Blog

Coalminer’s Granddaughter

Monday, June 4, 2018

DLT_UVMcommencement

Commencement Address given by Deborah L. Tarrant

University of Vermont, College of Education & Social Services, Class of 2018

 

Thank you, all, very much. Dean Thomas, thank you for your invitation to be part of this special day. I’m humbled and honored.

And Dr. Bishop, thank you for that lovely introduction. I appreciate you mentioning my family history. If I can take poetic license with an old, well-known country song, “I’m proud to be a coalminer’s granddaughter.”

As Dr. Bishop mentioned, my connection to the College is through the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. Because of this connection, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dr. Penny Bishop for the past 13 years. If you know her, you know what an asset she is to this University. It was her dedication and that of her Associate Director, Dr. John Downes, that kept the vision moving forward in the early days of the Tarrant Institute.

Those of us associated with the Institute believe it speaks to a new paradigm for learning – one that will have a direct impact on many of your careers. The catalyst for what started as an experiment and ultimately became the Tarrant Institute was the observation that for quite a few middle school adolescents, particularly boys, traditional teaching methods were not working very well. Being expected to sit passively for hours and learn the same way kids had learned for the past century, was becoming less and less effective. Think about it – some of you were in middle school about that time – these young people were spending their leisure time immersed in new technology. It’s no wonder their attention drifted at school.

My husband, Rich, and I had a vision for what a 21st century classroom could look like. With Dr. Bishop’s help, we started with one class at one Vermont middle school with students who didn’t seem to like school very much, and who spent a lot of time in the principal’s office.

The idea was to engage them while they were in middle school, before they became problematic high school students. The plan was for technology to be the hook, but we knew from experience that just dumping laptops or notebook-devices into classrooms was NOT the answer. The answer was to use computers as learning tools in a way that would engage these technology-hungry adolescents.

As it turned out, the learning curve was really steep – for the teachers!   The kids took to the new environment instantly. And, why wouldn’t they? They were surrounded by technology everywhere except at school!

This pilot program immediately turned disengaged students into eager learners.   An unanticipated outcome was that other students started looking up to the kids in the program because of their computer expertise. All of a sudden, the program students had a sense of pride and accomplishment they had never before associated with school. In that first year, not one of those kids who had been regulars in the principal’s office needed disciplining. Not one! And parents were absolutely amazed by the eagerness of their kids to go to school.

I’ll never forget the day we visited the pilot classroom late in that first year, and a young man who was obviously older than the other students approached us. It was apparent, he had been held back at least once, maybe twice. Very shyly, he reached to shake hands with Rich. Then he raised his head and looked Rich right in the eye. All he said was “Thank you.” But the emotion in those two little words was so powerful!

It didn’t take long for all the students in that first middle school to want to be part of the program. So the experiment was a success from the beginning, but right away, it was obvious the main challenge to expanding the program was the ingrained idea that teaching could only be done by lecturing to silent, immobile students.

This realization was the eureka moment when the focus of the Tarrant Institute changed from the students to helping teachers transition to innovative ways of using the magic of technology in the classroom.

In preparation for being here today, I came across two quotes that are especially relevant to this new paradigm. The first is, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

The origin of this quote is widely debated, however, the second quote is unquestionably attributed to Dr. John Dewey, a well-known education reformer with whom many of you are familiar.

Dewey was born before the Civil War, in 1859, just a few blocks from here. He graduated from UVM 139 years ago. He lived to be 93, and fittingly, he’s laid to rest right here on UVM’s campus. His is the only gravesite on the campus.

Here’s what Dewey said: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Bingo! Dr. Bishop and her team are literally changing the way we educate, just as Dewey envisioned.

We’ve all heard that learning is a life-long process. Experienced teachers learning new methods using technology in the classroom are perfect examples of this. In my case, three years ago, life unexpectedly presented me with a whole new ball game as Mayor for the Town of Hillsboro Beach. My professional experience was in the world of fashion and in the corporate world. Believe me, spending my golden years in the political arena was never part of my master plan!

In thinking about the message I wanted to leave you with today, it struck me that while my role as Mayor is a very visible position of leadership, as graduates of the College of Education and Social Services, you will be leaders the minute you step into your first classroom or office. Typically, graduates in other majors do not have this level of leadership responsibility right out of the chute. Getting a business degree and overseeing financial assets is one thing, but the degree you receive today will make you responsible for something far more valuable – human capital.

