Home > Uncategorized > Philanthropist Puts Her Boots on the Ground, Sees the Challenges, and Invests in Public Schools

Philanthropist Puts Her Boots on the Ground, Sees the Challenges, and Invests in Public Schools

October 24, 2018

I often write about the billionaires who are working to undercut public education by spending huge sums of money on for-profit deregulated charter schools and on the candidates who support them. This is an exercise that is discouraging, dispiriting, and maddening. So I was heartened to read an article by Kathleen Megan in US News and World Report about Barbara Dalio, a philanthropist who is investing in PUBLIC schools. And, according to Ms. Megan, Ms. Dalio’s investment might be the beginning of a trend!

What was most revealing to me is the decision making process Ms. Dalio used to determine that investing in public schools is necessary.

Dalio, 70, who is universally described as humble and hands-on, said in an interview last week that her shift toward traditional public school districts came about as she learned more about education and became concerned about the achievement gap and students who are disengaged from school.

Dalio said she observed that the kids who go to public charter schools have parents who are often more involved and have the initiative to seek out an alternative for their child.

But many parents, she said, don’t have the time to do that.

“It’s not that they don’t care about the kids,” Dalio said of those parents. “It’s that they are burdened in many instances with just one parent having two or three jobs. That really struck me.”

Later in the article Ms. Megan described the “hands on” experiences that led Ms. Dalio to break ranks with her fellow billionaires:

As the family’s foundation was expanding, Dalio said, “I really felt for the public schools and I really wanted to be helpful.”

But she realized she needed to be educated. So she began volunteering at an alternative high school in Norwalk where she started coming in once every two weeks and soon was up to two or three times a week.

“I learned really how many needs the kids have because they had kids with learning differences, kids that have had trauma in their lives, kids with emotional needs,” Dalio said, as well as kids who are hungry. “So it really is challenging for the school, the teachers to address all of those needs, especially with (budget) cuts” that eliminate social workers or mental health programs, she said.

Dalio said she learned through the alternative school and also with her own children, one of whom has bipolar disorder, that all children can succeed if given the right the services and help.

Her own son is in very good shape now, she said, “but it took a lot of resources and patience and time and you know if we didn’t succeed, he could have been just one of those kids.”

So I always feel a bit for the underdog . or the kids that don’t have opportunities and I see that if you give them what they need, which is sometimes not that much, (with) just a little attention and love, you can really turn them around.”

Many public education advocates— including this one— assert that too may of the top-down “reformers” are completely oblivious to the realities in public education because, unlike Ms. Dalio, they have no first hand experience as parents and have not taken the time to put their boots on the ground to find out why children struggle in school. What I found especially heartening about Ms. Dalio’s story was that she at one time was on the TFA-Charter School bandwagon and jumped off. And far and away the most impressive aspect of Ms. Dalio’s donations is her empathy and compassion for teachers and administrators:

Those who have worked closely with Dalio can’t say enough about how well she listens and how much she wants to learn and provide the best help she can.

“It sounds like it’s too good to be true, but (Dalio) is truly a partner,” said Erin Benham, president of Meriden’s teachers’ union and a member of the State Board of Education. “She sits with us, listens to us. She laughs. She loves being with students and she loves being with teachers.”

Anne Marie Mancini, deputy superintendent of East Hartford Public Schools, said Dalio has been “fantastic, supporting any initiative we have brought forward. We brainstorm together and she works right along with us. She’s like any other educator.”

Dalio has been working with teachers and administrators in Hartford, East Hartford, Meriden and New Haven as part of the foundation’s Connecticut RISE Network, which works to empower teachers and provide them with needed resources.

Another major focus for Dalio has been trying to help youth who are disengaged from school reconnect and get on track for graduation through its Connecticut Opportunity Project.

The initiatives funded through Dalio at the network schools have included summer leadership programs for high school students, the funding of full-time counselors who work closely with ninth graders to help keep them on track, funding for SAT prep and extensive professional development for teachers and administrators at the University of Chicago and other education centers.

Teachers and administrators say she also quietly does countless acts of kindness, including providing thousands of coats to students who don’t have them and lunch to teachers on Teacher Appreciation Day.

Not all billionaires are cut out of the same cloth, and when one is an advocate for public schools it offers a glimmer of hope that others may follow suit… and one writer seems to think that could happen:

David Callahan, editor of Inside Philanthropy, said he hopes “other philanthropists will pay attention to what (Dalio is) doing and the hands-on immersive approach she’s taken, which is how philanthropy should operate if it doesn’t want to alienate the people it needs to engage to succeed.

“If Barbara ever gets focused on the national level,” Callahan said, “I think that could be a big deal, given her mindset and the sensibility she brings to this space.”

Here’s hoping publicity for Ms. Dalio’s efforts spreads… because her time commitment to gaining an understanding of the challenges of public education has paid off. Who knows, maybe she will begin supporting politicians who want to direct more money to schools who serve to the “underdog” children, the ones who attend underfunded schools, the one who need “… just a little attention and love”. 

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