Author Archives: Lauren Curry

Crunching Numbers

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

 

I love data.

More accurately, I love stories.  And to me, data tell some of the most compelling and important stories out there.

For instance:

These and other statistics about poverty, education, aging, and strong communities have informed our grantmaking over the past ten years.  In that time, we’ve engaged with partner organizations all over the state, working to turn around the bad statistics and build on the good ones … one grant at a time.

We’ve also tried to be good neighbors.  Knowing that we are one on a very short list of Vermont foundations, and recognizing the many, many people out there working hard on behalf of causes they believe in, we’ve made an effort to keep our doors wide open.  We’ve awarded grants to all kinds of different organizations supporting all kinds of different programs, all lumped under the large umbrella of improving the quality of life for people in Vermont.

Very large umbrella.  Perhaps overly large.

Since 2006, we’ve made grants to more than 350 different organizations.  In the last five years alone, we’ve issued upwards of 370 separate grant checks.  That’s a lot for a foundation our size.  Maybe too many.

We all know how the saying goes.  You can’t be all things to all people.  Much as we might like to try to be, no one is well served by that approach in the end.

Data stories matter.  And our data story tells us it’s time for a change.  It’s time to narrow our focus, and put more money into the grants that have proven to make the greatest difference in the work we most care about.

You can read more about our new strategy in the Community Grants section of our website.  In short, from here forward our Community Grants will focus on the following distinct populations and goals:

  • Youth: Resilience and Aspiration
  • Working-Age Adults: Employment and Financial Independence
  • Seniors: Comfort and Dignity in Aging
  • Communities: Local Resources and Investments

Under each of these headings, you will find that we have identified specific strategies as the focus for our investments.  We have done so based on our interests, and your data stories … on what our non-profit partners have taught us over the years are the most meaningful and cost-effective interventions.  We will concentrate our funds in these areas, and as ever will make grants with minimal restrictions to give organizations the flexibility and control they need to run the very best and most efficient programs.

The tradeoff here, of course, is that we’ve made some cuts.  Extremely valuable work is being done in areas that did not make our list, and we are grateful to other foundations, businesses and individuals that continue to invest in those areas.  We are committed, though, to funding programs that best fit our values and theory of change, and that demonstrate the kind of impact and cost efficiency we seek.

We have heard many times over the years that we “don’t act like a typical foundation”.  It has always been meant as a compliment, and frankly, we’ll take it.  We – and many of our peer foundations serving this state – approach this work with a deep sense of gratitude, a keen interest in true partnership, and a binding commitment to make the greatest impact we possibly can with the dollars we have.

While I understand not everyone out there will be happy with these changes, I trust that those who know us will see the thought, care, and discipline that went into them.

I’m thinking as I write about Deb’s belief that our Foundation can make a difference, and Rich’s powerful statement on being good stewards.  With these changes, I think we are doing just that.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Ben’s Story

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

Last Thanksgiving I struck up a conversation with a young man at a neighbor’s cocktail party. I had met him a few times over the summer while he worked taking care of the neighbors’ kids. I knew him as personable and funny, with a seemingly endless well of patience when it came to managing the munchkins (mine included).

I asked Ben how college was going, and he was eager to tell me about his classes and how he’d been selected to participate in a highly competitive study abroad program next year. It was easy to see that he is both enjoying and excelling in the college environment.

“Where did you grow up, Ben?” I asked. “Milton,” he replied, prompting my immediate next question: “when?”

It turns out Ben was a student at Milton Junior High School (now Milton Middle School) at the same time the Tarrant Foundation was piloting our very first technology integration program there. Ben wasn’t part of the main cohort of students involved, but a couple of his classes were in the pilot. In those classes, he’d gotten to experience first-hand what, at the time, was considered a risky new strategy.

While platters of tasty hors d’oeuvres circled the room, I got to listen to Ben talk about what a difference it had made for him and his peers to have access to technology throughout their learning day. He described feeling lucky, because technology made school more interesting for him. He used words like freedom and flexibility and creativity. And he talked about using the skills and thought processes developed back then in doing his college coursework now.