The Hippocratic Oath for physicians is the earliest expression of medical ethics in the Western world. Paraphrased, its most important tenet is, “First, do no harm.” If there was an equivalent doctrine for educators, social workers, and counselors, it would have to go one step further. Not only are you expected to do no harm, you are expected to prepare your charges to be contributing members of our society.

Most of you will play many roles in your new careers: teacher, mentor, advisor, role model, and sometimes even surrogate parent. What often goes unacknowledged, is that your role as a leader, and the influence that role inherently has, carries over into every one of those other roles. A leader is defined as “one who directs by influence.” As leaders, the influence you have on the lives you touch will shape our country for years to come.

It’s a huge responsibility – having influence over young people and people in need of social services. These are the most impressionable and vulnerable segments of our population. The human capital you will be responsible for is our country’s most important asset. Accordingly, your challenge will be to handle your leadership role carefully – and – judiciously.

Today is the official beginning of this leadership role. This graduation is your springboard. Regardless of what has come before this day – regardless of how or where you grew up, regardless of your GPA – after today, your place in the world will be up to you.

In the immortal words of Dr. Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known simply as Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

This is a momentous day! And I’m honored to share it with you.

To parents, grandparents, and loved ones of the graduates: congratulations! And thank you for the sacrifices you made to get to this day.

And finally…, to the graduates: savor this moment! You’ve worked hard. You’ve survived Vermont winters … and … You made it!

This is your day! Congratulations! Thank you!


Deb Tarrant is the Vice President of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation and Mayor of Hillsboro Beach, FL.  Her grandfather started working in the coal mines of Harlan County, KY at age 10, and her grandmother left school after the 7th grade to help support her family.  Deb is the first member of either side of her family to earn a college diploma.  She graduated summa cum laude  with a degree in marketing and accounting from Miami University in 1979.

Backstory

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

podcast-ep12-fb-800x420

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

Foundations can be mysterious things – understandable, but not that helpful when it comes to building effective partnerships.

Resources are always finite, though, and the Tarrant Foundation has long made the strategic decision to maximize our spending on grantmaking. We designed our website and the media posted there to provide clear information and a sense of the context in which we work, but we invest very little in trying to push our story out into the broader community.

It’s a tradeoff, we know. One that perhaps contributes to that sense of mystery. But one we’re glad to make when it means putting more dollars into our grants.

Grantmaking is our core work. We invest significant time and money in those partnerships – building relationships, collaborating, and putting a whole lot of miles on my car every year! Chances are if you’re reading this, you and I have sat down together at least once to talk about the difference you’re trying to make in your community. Maybe that took place in your office … or on the back porch of one of your clients, or in a field full of poison ivy, or on the floor while building marshmallow towers with at-risk youth. Maybe it was at the bedside of a dying patient, or in a steamy kitchen, or in a horse barn, or on a jobsite, or at a picnic table. Maybe it was in an empty lot with nothing to see but what the space could be, someday, if only the right partners could be engaged.

Wherever that meeting happened, I was glad to be there (yes, even that time with the poison ivy). I learned a lot from you and your colleagues, from getting to know your community, and from seeing your vision in action. Hopefully you felt like you learned some things too, about who we might be as partners, about how we work, and about the process we were asking you to move through with us.

Still, we know the veil exists.

Earlier this spring when there was still waaaaaaaay too much snow on the ground, I was invited to share some of the Foundation’s story on RetroMotion Creative’s podcast. RM made several of the videos we use on our website, including this one that I love featuring Rich and Deb talking about their approach to giving.

The podcast picks up with the making of that video, then delves into some of the structures and strategies we’ve built around the Tarrants’ vision. More than that, it’s hopefully an opportunity to get to know us a little better, and to make this whole thing maybe a little less mysterious. Bonus features include YouTube PD, the Mythbusters Mega Merrython, lessons learned from my personal non-profit endeavors, and tough love from @thewhineydonor.


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

Award Season

Monday, October 17, 2016

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

Recently I shared news that Rich and Deb had been honored with the Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy Award from the UVM Foundation. It was a wonderful honor, and a great opportunity for me to reflect on the many things accomplished through the Tarrants’ generosity to our communities.

