed grants for new schools generally range from $75,000 to $100,000. Once the initial grant is made, the foundation may make a second- or even a third-year grant on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis. Steinbrook is working to encourage other small family foundations to adopt a similar strategy.
The foundation did not always have such a focused mission. For its first two years, the foundation focused on what Steinbrook calls “teens in trouble,” targeting teenagers who drop out of school, become pregnant, or are involved in drugs and violence. “We felt good, but overwhelmed—overwhelmed to see how many kids were in these situations and how hard it was to help them recover.”
So the foundation decided to take a step back. “We said, ‘Let’s look at the roots. Let’s try to do prevention rather than crisis-management.’” Prevention led the Challenge Foundation to focus on K-12 education. “Education is really a synonym for prevention. And we decided: The younger, the better.”
The foundation’s early years with K-12 investments were somewhat frustrating. Steinbrook started in public schools with project-oriented grants, but found that these investments lacked leverage. “We were pleased with the results, but those successes rarely went beyond the school where we did the funding. We wanted our impact to spread to other schools in the district.”
Private school investments lacked leverage, too. “We found excellent private schools. But they could never impact public schools. Public schools always had an excuse. They would say, ‘We don’t have the freedom to pick and choose our kids; we have to take who we get.’”
Enter charter schools. Steinbrook found that these independent public schools were the “perfect hybrid” between public and private. They had more autonomy than public schools to develop standards, manage their budgets, and hire and fire teachers, but they served the same students as public schools. The foundation has supported 162 charter schools to date with grants totaling $16 million.
What distinguishes the Challenge Foundation from many other charter school funders is how selective it is about its investments. “We don’t randomly give money to any charter school. We look for quality.” Though they only have four staff members, the foundation scouts the nation looking for models of academic excellence. According to the foundation’s formula, a school must have an academically rigorous program, a component of character education, active involvement by parents, and a close connection to the community.
The Challenge Foundation is not only looking for charter school impact in school districts, but states as well. Says Steinbrook, “We look for leadership schools in leadership states.” A “leadership state” has progressive charter school laws and other choice initiatives, including private and public voucher programs or tax credit reforms. Currently, the foundation is funding schools in 22 states.
Gaston Prep is one of nine KIPP schools supported by the Challenge Foundation. KIPP—short for the Knowledge is Power Program—began in 1994 when two teachers founded schools in inner-city Houston and New York. The programs gained national recognition for their academic rigor and consistent success with underserved children. In 2000, Doris and Donald Fisher, founders of Gap Incorporated, expanded KIPP into a national, nonprofit organization that works to replicate the success of the first KIPP schools.
Joan Lange, a program director at the Challenge Foundation for seven years, said the KIPP model is easy to support. “We seek out people who say there are no excuses—that it’s possible to educate all children in our country equally.”
Lange handled the grant for Gaston Prep and worked with Caleb Dolan, co-founder and co-principal. “I met Caleb when he was green behind the ears. The Challenge Foundation gave him money so he could start a new school, literally from scratch.” The $118,000 grant was used for field “lessons,” Saturday and after-school enrichment programs, classroom furniture, teacher supplies, and instructional materials.
According to Dolan, “Every part of it was huge. And the reason was simple: it came at the right time.” The district provides roughly 60 percent of a school’s funding midway through the school year, so Gaston Prep would not have been ready without the Challenge Foundation’s help. GCP also received a $195,000 seed grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
Dolan describes himself as the “typical” Teach For America recruit. Teach For America is a nonprofit organization that recruits recent college graduates to teach in hard-to-staff schools. Dolan joined the program because of personal convictions. “I wanted to put actions behind my ideals.” Once in Gaston, he earned a reputation as an excellent teacher. But that was not enough.
“My kids did well. But bottom line, two years later, my star student was pregnant. Without follow-through and a consistent environment, kids fall off. I knew it was not enough to be one good teacher in one good classroom—we needed a school.”
But why stay in Gaston? “We had the opportunity to go elsewhere.” Originally, the KIPP model was to be replicated only in urban centers. In fact, Dolan and co-founder Tammi Sutton were recruited to start KIPP schools in Denver and Atlanta. “But that was not where our hearts and heads were.”
So Dolan and Sutton founded a school in Gaston, and in only a short time, they have created a safe space where learning and hard work are valued by all. When Sutton asks: “What does it mean to be ‘cool’ here?” Marco Squire answers without hesitation: “Smart.” A tall, handsome boy with rows of braids pulled tightly to his head, Marco was diagnosed with a learning disability in reading before entering Gaston Prep. Here, there are no pullouts for “students with special needs.” Marco jumped from the 24th percentile on state reading tests to the 64th percentile in only one year at GCP, and his math progress is equally stunning.
What makes the difference? According to Dolan, “We just work harder.” And he’s not exaggerating. Gaston Prep students have nearly 70 percent more time in the classroom than the average public school student. Classes begin at 7:30 am and do not end until 5 pm. Students attend school two Saturdays a month and two weeks during the summer. Caleb emphasizes that his kids need this extra time to succeed.
“How many of you entrepreneurs leave the office at 2 pm?” Dolan asked during The Philanthropy Roundtable’s visit. Despite the long hours, the attendance rate at Gaston Prep is 98 percent. In fact, when the day ends, many students ask: “Can we stay longer?”
Work harder. Behave better. Think more. GCP teachers, students, and parents sign a contract committing to do all three of these things.
For Dolan, working hard has to be complemented by thinking hard. Every day his team is evaluating the school and ways to make improvements. “We never let up. What we do here is doable anywhere—but it requires exceptional effort.”
Dolan’s next project for GCP is to build a high school. When KIPP students in New York and Houston finish the eighth grade, many have scholarships to go to high-quality boarding schools. Dolan’s kids won’t have that option. And the public school options are dismal. “I can’t in good conscience send our kids to these schools. We have to build our own high school to keep the kids we have now on the right track.”
Doing so will not be easy, especially without outside investments. But seventh-grader Walia is not worried. In fact, when you ask her how she would change things if she were principal for a day, she says: “I would build a college. I wouldn’t stop at the high school.”
And what about after college? “When I get older, I will make my own money. And then I can use that money to help other people.”