The Straight-A Fund: Efficient, Yes; Effective, Time Will Tell

John Mullaney

This week, $88 million dollars were awarded in the first round of the Governor’s Straight-A Fund to twenty-four schools across Ohio, out of a pool of 569 applications submitted. This one-of-a kind initiative is intended to incentivize innovations in teaching and learning across the state, to save money to the district, and to prove replicable in order to benefit other districts. The awards ranged from $14 million to $205,000.

I and four other colleagues from the philanthropic sector were among the educators, administrators, and business and venture capitalists invited to sit on the Grant Advisory Committee. One clear message to the committee was that the Straight-A Fund is attempting to create a set of demonstration projects across the state. The Fund holds the promise to truly change the way the public typically thinks of education in Ohio.

The process is creating a portfolio of projects that, if successful, will deliver the public a robust System of Schools with a portfolio of creative learning environments, rather than a one-size-fits-all School System. The grants have been awarded, and that is a good start. For the program to truly succeed, however, the follow-up will be the Governing Board’s greatest challenge. If done well, the Fund will serve as a national model.

For those of us in the philanthropic sector, the selection process was unlike anything we had ever seen. To ensure anonymity and impartiality, the state employed the expertise of statisticians from Ohio State University to assist. The committee was introduced to sophisticated algorithms and briefed on how to make use of “logit” scores to determine cut-off points, which then determined which grants the Governing Board could select from. The model is a wonderful example of how a “big-data” model played an invaluable role in producing an unbiased consensus agenda for the Advisory Committee and Governing Board.

It was curious that only one element, called “Item 9” on each grant application, posed a challenge to a relatively flawless system. I will address that below. In the end, I would argue that the Advisory Committee found the selection process highly efficient in meeting the requirements of the legislation. For overseeing a smooth and timely grant review process, we offer our kudos to the civil servants who were involved. How effective this process will be remains an open question and a concern.

The Governing Board must realize that their greatest challenge begins now. In philanthropy, we know from experience that the most successful grant making occurs when foundations establish partnerships with nonprofits and become partners to ensure success. That effort includes focus, attention, and reliable models for benchmarking success. Our colleagues from the business sector know that turning ideas into actual breakthrough products, services, and process improvements requires discipline. “Ideating is energizing and glamorous but by contrast, execution seems like humdrum, behind-the-scenes dirty work. But without execution, Big Ideas go nowhere.

Each of the grants—regardless of size, duration, or purpose—is in essence an experiment. Unless there is an intentional and disciplined system to gather, evaluate, and act on and learn from these investees and the challenges they face in replicating their successes, the Straight-A Fund will wind up looking like too many of the well-intentioned efforts to reform schools.

The current law contains two reporting requirements for the Fund: First, “the board shall issue an annual report to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the President of the Senate, and the chairpersons of the House and Senate committees that primarily deal with education regarding the types of grants awarded, the grant recipients, and the effectiveness of the grant program.” Second, “a grant advisory committee for the Straight-A Program is hereby established….The committee shall annually renew the Straight-A Program and provide strategic advice to the governing board and the Director of the Governor’s Office of 21st Century Education.”

The reporting requirements are broad and beg for a disciplined evaluation process. A few questions one might ask are as follows:

(1) Who will capture the material that will be provided in the annual report to the Board, as required in the legislation? (2) Is there a designated leader who will direct this effort? (3) Does the system allow for failure and, more importantly, track the lessons learned from the failure? (4) Is there a method to help foster the replication of successful models? Our experience in philanthropy shows that there are many cases of innovative teaching and learning already taking place in schools throughout the state. Often these successes are not because of but in spite of school leadership. (5) Is there a way to capture these ideas and blend them with the successes we may or may not see among the twenty-four grantees? (6) How open is the Governing Board and the Director of the Governor’s Office of Twenty-First-Century Education to the advice from the advisory committee? And, most importantly, (7) How risk-tolerant are the legislators tasked with making the radical changes that might be necessary to have the impact the law intended?

Fredrick Hess’s new book, Cage-Busting Leadership, points to the complexity of incentivizing innovation, because the State System is culturally risk adverse. To this point he writes,

[T]hink about school and district leaders . . . as living in a cage. That cage restricts what they can do and how they can do it. Lost in the K-12 leadership equation [is]—the cage-busting half that makes it easier for successful and professional cultures to thrive.

More specifically to the challenge facing the Governing Board, Hess writes,

One way to free leaders is by removing the bars that cage them in. District contracts and procurement processes, rules and regulations, state statutes and board policies hinder leaders in all kinds of ways, making it harder to repair a fence, hired talented staff or schedule grade-level team meetings. [These] policies present real problems, but smart leaders can frequently find ways to bust them—with enough persistence, knowledge, and ingenuity.

I encourage these grant recipients to explore the barriers to their success. They must not be afraid to articulate how these policy elements help or hinder success and list the precise legislative elements that will be required to change them.

Earlier, I mentioned the puzzling “Item 9” on the grant application. Item 9 asked, “Are realistic barriers to the work identified and are reasonable solutions to the barriers being proposed?” This question about barriers caused confusion for both the applicants and the scorers. The variance in the answers caused “noise” in the algorithm. To eliminate that “noise,” the statisticians may eliminate the question for the next application round.