Rich would be the first to tell you that we can’t do any of this on our own. Our work is only as good as the many incredible people out there who turn our investments into action at the community level.

Top of that list in our minds is Dr. Penny Bishop, Associate Dean and Professor in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services, and Director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at UVM. For the past decade, Penny has contributed outstanding leadership, vision, wisdom, and hard work to manage our investments in middle-level education throughout the state. Her partnership has turned that investment into something far more meaningful and far more effective than could ever have been achieved without her.

But don’t take our word for it.

amle-penny-award

Last week at the Association of Middle Level Education’s (AMLE) national conference in Austin, Penny received the John H. Lounsbury Award for Distinguished Achievement. This prestigious award is the association’s highest honor, given only in those years when a sufficiently meritorious candidate emerges.

It was a great pleasure to see Penny honored for her many important contributions to the field of middle level education, and for the groundbreaking work she undertakes here in Vermont. Our board and staff are incredibly lucky to benefit from her leadership of the Tarrant Institute, and from her friendship as well.

Congratulations, Penny! You earned it.

amle-student

Penny’s award wasn’t the only highlight of this year’s AMLE conference. Members of the Tarrant Institute team made a record 14 presentations at AMLE, featuring stories, strategies, and research from their many partnerships with Vermont educators. Attendees even got to visit directly with some Vermont students (above) to learn about how personalization through technology is working for them!

For more information on the AMLE sessions or about the Tarrant Institute, check out their blog here.

                                                                                                                                                               

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

Lifetime Achievement

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

It’s a funny thing to talk about Lifetime Achievement. The words suggest summation. A grand total. A backward look.

This past weekend, Rich and Deb Tarrant were presented with the 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy Award from the University of Vermont Foundation. The award was given in recognition of the tremendous investments made by Rich and Deb, and by their Foundation, in efforts to improve middle-level education, advance medical research, and strengthen the University.

lifetime-achievement-2016

I could not have been prouder. And, I think it’s safe to say, Rich and Deb could not have been more uncomfortable.

Neither Rich nor Deb likes to be praised for their generosity. You’ll hear Rich say in the video below that even the word philanthropy doesn’t sit well with him. It’s too soft. Rich considers the resources he and Deb invest in communities and programs around Vermont to be just that – investments. In exchange for those investments, he expects a non-monetary return, in the form of lives impacted, communities strengthened, and futures changed.

Rich and Deb accepted the award, with characteristic modesty, graciousness, and big serving of humor. They shook hands, smiled, and stood for pictures. Then they did what they do best: get back to work.

In just the couple of days since the award presentation, Rich and Deb have met with numerous leaders who are tackling some of our state’s biggest challenges. They have talked statistics, theory, efficiency, and impact. They’ve emphasized the crucial balance between thinkers and doers. They’ve considered scope and next steps and how, as ever, to make the very most of the resources they have.

As much as I love to see Rich and Deb honored for all that they have done, for them the conversation is always about what lays ahead. What’s been done is only ever a tiny part of what can be done. Our job is to get focused, get organized, and tackle what’s next.

Onward.

                                                                                                                                                                

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

Thank You to the Doers

Friday, April 8, 2016

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

Yesterday was a road day. I spent more time in my car than I did actually visiting the program that prompted my journey. It was rainy and I was tired. Not my favorite kind of road day.

When I got where I was going I had to circle the block a couple of times to find parking. I noticed two women about my age talking on the sidewalk in front of a promising lot. Each had a heavy-looking tote bag over her shoulder, and one a big stack of paperwork in her arms. Neither had an umbrella.

While I waited to make the left turn into the lot, an oncoming car started honking its horn. The women turned and we all watched the car pass between us, windows down, middle fingers flying, jeers hurled.

It took me a second to catch my brain up to what I’d seen. It all happened fast, and at first I thought perhaps the car was honking at me. But the young occupants weren’t looking or shouting or middle-fingering in my direction. They were aiming at the two women, loaded down with work, standing and talking in the rain.

I watched the women pass quickly through startle, confusion, grimace and sigh. By the time I’d parked, gathered my own stack of folders and walked – umbrella in hand – to where they were standing, I was ready to share a moment of upset with them. I expected to find them commiserating over such a hurtful, hateful moment.