My kingdom for a tape recorder!

Er, digital recorder … but you get my point. The most powerful advocates for any intervention are those who experience it. While I’ve had the opportunity to meet and talk with scores of kids about their experiences at our partner schools as they go through them, this was the first time I ever spoke to a student after the fact—to someone who was looking back on how our work did (or didn’t) affect his path forward in life. It was powerful testimony.

One of our board members suggested we reach out to Ben and see if we could capture his story on video. Happily for us, he was excited by the prospect. And so on a snowy, gray day during his winter break, we met at RetroMotion Media and Ben told his story again, this time to cameras and a boom mic. You can watch it here.

When I watched Ben in the studio—and as I watch this video now—I think about that tiny first cohort of kids. I think, too, about the many that have followed in its footsteps. There’s no doubt that the scale of our impact and outreach now would have been difficult to imagine then. Hundreds of Vermont teachers draw on the Tarrant Institute for professional development, support and encouragement as they move forward in tech-integrated learning environments. Thousands of their students experience learning that is more personalized, more relevant, and more successful as a result.

For me, though, the moral of Ben’s story is that even if we had never gotten beyond our pilot phase … even if we had never touched more than that very first handful of kids, it still would have been worth it. It would have been worth every penny.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Misfire

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

In a recent blog piece, Shifting, I was excited to talk about schools and districts around the country that have chosen to move past traditional textbooks by embracing new technologies.  Instead of outdated, dog-eared, back-bending tomes, students in these districts now have efficient access to current information in dynamic formats – all in a 1 lb. package.

The incentive to write the piece, though, wasn’t just the opportunities offered by the tools themselves.  Rather it was the scale at which these tools are now being deployed.  Specifically of note was the Los Angeles Unified School District’s passage of a $1 billion bond to support technology integration in all of its schools beginning this fall.  660,000 students would benefit from this massive investment.  Exciting stuff.

Or at least that was the hope.

News hit Twitter in early October that the LA technology rollout didn’t go so well.  Problems snowballed and the district made the dramatic decision to recall the devices provided to students just weeks prior.  Effective immediately

District officials cited numerous reasons for the recall, all of which boil down to failed deployment.  It happened too fast, with too little engagement of teachers, students and families, lack of attention to effective policies, inadequate professional development, and a host of other issues.  You can read more about them in Stephanie Banchero and Erica E. Phillips’ recent Wall Street Journal piece, “Schools Learn Tablets Limits”.

While it’s awfully tempting to write a blog piece about what went wrong in LA and who is responsible – because let’s face it, a failure of this magnitude has repercussions for all of us working on technology integration nationwide – it’s the WSJ story with which I’m actually going to take issue.  Failed technology integration is bad, but I think failure to tell the story right is worse.

The Banchero/Phillips piece uses the LA story as a hook for an article about the controversy surrounding tech integration efforts.  It cites conflicting research, categorizes those involved in the conversation as “skeptics” and “advocates”, and profiles districts that have struggled to negotiate the fraught transition to a 1:1 device environment.  While some experts are quoted as emphasizing the potential of technology to create learning opportunities that best fit students’ needs, the balance of the piece tips heavily toward the obstacles.  And no wonder, with the LA story in the mix.

The problem in this framing, though, is that it lumps too much into one pot.  It tries to debate the question of whether technology integration improves learning, while referencing examples where – it must be argued – technology integration never really took place.

Making hardware available in schools is only one of many, many complicated steps in the technology integration process.  If the hardware arrives before these other needs are attended to (as evidently was the case in LA), its potential to positively impact student learning is greatly reduced.  Even worse, resulting frustrations, confusion, and course-corrections damage morale and cost essential learning time and resources.

The LA Unified School District experience isn’t evidence against the effectiveness of technology integration.  It’s evidence of a district that failed to actually achieve technology integration.

