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Persistence and Patience: The Story of Philanthropy in Education in Vermont

Since the 2014 elections became old news, there’s been no shortage of essays, blogs, speeches, and broad proclamations bemoaning the state of American education. “Teaching has been replaced by testing,” we are told. “Liberal Arts have been overshadowed by STEM.” “Workforce prep has replaced higher thought.” Students themselves are often lost sight of as powerful players proclaim what’s right and what’s wrong with education in this country.

Luckily, here in Vermont, plenty of inclusive conversations and diligent hard work across multiple sectors in the last couple of years has moved education forward for students.  And the Vermont press has honored this serious work with thoughtful coverage of the drafting of complex legislation and of collaborative initiatives (such as The Green Mountain Imperative).

So at this point in time, how can other  Vermonters also honor this work?  How do we keep the momentum going in order to translate legislation and initiatives into viable, equitable realities for students in schools across our state?  Specifically, here and now, how do we ensure that students get the assistance they need to design effective personalized learning plans (PLPs) and to enrich their learning through work-based learning (WBL) experiences?

At the McClure Foundation, this is the time of year when we consider our own 2015-2016 school year grants. Where are our dollars best directed to help Vermont students and graduates realize their full potential?  It has taken us a decade of continual research and outreach -- and a narrowing of our focus -- to become more effective in increasing the access that all Vermonters have to workforce and postsecondary education.

To outsiders, grantmakers may seem free to scatter dollars at will and without accountability. How hard is it, after all, to write a check?  We’ve come to think of ourselves and other like-minded philanthropists as stewards who connect and leverage resources responsibly in order to effect meaningful changes.  This involves constant re-evaluation so that strategic goals reflect the current “who, what, where, when, why and how” realities and so that the unforeseen consequences of our actions do not create more harm than good.

What keeps us motivated?  A sharp Vermont entrepreneur who continues to tackle groundbreaking challenges in the public sector inspired us nearly two years ago by stating that what philanthropists can bring to the table are persistence and passion.  So we are on the sidelines -- but not in the shadows -- supporting those professionals doing the hard work in schools, promoting their success stories, and working to reduce polarization by identifying those “levers” that move people out of their silos to collaborate on behalf of our traditional and non-traditional students.

Small shifts don’t make for big headlines -- but we persist, evolve, and give it our best shot!

If you are interested in improving the future for Vermonters, we suggest that you consider first those issues that will sustain your own curiosity and dedication over time.  Study the philanthropists and nonprofits that have come before you and those working beside you (we’ve learned lots from the work of the Tarrant Foundation and the Permanent Fund, for example). Keep abreast of news and trends, learn from practitioners working directly with students and teachers – and then follow your heart!  Your dollars and your time can help your fellow  Vermonters to take their own next steps, for the benefit of all.  

There are no “right” answers.  We encourage you to find your place in some Vermont success story!

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