But when I drew into earshot, that’s not what I found. At least not that I could tell. They seemed engaged as they originally had been, sorting through some professional matter, and apparently moved on from the insult.

So I walked past. Without catching either’s eye. Without acknowledging my witness to the ugly thing just perpetrated at them.

Down the block I entered a bustling elementary school as it progressed through its busy end-of-day. The halls were still full of young bodies, loud young voices, and developing minds. This was where the two women had obviously spent their day. Their evenings would be busy with papers, new lesson plans, and building that next inspiring learning moment.

I don’t know who was in that car or what decided them on their insults. I’m sure there’s a story.  What I do know is it left me feeling bad.  And not saying something left me feeling bad.

So I’ll say something to them now, and to all of those like them:

To those women, thank you. Thank you for standing in front of a child every day and teaching them the world.

Thank you to the afterschool volunteers I was there to visit yesterday who give crucial extra support when and where it’s needed most. Thank you to the business owner I’ll see next week who, in her non-existent spare time, built a program for people isolated by difference and disability. Thank you to the retiree who came by recently who volunteers full-time fighting a far-away wrong.

Thank you to all the doers.

Your doing is important. Your doing is powerful. Your doing is so very much more powerful than middle fingers in the rain.


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

 

 

 

#AdvanceVT

Friday, March 4, 2016

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry

Last week right around now I was sitting in the big room at the Capitol Plaza listening to panelists talk about the importance of – and barriers to – postsecondary education in Vermont. Jessica was a late addition to the panel. Her work schedule, like those of many of her peers, made it difficult for her to carve out the time. She’s a recent grad juggling multiple jobs and other responsibilities.

Plus there was a late concert the night before. Oh to be 25 again!

Jessica delivered an important message about what it really takes for a young person with limited financial resources and no family tradition of postsecondary attainment to persist through higher ed. She made many good points about the long and difficult journey, points all too effectively backed up by the numbers:

  • Only 60% of VT’s high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education – lowest in New England.
  • Low-income students here fare by far the worst – just 37% persist beyond high school.
  • Fully ¼ of Vermont’s Class of 2012 high school graduates aspired to go to college but never made it.

And at what cost?

National estimates suggest that in just the next few years 2/3 of all jobs will require some amount of postsecondary education or training. In Vermont, if current trends continue, our failure to meet that demand is expected to result in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue and increased Medicaid and corrections spending. I hesitate to imagine the impact on the non-profit and human services safety nets – already dramatically over-stressed and under-funded.

People in Vermont and elsewhere across the country have decided bold action is required. The Lumina Foundation, one of our nation’s largest education funders, is underwriting state-level teams undertaking important goal setting and strategy development work to that end.

The folks gathered at the Capitol Plaza last week were there as part of an exciting new phase in that effort. We witnessed the launch of the appropriately-named Advance Vermont initiative, calling for a shared commitment to ensure that by 2025, 70% of working-age Vermonters have a quality postsecondary credential.

Meeting this goal will require effectively doubling the number of Vermonters earning diplomas and certificates each year. It will mean re-engaging the nearly 60,000 Vermonters who now have some postsecondary education but no degree. It will also mean significantly upping our postsecondary preparation game, by strengthening PK-12 pathways, investing in supportive community-based programs, and helping families envision and pay for higher education with their kids.

Crucially, it will also mean we beat New Hampshire’s goal by 5%.

[I’m allowed to pick on New Hampshire. I grew up there and recognize Vermont’s superiority in all things. Except grandmothers. I do think NH claims the best of those. Hi mom!]

This brings me back to one of the things Jessica talked about in her remarks last week. After describing the kinds of barriers she faced on her journey in education, and the kinds of challenges she continues to deal with even now on the far side of her degree, she cautioned the room not to see postsecondary enrollment as any kind of finish line.

“Just because someone makes it to college and gets a degree doesn’t mean factors [related to being low-income] disappear.” She articulately described the ongoing struggle, and argued that low-income students, wherever they are on the educational continuum, need support.

They need support.

So let’s give it to them. In all kinds of forms from all kinds of people and at all the different waypoints along the road.

The Tarrant Foundation is committed to supporting youth resilience and aspiration, and employment training for working-age adults in partnership with some great non-profit organizations all around the state. We’re also committed to keeping kids engaged during the pivotal middle school years through our partnership with the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at UVM.