The Maine Learning Technology Initiative, one of the country’s oldest ubiquitous technology integration initiatives, sought to develop and attend to what are now widely accepted standards of what constitutes effective technology integration.  Their 2011 report is filled with compelling evidence demonstrating that – when the standards of effective integration are met – both students and teachers benefit.

Here in Vermont, where the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education works with educators throughout the state to support effective technology integration, results are similarly positive.  Students saw improved semester grades in English, science and social studies.  Boys experienced a 21% decrease in absentee days (a key measure of engagement) after just one year of technology integration, and students involved in a middle-school-level program had a lower high school drop-out rate than their peers statewide.  Put more simply, it works. 

One would likely be hard-pressed to find a school that would say technology integration is easy.  Pressures of time, financial resources, mandated testing, and parallel initiatives to name a few can imperil the shift before it even begins.  Some schools, though, are deftly managing these challenges.  And their students are thriving.

The fact is that a billion dollars was easier to come by in LA than the leadership, time, flexibility, and learning needed to ensure the returns on such an investment could be realized.  That’s both bad and worth writing about.  Let’s not confuse a discussion, though, about the challenges of managing effective technology integration, with one about whether it works.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Kicking Off

Monday, September 30, 2013

Contributed by Deborah L. Tarrant

The Tarrant Institute at the University of Vermont and Mater Christi School are embarking on an exciting journey.  The kick-off for this endeavor was held in the Mater Christi library, and two things struck me as Rich and I were participating in this event.  First, the excitement in the room was palpable, and second, as much as I love books, traditional school libraries now feel like a setting from another era.

The teachers at Mater Christi School in the middle grades will soon begin professional development through the Tarrant Institute.  Through the Institute, they’ll learn new methods of teaching that involve one-to-one technology for the students and a completely different set of parameters for the teachers themselves.  The days of having an instructor lecturing from the front of the room hour after hour, while students sit passively absorbing information are a thing of the past.  Mater Christi is modeling a new paradigm for middle school students that involves interactive learning between students and teachers and also between students and their peers.  Students will gather information from multiple sources (available on their electronic devices) and apply the information they glean to relevant situations and assignments in creative ways (animation, pod casts, videos, and skills I’m not even aware of) to showcase their proficiency with both the information and the tools at their disposal.

Along with the excitement in the room at this kick-off, where the Mater Christi participants included the Principal, the Assistant Principal, the IT Specialist, and several teachers, there was also a nervous energy.  This is a big undertaking when you consider that parents and teachers will be ceding, to a degree, their role as the ultimate purveyors of knowledge. Young people have innate expertise with technology that often surpasses that of adults.  But in a way, that’s the point.  There’s a whole new world out there in terms of information and the way it gets accessed.  Portable electronic devices offer students their own personal libraries wherever they go.  It only makes sense to incorporate these devices into their learning experience.

The Tarrant Institute has had tremendous success to date with their middle school partners, and the parents of these middle-school students often share their thoughts with us.  Across the board, the kids are more engaged with their school assignments and look forward to being in the classroom situation.  Anecdotally, I’d like to share a message we received recently.  The father of a sixth-grader at Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morrisville wrote:

“This year, the 6th graders received iPads, and I just wanted you to know how incredibly excited the kids are and how jazzed they are to use the technology in their education environment. ……  On Sunday, we had a family meeting to discuss what was working well for the family and what wasn’t.  My son says ‘let me set up an online survey so that we can collect the data in digital form.’  He set it up and sent it to my wife and I at our email accounts.  Pretty cool stuff.”

Pretty cool stuff indeed!

                                                                                                                                                                

Deborah L. Tarrant is the Vice President of the Tarrant Foundation.  She serves as board liaison for the Foundation’s new Catholic Schools Initiative, which will invest $850,000 to support technology integration in area Catholic schools over the next four years.

Reflecting

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The following blog post is submitted by Emma Galvin, who served as a Youth Intern at the Tarrant Foundation from 2011 – 2013.

