The Rodel Foundation of Delaware’s approach to elevating the state’s public school system to the highest level calls to mind British author G.K. Chesterton’s belief that “education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.”
“Chesterton got it right,” says William D. “Bill” Budinger, chairman of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware’s board of directors. “We all have an obligation to educate American children.”
To that end, the Rodel Foundation of Delaware’s mission is clear: to help Delaware create one of the finest public school systems in the nation by 2012.
The Foundation’s eight-member volunteer board meets quarterly and works to ensure that Rodel spends its funds appropriately on what it calls “Vision 2012.” Rather than supplying conventional grants or scholarships, the Foundation is committed to investing in systemic reform of the public school system, and it seeks to engage parents, teachers, administrators, business leaders, and government representatives in this effort. In the next seven years, Rodel will target its investments in the six areas of systemic reform that the Foundation believes are central to improvement: teacher quality, leadership development, standards and accountability, school finance, school choice, and family and community engagement.
While founders Bill and Don Budinger may be relatively new to the education game, they are veterans of business and understand competition. For 33 years, Bill served as CEO and Chairman of Rodel, Inc., a leading manufacturer of specialty chemicals for the electronics industry that they founded in Delaware in 1968 and expanded to Arizona in 1973, when Don joined as President. After they sold Rodel to Rohm and Haas in 1999, the Budingers founded The Rodel Foundations, a group of public foundations devoted to improving the primary and secondary education systems in the United States.
“We concluded that we would have the best success where people would return our phone calls—we had factories in Delaware and Arizona,” Budinger tells Philanthropy. “We did everything together, including setting up those two foundations within two years.”
In addition to the foundations in Delaware and Arizona, there is a third Rodel Foundation in Key West. According to Paul Herdman, CEO of the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, the Foundation spends between $2 million to $3 million annually, and has plans to exist beyond Vision 2012. At that time, Budinger explains, Rodel will continue to focus on Delaware’s educational system. Until then, the Foundation plans to share what it learns in the process with other states.
And it is learning quite a bit. When Herdman arrived as CEO last year, he began assessing the state’s current system in relation to the Foundation’s early objectives. “Their approach had been market-based: to increase the supply of charter schools, and to increase the demand for excellence, so they created things around parent leadership. Knowing our 2012 goal, it seemed natural to me to ask, ‘Where are we in 2004? How do we compare with the rest of the nation as we move toward 2012?’” These questions eventually led to the creation of Opportunity Knocks, a report compiled over a ten-month period that assesses ten aspects of Delaware’s education system, focusing on student performance and the system conditions that would make top performance possible. For the report, the Foundation interviewed more than 80 representatives from the education, business, government, and civic leadership communities, and conducted focus groups with students, parents, and teachers. This January, Opportunity Knocks was critiqued by some of the nation’s leaders in educational reform, including Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester E. Finn Jr., who, Herdman says, “didn’t pull any punches” when offering suggestions for improvement. The final document was released on July 20, 2005.
Herdman says the Foundation has developed a two-pronged strategy based on what it learned from Opportunity Knocks. First, Rodel is working with the Delaware Business Roundtable on a series of meetings with policymakers to assess the state ’s top priorities over the next ten years and develop a Call to Action to which all involved parties would be accountable. Together with the Business Roundtable, the Foundation plans to host a series of public forums across the state to allow people to share their ideas and concerns about education. These comments will be discussed at these policymaker meetings before a formal written Call to Action is released (tentatively scheduled for spring 2006).
The second strategic objective is to demonstrate examples of excellence allied to the Foundation’s five guiding principles: (1) Great people make great schools. (2) High expectations and sound data should drive all else. (3) School funding should be about student outcomes, not system inputs. (4) One size does not fit all. (5) Build it to last. For example, proving that “one size does not fit all,” the Foundation hopes to help establish a Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) middle school in the state. The KIPP network of schools wasestablished by two Teach for America teachers in 1994. It focuses on rigorous instruction and requires longer school days, and has spread to 45 schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Three Delaware school districts have already indicated an interest in having a KIPP school, Herdman says.
Citing Einstein’s famous definition of insanity—“doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”—Herdman suggests that innovative programs will be essential to the Foundation’s success, particularly at the middle and high school levels. For this reason, Rodel expects to continue to benefit from its membership in the Philanthropy Roundtable. “Working with other philanthropists has taught me how to work more strategically with the resources we have available to us.”
At Rodel Delaware’s sister foundation in Arizona, President and CEO Dr. Carol Peck is working hard to improve Arizona public schools. “We believe that high expectations and adequate resources, along with knowledge and training, are key components to student success —for ALL children.”
One of the foundation’s signature programs, the Math Achievement Club by Rodel (MAC-Ro), provides schools in low-income areas a series of workbooks that offer comprehensive coverage of the state’s mathematics curriculum. To ensure the material in the workbooks is taught competently, Rodel requires teachers and administrators at MAC-Ro schools to attend workshops on effective strategies to teach these skills.
Peck says the foundation focuses on developing math skills in part because in a heavily Spanish-speaking environment, math problems can more easily transcend the language barrier than other subjects, and she finds that “when math improves, so does reading.” One way MAC-Ro achieves this is by requiring students who use Spanish-language workbooks to complete and turn in English-language workbooks as well.
MAC-Ro’s 2003 pilot program in ten high-poverty area schools did so well that “we are now in 31 school districts, 70 schools, over 500 classrooms, serving 13,000 students.”
Jessica Zigmond works in the communications department for a society of heart and lung surgeons in Chicago.