What’s your commitment?

Together we can meet this challenge. We must, and we can.

Note: All citations are from Advance Vermont’s recent publication, “A call to action.” Contact me at lcurry@tarrantfoundation.org if you’d like a copy or more information on a specific reference.


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

 

In Honor of Allen and Bonnie Martin

Friday, October 2, 2015

Tarrant Foundation’s Gift to UVM Medical Center in Honor of Allen and Bonnie Martin from Tarrant Foundation on Vimeo.

Contributed by Richard E. Tarrant

Last night, Deb and Lauren joined me to announce a $1M grant from the Foundation to the University of Vermont Medical Center. The grant will go toward the construction of a new seven-floor inpatient facility. The building will include 128 state-of-the-art private patient rooms and other spaces critical to the growing needs of our community, and to delivery of the highest standard of care.

We have chosen to name the 5th floor of the new building, serving Oncology, Gynecology, Urology and General Surgery, in honor of two longtime friends of the hospital: Allen and Bonnie Martin.

Allen graduated from Williams College and went on to receive an honors degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University.  After Harvard law school and a prestigious clerkship, Allen ultimately became a partner at Downs Rachlin Martin, a law firm serving Vermonters and Vermont businesses for more than half a century.

In 1994, he became the driving force behind the formation of Fletcher Allen Health Care – one of the first integrated healthcare delivery systems in the country. Allen was the glue, pulling together physicians from the University Health Center, nuns from Fanny Allen, administrators at Mary Fletcher, and folks from the UVM College of Medicine. Imagine trying to bridge those many different interests, and to honor the pride of each player in the piece of that complicated puzzle that he or she represented. There was no road map, but Allen got it done.

Here’s a little story that embodies Allen.  One Sunday afternoon he was at home reviewing the pending federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1999 – because apparently that’s what lawyers do on a Sunday afternoon! He discovered a set of special provisions to increase Medicare reimbursement rates for hospitals serving rural communities by aligning them with nearby metropolitan areas.  It entailed a complicated body of work, but by the next morning Allen had drafted a provision that ultimately classified Chittenden County as part of the Greater Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area.  That alignment brought $5-$7M per year in additional reimbursements to Fletcher Allen … for more than ten years.

Because there were no additional costs related to those reimbursements, they equated to a contribution of over $50M from Allen’s Sunday afternoon bemusement.  In a way that makes Allen Martin the largest donor to the Medical Center in its history.

Allen made many other important contributions to the hospital over the years. He also served as a board member for IDX Systems Corporation, Union Mutual Insurance Company, and the Vermont Law School. Not bad for an Oxford philosophy major.

We mustn’t underestimate Bonnie’s impact on the softer side of things at the Medical Center. When the McClure building was new she helped fill it with artwork, expanding eventually to Baird and Shepardson as well. She also launched the hospital’s annual calendar of Vermont artwork, which brightens many of our walls still today.

Allen and Bonnie had an enormous impact on helping the Medical Center become what it is today. We are proud to name a floor in their honor.

I also want to take a moment to thank Jenna Page. Jenna is a multi-award-winning oncology nurse who spoke last night about the impact of the new building on patient care. She told heartbreaking stories about the added burden a lack of privacy can bring to cancer patients and their families when they are already suffering so much. Jenna had half the room in tears. We were blown away by her passion and her compassion, and are grateful for the work she and her peers do on behalf of us all.

We look forward to the day the new building is open to house medical staff, patients, and patient families.


Richard E. Tarrant is the President of the Tarrant Foundation.

Long-Term Investments

Friday, September 4, 2015

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

This foundation cares about a lot of things. Recognition isn’t one of them. Why? “Because,” my boss would tell you, “this isn’t about us.”

Look around Vermont, in fact, and you’ll find buildings and facilities given in honor of other people – people who perhaps don’t have the means to make a “naming” contribution themselves, but who have given deeply of their passion and their labor. Naming buildings after folks like that is our way of celebrating those gifts, and of staying true to our core belief that no amount of money can have an impact without the people who do the real work at the community level.

But that’s a different story.

Today I’m thinking about another side of donor recognition. And I’m wondering if we – the philanthropic community – have been getting it wrong all along? And if, in doing so, we’re undermining the true nature of what philanthropic relationships are supposed to be about?