Earlier this year, Lauren and I grabbed an informal lunch with a group of nonprofit development directors. It was an opportunity for nonprofits to speak directly with funders and learn a bit about different foundations’ approaches. As we sat around the table, eating bagels and doing introductions, I gave my usual explanation: I’m Emma Galvin, a Youth Intern, balancing my time at the Tarrant Foundation with a traditional load of high school classes. And I got the usual response: “Wow, what an amazing opportunity for a high school student!”

As a young person in the world of philanthropy, people are quick to appreciate the benefits I’m reaping. With philanthropy as a lens, I’ve gained perspective on my community, state and self. I’ve been a part of an organization that invests millions of dollars in causes I care about, in a state that I love.  It’s been an incredible experience for me.

But the value of the experience hasn’t been one-sided. This internship is not about youth engagement for the benefit of youth, this is about youth engagement for the benefit of everyone in the room. When we’re having difficult conversations at the Foundation about innovation, education and the future of our communities, what I bring to the table matters.

My favorite part of every site visit is watching an organization attempt to explain the core of its work to a 17-year-old. Some can do it exceptionally well and some struggle – losing clear explanations of need and impact amidst complicated systems, acronyms and bureaucracy.  When I am making funding recommendations, I can’t argue on behalf of organizations.  I have to argue on behalf of what they do.

Does any of this mean that bringing youth on as collaborators in traditionally adult settings is easy? Of course not. Students need careful and deliberate supports as they move into a new world of thinking. But that might not be as difficult as it seems. Youth are often capable of much, much more than is asked of them.

Departing from the norm may in fact be harder for the adults in an organization than for youth. When you’re headed full force in one direction, it can be daunting to stop and redirect. But if there is one thing I’ve learned during my time at the Tarrant Foundation, it’s that momentum isn’t an excuse. If our work feels 100% comfortable, we’re doing it wrong. Imagine if the next generation were able to both understand and hold us accountable to our mission statements.

So my introductions require a bit of extra explanation, but I am so much richer for the understanding, relationships, and experience I have gained here. And as I look forward to the next chapter, I hope the Tarrant Foundation is too.

                                                                                                                                               

Emma Galvin graduated with honors from Burlington High School in June.  She is taking a “gap year” to pursue Vermont-based and international service projects before heading to college next year.  The Tarrant Foundation welcomes its newest high school intern this week. 

Shifting

Friday, April 5, 2013

The surge of technology integration in our country’s schools continues.

In March, the Los Angeles Unified School district announced it would invest $50M initially, and likely $500M over the next few years, to provide 1:1 technology devices to each of its 660,000 students.  Companies like Apple, HP and others are expected to bid on parts of this massive contract – competing to provide the very best in education technology at a price point that schools can afford.

This latest broad-scale, ubiquitous technology integration comes in the wake of many others.  Maine’s Learning Technology Initiative began providing Apple laptops to all of the state’s middle school students – and now high school students as well – more than a decade ago.  Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and others followed suit with large-scale programs involving multiple districts, schools and grade levels in their K-12 systems.

The LA announcement, though, signals a major domino in the progression of school-based technology integration.  It’s the second largest district in the country, with more than six times the total number of public school students and educators in the entire state of Vermont.

The New York City School District is even larger.  Nearly twice as large, in fact, and it too is taking important steps.  The Associated Press reports in its article “Schools Shift from Textbooks to Tablets” that the District is considering doing away with the $100M it sinks annually into paper textbooks for students to lug around, and instead investing those funds in tablets.  Even in a district with 1.1 million students, that kind of money could purchase a new tablet for every single learner every two years.

And of course those tablets can do so much more than a traditional textbook ever could.  They can fit all of a student’s books into a single, thin package at a fraction of the weight.  They can be constantly updated with the most current information and thinking.  They can do double-duty enabling learners to engage electronically in class discussion or take on-the-fly assessments testing for reading comprehension.

