Louis Calder (1879-1963) created a fortune as a leader in the pulp and paper industry and as a pioneer in the retail gasoline market. Born in humble circumstances, he made his way without a college education. He believed his success owed to his habits of sacrifice, effort, and having the wherewithal to see things through.
The Louis Calder Foundation draws from its namesake’s approach to life in its charitable giving. Founded in 1951, the New Canaan, Connecticut-based foundation gives away about $7 million annually, concentrating on education reform for young students.
“You might say it’s a stretch,” says Peter Calder, one of three trustees of the Louis Calder Foundation, “but that’s exactly what all of these children need in school—to understand that all life options are available and open to them if they make the sacrifice and are prepared with the educational tools to do it. I don’t think the current education system arms students with that idea early enough anymore.”
Yet the foundation was not established to meet this particular need. It was established as a trust and did not specifically define what the foundation should or should not do.
“[Louis] Calder did not want to encumber any future trustees with any of his personal outlooks or reasoning. The foundation was established for the general health and welfare. He did not even define a geographical area,” Peter Calder explains. Nor was the foundation created as a family foundation—when Peter, Louis Calder’s grandson, was appointed, he was the first family member on staff in 20 years.
From 1963 to 1985, that was how the foundation operated, giving to various causes as the trustees saw fit. Then, as Calder explains, “the current trustees came along” and acknowledged that the foundation “can’t be all things to all people—it just doesn’t work administratively.”
With this shift in strategy, the foundation re-focused its grantmaking to help children living under difficult economic and social circumstances in New York City and its surrounding areas. The trustees reasoned that some part of the children’s “support troika was broken down,” and the foundation would help by funding both academic and general after-school initiatives.
Though the foundation had taken a great leap toward specializing its mission, the trustees remained unsatisfied with the results. Calder admits, “We looked back and realized that the academic after-school support had resulted in little or no systemic impact.”
Grantmaking Today: From After-school to Core Curricula
In the past year, the Louis Calder Foundation has shifted its vision to address educational problems within the traditional school day. Though the foundation’s grantmaking maintains an after-school element, it now seeks primarily to impact schools’ core curricula more directly and sharpen academic models.
The foundation concluded that the only way to improve disadvantaged children’s education was to deliver content knowledge at the earliest possible moment. The group devoted its funding to influence “what is taught, how it is taught, and especially when it is taught.”
The foundation’s largest ongoing grant is a collaborative effort with the Core Knowledge Foundation (CKF), based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. Professor E.D. Hirsch Jr. founded CKF in 1986 for the purpose of developing a K-12 core curriculum and spreading that curriculum to as many schools as possible. The Core Knowledge Sequence CKF developed represents a broad consensus of teachers, parents, professional curriculum organizations, and scientists.
The Calder Foundation contributed $1 million in 2006 to help CKF develop a K-2 reading program, “Keys to Reading Curriculum.” The program is based on content delivery for nationwide CKF schools, all of which have a significant number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.
Its approach is broken down into two parts: the Skills Strand and the Listening and Learning (L&L) Strand. In the Skills Strand, readers learn how to decode the words on the page. In the L&L Strand, readers learn how to make sense of the words that have been decoded—teaching the student background knowledge, vocabulary, and cultural literacy. “Most reading programs focus chiefly on mechanics, the sounding out,” says Matthew Davis, the reading program’s director. “Most don’t make an attempt to systematically build background knowledge from the earliest age.”
The program emphasizes reading aloud, in response to a study that finds listening comprehension outpaces reading comprehension until the 6th, 7th, or even 8th grade year. “It takes all of elementary school for children to read as well as they listen. Elementary school children are still atomizing the reading process, becoming faster and better, so they don’t have as much energy left over to learn what the reading means. We tap into the listening,” says Davis.
The “read-alouds” introduce quite a lot of nonfiction to the young pupils—history, science, art, and music. The content of the material was selected through a rigorous process of expert panel studies and field testing.
“People say, ”That’s science, not critical reading.’ Unfortunately, schools’ tested subjects are reading and math, and they have a tendency to treat reading as a narrowly defined school set,“ says Davis.
Calder describes the CKF reading process as adding layers of learning and touts its cumulative, integrative approach to teaching.
The program is in its pilot stage, reaching 10 schools, 41 kindergarten classrooms, and about 800 students. It is being implemented this fall in a mixture of urban and rural schools, including two inner-city Atlanta schools, as well as several rural schools in Arkansas and North Carolina. Implementation in grades 1-2 is scheduled for the 2008-2009 school year.
About 100 schools in New York City have also just become Core Knowledge schools and will begin implementing the CKF curriculum next year.
”We’re happy and glad to find programs that fit our thinking. Schools like KIPP and Achievement First—we like to help them in expansion, extended day, and even summer programs,“ says Calder. In 2006 large grants were given to the Patrons Program’s ”Library Connections“ and ”Extended-Day“ programs, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s ”Rebuilding the Core Curriculum,“ and the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Science Teaching and Learning.
The foundation does not exclude its support from organizations that have previously run programs contrary to their vision. ”We would love to say to a school, “If you’re willing to consider changes to your curriculum, we’ll help you in upcoming years.’ Then we can demonstrate to other schools of similar types that the system works well this way,” says Calder.
Operations: Small Staff, High Leverage
The Louis Calder Foundation is composed of three trustees—Calder, Paul Brenner, and corporate trustee JP Morgan Chase Bank. A grant program manager and an administrative assistant brings the total staff to five, with Calder as the only trustee who sits in house. Everything is done by email, including the board meetings, which award grants every month. Calder credits the efficiency and ease of the circular email system. “The trustees act in full concert with each other. It’s really an amazing synergy.”
This strategy, in conjunction with prudent investments, has proven highly successful for the Louis Calder Foundation: The foundation’s initial gift of $36 million has grown to an asset market value of $174.5 million, as of June 2007.
Building Potential for Success
“Significant success is a difficult goal to attain. We deal with the potential for success,” says Calder. To build that potential, though, he believes that “schools, especially in urban areas, must have the political will to extend the school day and become 12-month learning centers.”
Not an educator himself, Calder looks to The Philanthropy Roundtable’s K-12 meetings for expertise. “When you get to a meeting, there are the most knowledgeable, experienced people you can find in this country with regard to that particular issue area,” says Calder. “I am enlightened when I have the opportunity to converse with such people.”
Clayton Broga a is a publications associate at The Philanthropy Roundtable.