Here’s the problem. Last week I walked up to the post office and collected my typical pile of stuff: urgent notices about my (non-existent) business cable account, yet another IRS acknowledgement of our change of address three years ago, checks from our board treasurer, a couple of glossy non-profit magazines, and a stack of newsletters and annual reports.

As you’d expect, we get marketing pieces from all the non-profits to which we’ve written a check this year. And last year. And really ever. Some are slick and expensive, others about as homemade as you can imagine. In virtually every one, there’s that ubiquitous, clunky, tree-killing feature of the non-profit landscape: the donor acknowledgement list.

Please don’t tell my boss, but I actually read those lists. If we’ve given a gift recently, I check to be sure we’re listed and listed correctly. If we’re not, I drop a friendly, hey-this-really-isn’t-a-big-deal-but note to the organization to get the issue resolved.

Mind you, I hate writing those notes. I used to be in charge of donor lists when I worked for a community foundation out west. Whether compiling or just editing them, those lists pretty much never left our office without my initials on them somewhere. And I sweated those lists hard. I read them and read them and re-read them. I checked and double-checked. More than a decade later I can still tell you the correctly spelled names of a whole bunch of people I never even met. (Bet you can too.)

But mistakes inevitably happened, and the error notices came to me. So any time I have to alert a grantee now to an acknowledgement issue, it’s done with legitimate empathy.

The error I found last week was completely understandable. It happened because we’d made a complicated gift that wasn’t easily tracked in a database. The gift came as a mix of direct, indirect and in-kind support, conveyed over multiple years. I can only imagine the challenge of tracking each component for tiered recognition by fiscal year.

That’s the thing, though. Why try?

More and more we’ve come to understand that philanthropy is a long-term game, and that donor relations unfold over lifetimes – even beyond. Our Foundation certainly considers our non-profit partners to be long-term allies, and we view our investments as having a compounding effect.

So what does it tell donors when support is acknowledged strictly within an arbitrary date range? What does it suggest when thank you lists reset to zero each year, and support that may have built up over decades is functionally swept aside?

There are of course accounting realities and operating budgets that open and close on fixed dates. But that’s where I think we get into trouble: building donor recognition – better yet donor engagement – scenarios based on financial management tools.

I’m not suggesting that non-profits publish forever-additive lists. Perish the thought. But it does strike me that in as much as non-profits want to forge sustained relationships with donors – and vice versa – consideration of new systems of acknowledgement is warranted.

I’m imaging what my personal donor profile at my favorite non-profit might look like if it were structured to focus and build on the full history of our relationship. It’s a relationship that goes back to my early 20s, and includes years when even tiny gifts meant sacrifice. The few occasions when I didn’t send my check within their non-calendar fiscal year, my name was of course omitted from the published list.

Makes me wonder what the marketing of such a list is really intended to encourage. Is it motivating me to rush my gift in before the wonky fiscal year cut-off? I’m not sure. Right now I’m feeling something far less inspirational … like it reveals fickleness in a relationship I consider enduring. Certainly there’s a bit of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately flavor in it.

Of course the answer isn’t for non-profits to acknowledge donors who don’t give. But perhaps it is to forgive the occasional lapse, and publicly thank donors anyway for being part of a philanthropic movement that helped get the organization where it is today. Or maybe, for groups using a tiered acknowledgement system, it’s to orient those systems in a way that values a donor’s lifetime commitment to the cause, not a snapshot.

My boss, while not a fan of me spending time on donor recognition issues, is a fan of getting to the bottom line. So here it is:

Let’s acknowledge donor support as something deeper and with far broader a horizon than a fiscal year could justly describe.


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

 

An Innovative Partnership

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.  This post originally appeared on the blog of the Council on Foundations, a national philanthropic affiliate organization in Arlington, VA.

Ten years ago this month I waddled – enormously pregnant – into a job interview with the founder of a billion dollar healthcare tech company. “I have this crazy idea about education,” he said.

Technology, he hypothesized, could make learning more interesting for students. He saw it as a platform enabling kids to learn at their own pace, pursuing courses of study according to their own curiosity. This style of self-driven, high-tech learning, he thought, would keep kids engaged, and graduate them with skills necessary in our evolving economy.

He planned to explore the idea through his foundation. “What do you think?” he asked. I thought a lot.