In other words, the tablet can fit — and grow with — the learner.

How big of a shift is this really?  For the young people who are using these tablets, laptops and other devices, it isn’t one.  “Students, unlike some of their parents, aren’t blinking,” the AP article observes.  The real shift for them is being asked to leave behind their technology-enabled world and make the backward leap to a clunky, outdated textbook.

It’s imperative that districts, schools, parents, students, foundations like ours, businesspeople, and community members do everything we can to support the transition to digital tools for our learners.  We’re chipping away at the digital learning divide here in Vermont as elsewhere around the country, but we still have a very long way to go.

At some point, technology integration in school can no longer be thought of as “an initiative” or “a program”.  It needs to be thought of simply as the way we do business.

And lest we think it takes a massive budget or outside funding to make this work, we should look at places like Coachella Valley Unified School District in California, where some of the very poorest schools in the nation rolled out 20,000 iPads for students this year.

The time for widespread, effective technology-supported learning is now.  It is who our students are, how they want to learn, and the world in which they live.  Onward.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.

Techonomics?

Friday, March 22, 2013

Earlier this year I was sitting in on an economics class at an innovative high school in the Bronx.  Students were working with their teacher to define core concepts in a capitalist system.  Private property, economic justice, profit motive and … competition.

“What’s an example of competition that we’ve seen here in the neighborhood,” the teacher asked.

After some guessing the chorus went up.  “The bodegas!”

Turns out a few years ago a price war erupted among local bodegas.  Not over how much they were charging for a PowerAde or a bag of chips.  This was a price war about phones.

When the school banned the possession of cell phones on campus, the surrounding bodegas started charging students $.50 a day to stash their phones.  Competition eventually drove the price down to $.25, which is what kids pay today for the privilege of not bringing their phones to school.

The bodegas score points here for innovative business practice, and the teacher for latching onto an economics lesson that is so personally relevant to her students.  It’s the students though who are losing.  And much more than $.25 a day.  They’re losing access to a powerful, free (to the school anyway), and engaging learning tool.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are legitimate, important reasons to be cautious about integrating phones in schools.  I can’t begin to imagine the challenge that building leaders and educators face trying to design a set of rules that will keep students safe and on-task.  Phones can be distracting.  Worse, they can be damaging or even deadly if turned into cyber-bullying weapons.

Many schools have taken up these challenges, though, and are – on large and small scale – finding ways to support kids using their phones to learn, collaborate, document and share.

Take this economics class.  For kids facing a steep uphill climb to an affordable postsecondary education, learning how to use a phone-based personal finance tool – one that builds from a student’s actual earnings, spending, savings and goals – could be life changing [Econ Ed Live!, Mint Personal Finance].  There’s also free access to stock trading and simulation games [Stock Wars, iTrade, Tap Tap Trader], study aid and flashcard apps [Flashcards+, gFLASH+, Economics AP Free], business simulation games [Coffee Shop, Lemonade Stand, Rags to Riches], and grade-level-appropriate economics quiz games – including ones that will test your ability to define competition [Financial Football, Economics Review, Economics Study Aid and Quiz].

When drawn into other subject areas, students can tweet or backchannel into class discussions ensuring that all voices are active and heard, capture images from a compound microscope to illustrate study notes or a lab report, or … my husband’s personal favorite … take video of a spectacular explosion in chemistry class to enjoy with students (ahem, I mean analyze) over, and over, and over again.

I don’t ever check my phone at the door in the course of my working day.  I use it – as I do all of the technology to which I have access – to facilitate my productivity, my curiosity, my professional collaboration, and my progress.

Schools across the country are turning over every funding stone they can find to help give learners more access to technology in the course of their school day.  I think it’s up to us to figure out how to make better use of the technology that’s already in their hands.

I’ll keep my $.25 cents, thanks.  And my phone.

                                                                                                                                               

Lauren A. Curry has been the executive director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation since 2005.