In my experience, philanthropy and public education had not made the most successful of bedfellows. The work is notoriously hard, and structures and nuance on both sides can hinder effective partnerships.

Even promising strategies contribute to “initiative fatigue” in schools, the result of constant new mandates, tools, and big ideas. An Education Weekly commentator recently observed of the term, “I hear it everywhere I go.

Compounding that weariness is an understandable frustration among some educators that their work is disproportionately subjected to the opinions, advice, and occasional interference of outsiders. Teacher and writer Trent Kays declares,

Politicians, business magnates and venture capitalists have become the educational experts now.

Some of Kays’ generalizations are unfair, but his tone strikes me. He’s speaking out for those who are in the education system every day and have made it – and its evolution – their life’s work. He continues:

Perhaps most frustrating is that there are dedicated educators and researchers who are actively trying to change and improve education. But, their voices become minimized because they’re not millionaires, billionaires or have started a company in Silicon Valley.

Ten years and $12 million into our foundation’s journey in education, we’ve attempted to draw strength both from our board’s entrepreneurial experience and from within the education community. We’re not alone in that attempt – many of those Kays criticizes have done the same, engaging scores of experienced educators to ensure respect for school cultures, professionals and daily realities as they seek to influence systems change.

For us, though, how we’ve done it is unquestionably key to our success.

In 2009, we established the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. There, an independent team of researchers and educators is now on track to partner with half the middle schools in Vermont, supporting technology-rich learning and innovative school cultures.

I disagree with Kays’ argument that educator voices are subjugated to those of wealthy philanthropists. It’s been useful for us to consider, though, how the establishment of an independent entity grounded in the education community itself supports our goal of authentic, effective, peer-driven innovation.

And what have we achieved? A longitudinal study is now underway, but discreet pilot results are compelling. Researchers observed a 21.2% decrease in male absenteeism after just one year. Students, teachers and parents have further reported improved engagement, participation, behavior, and core academic outcomes – all harbingers of later academic and earnings success.

To put a finer point on it, my venture capitalist boss declares simply: “it’s a home run.”

                                                                                                                                   

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

 

Momentum Moment

Monday, April 6, 2015

Contributed by Lauren A. Curry.

Foundations work a bunch of different levers tackling the sets of challenges that constitute our agendas.  Most obvious is the money lever, as in aggregate we grant some $50 billion each year throughout the United States.  Makes a lever long enough to move some awfully weighty issues, if not quite the world.

Our most successful work, though, comes when we add other resources to the mix: our experience, creativity, sweat equity, leadership, relationships and voice.  Rich calls these “force multipliers” – the things that can stretch the value of our invested dollars and increase our impact.

Last week yielded a bit of a force multiplication opportunity.  We were invited to the Statehouse to describe what we see as a time of great innovation in many Vermont schools, and our role in contributing to the broader positive momentum now building throughout Vermont’s education system.

Find below a reprint of testimony given to the Senate Education Committee during a few precious hours of spring sunshine.

 

Investing in the Future of Education

Prepared for the Senate Education Committee

Lauren A. Curry, Executive Director

Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation

April 3, 2015

 

Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee this afternoon.  I will keep my comments brief so we can all get out to enjoy Vermont’s fine spring weather.

My name is Lauren Curry and I am the Executive Director of the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation.  We are seldom participants at the Statehouse, and though I have previously addressed your colleagues in the House, this is my first appearance before the Senate Education Committee.

Over the last decade, the Tarrant Foundation has been one of Vermont’s most active philanthropic agents.  Our corpus is comparatively small, but we spend aggressively – investing roughly three times the resources in Vermont communities each year as a typical foundation our size.

Our largest single investment is in Vermont’s education system.  Since 2005 we have funded an independent team of researchers and educators at the University of Vermont to partner with teachers and school leaders around the State.  Their object is to help schools provide learning opportunities that better fit who Vermont’s students are, how they learn, and the world in which they live.  

The technical description of the team’s approach is embedded, sustained leadership support and professional development to increase student engagement through learning that is student-centered and technology-rich.  Said more plainly, we believe in engaging today’s youth, with today’s tools, for tomorrow’s jobs and society.  

The Tarrant Foundation is compelled in our investment by a clear need to better serve today’s youth.  In other areas of our grantmaking we see the impact of a stubborn achievement gap, and of comparatively low rates of post-secondary education and training.  

We are more troubled still by the disproportionate share of these burdens borne by young Vermonters who are economically, traditionally, or geographically disadvantaged.  We join Secretary Holcombe in her urging about those who fare statistically worst in our system, as she recently declared:

… one of our highest priorities as a state needs to be improving the learning of our boys who are growing up in poverty.

Equal to these needs, we believe, are the opportunity and strength found in Vermont schools.  Our education system is among the highest performing in the country – and by some measures the world.  We enjoy strong leadership, involved communities, and legislative tools like Act 77 that can facilitate crucial innovation.  Committed partners including the Tarrant Foundation, the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation, and the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children help further strengthen that system and its outcomes.

UVM’s Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education has now partnered with more than a dozen schools in five counties, reaching over 5,000 students and their teachers.  The Tarrant Foundation’s recent new investment in the Institute will enable it to dramatically expand its work, now on course to involve at least half the middle schools in Vermont in the coming years.

The Tarrant Foundation’s continued investment in the Institute and in Vermont schools – already more than $12M – is fueled by several factors:

1.     Early research indicators.  A longitudinal study is now underway, but discreet results from the Tarrant Institute’s pilot sites are compelling.  In one school, the Institute observed a 21.2% decrease in male student absenteeism after just one year.  More meaningful still, reduced absentee rates for boys and girls persisted through high school – long past the active phase of their program.

Students, teachers and parents further reported improved student engagement, participation, behavior, and core academic outcomes – all harbingers of increased academic and earnings success later in life.

2.     The courage and commitment demonstrated by Vermont’s educators.  This is intensive and transformative work, requiring teachers and school leaders to establish clear goals and new infrastructure that develop schools as innovative organizations, reflecting in our schools the same agility and dynamism demanded of organizations beyond their walls.

Every day, school leaders are guiding their teams and communities through new conversations, teachers are leaving behind established habits and curriculum, and students are encouraged to take up new responsibility as leaders in their own education.

A teacher at one of our partner schools described what he observes, saying:

I think it’s getting easier to keep [students] excited about things because we’re not teaching them to use the tool anymore. They already know how to use the tool better than any of the adults or teachers could show them. So we can refocus on the content, and the information we want to get across to the students … This year I’ve really seen them go farther than I could imagine.  (Joe Speers, Peoples Academy Middle Level)

This is just one of countless comments we’ve heard from educators, students, and parents capturing the impact, vulnerability and great potential of this evolutionary journey.

3.     A clear moment of opportunity.  Conversations that ten years ago started with “if” – if technology should play more of a role in education, if employers would be asking for new skills in our workforce, and if schools could make fundamental changes to how they deliver learning – are now focused wholly on “how”.  How teachers can get the time and support they need to innovate, how to ensure learners have access to relevant tools, and how schools can use new technology to create efficiencies and increase learning opportunities for all students.

More than 40 schools reached out to the Tarrant Institute this year to pursue what most acknowledge as the most intensive and challenging school change they have ever undertaken.  The Institute sees this – and their daily experience in classrooms – as evidence of an incredibly and productively dynamic moment in Vermont’s education history.  As a Foundation, we see it as evidence of an investment in change that’s working – an indication that schools, teachers, families and communities are ready, able and excited to move forward.  

Next week the Tarrant Foundation will join the McClure Foundation and the Vermont Community Foundation as hosts to 45 funders from around Vermont and New England.  We will gather for a day to listen to experts in the education community speak about goals, pressures, tools and opportunities they perceive in Vermont’s system.  

As co-convenors of that meeting, the Tarrant Foundation believes greater shared understanding of education in Vermont will give important context to arguably all philanthropic activity in the state, regardless of field of interest.  We more specifically hope this will serve as an opportunity for funders to consider new ways to support Vermont learners and schools.

I think each of us here today could point to numerous examples showing that people all over Vermont – in word and deed – are aligning themselves with the notion of change: change to increase opportunity in education, change to create greater equity, and change to ensure the sustainability of our system – and our communities.  

I’m proud of the Tarrant Foundation’s role in fueling that momentum.  I’m also grateful to those who work in Vermont’s education system – and who are charged to support it – as you work carefully and with courage to ensure the greatest possible future for every Vermont child.

Thank you.

                                                                                                                                                 

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