Our reaction is quite the opposite. Don’t eliminate it, but perhaps rethink it. The barriers question is perhaps the most important one for applicants to answer. It is no surprise to those in philanthropy that this question threw off the data sets. Answering this question is very difficult for school leaders, because (to quote Hess) “the problem is, [leaders] don’t know they can bust challenges. Or don’t know how to get started. Or are too nervous to try, or have never been taught they are supposed to push.”

It has been a privilege and honor to serve as a member of Advisory Committee. As the real work begins, I encourage the policymakers to make use of the philanthropic and business communities to help realize the potential the Fund holds for education.

Note: John Mullaney is the executive director for the Nord Family Foundation, an Ohio-based charitable trust. John served on the Grant Advisory Committee for the Straight-A Fund. Aaron Churchill of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also served on the Advisory Committee.

Teacher Professional Development and Philanthropic Investment

Despite millions of dollars in efforts to reform education, the results in most public schools, especially in poorer districts remains dismal. In my many conversations with teachers and school administrators, it is becoming painfully evident that what has been lacking for many years is quality and focused professional development. Business journals abound in articles providing tips on how to improve quality, customer satisfaction and ultimately earnings by making optimal use of professional development for employees. A growing field in “gamification” in business is one we are watching as it relates to the use of games to encourage motivation and output, based on a fundamental principle of play. Even with the new emphasis on teacher evaluation, the literature is relatively mute on what is being done on either the state or federal level to improve the quality of teacher professional development.

In my opinion,  too many philanthropic foundations engage in school reform focusing too much on trying to manipulate classroom outcomes without regard for teachers and the teaching profession.   We are quick to march in lock-step with the national testing frenzy perhaps because if feeds our own need for “outcome” measurements.   Too few are concerned with the professionals in front of the classroom and the support they need to improve themselves in their own profession.  The quality of professional development for teachers and where that best takes place is an issues  every foundation that supports education should take up.  A national discussion on the topic is long overdue.

My colleague Aaron Churchill at the Fordham Foundation wrote the following after we had a conversation on the topic last month:

“The quality of teacher professional development (PD) can be described as abysmal at worst and dubious at best. Linda Darling-Hammond remarks that “American teachers say that much of the professional development available to them is not useful.” Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week writes that “perhaps no other aspect of the teacher-quality system in the United States suffers from an identity crisis as severe as that of professional development.”

The research bears out the wary comments above. Two recent PD studies, conducted by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), found no effect in student achievement when teachers participate in PD. The first, a middle school math study, administered two years of PD to 92 teachers, and found no effect on teachers’ knowledge or student achievement. The second, an elementary reading study, administered PD to 270 teachers for one year. The study found no effect on student achievement, either at the end of the year-long PD program or the year after.

So, PD is ineffective. What, then, of the cost?

The cost of PD has ballooned in the past two decades, such that today, Ohio spends upwards of $400 million per year on PD. The chart below shows the average per-pupil PD expenditure for Ohio’s traditional public schools—the black dashed line—and the average expenditures for three groups of schools. (There’s considerable variation in districts’ PD expenditures—major urban districts spend the most; rural districts the least).[1] To get a taste of the variation, I display three groups: (1) Major Urban – the “Ohio Eight”; (2) Major Suburban – the state’s eight largest suburban districts by FY2012 enrollment; (3) Rural Farmland – Ridgemont Local (Hardin County) and its seven most similar districts.


The chart shows that from 1995 to 2012, the district average per-pupil PD expenditure has increased:

  • Statewide, from $50 to $278 (up 456 percent);
  • Urban, from $244 to $870 (up 257 percent);
  • Suburban, from $97 to $498 (up 413 percent);
  • Rural, from $36 to $178 (up 394 percent).

Thus, the average Ohio teacher, assuming a class of 20 students, receives somewhere around $5,000 a year for PD.


Chart: Average per-pupil PD expenditures, statewide and three district types, 1994-95 to 2011-12


SOURCE: Ohio Department of Education. NOTE: Expenditures adjusted for inflation by GDP deflator. Fiscal year 2012 data are preliminary.”

Aaron’s solution to the problem is to make better use of MOOC’s – Massive Open Online Courses such as Coursera. We will continue to watch that interesting development. In the meantime, we continue to believe that brining teachers together in environments where they can learn with and from each other is one of the most positive means of addressing this critical issue.


Many of the grants the foundation provides in education include focused professional development. We welcome your thoughts and comments on this issue as we seek to improve the impact of our grantmaking in this area.

[1] A note is in order here. PD expenditures, as defined here, are derived from the Ohio Department of Education’s Expenditure Flow Model, which reports “staff support” expenditures. A cross-check with the Uniform School Accounting System indicates that “staff support” are those “activities which are designed primarily for assisting instructional staff in planning, developing, and evaluating the process of providing challenging learning experiences for pupils. These activities include curriculum development, techniques of instruction, child development and understanding, staff training, and so forth.”

Mental Health First AID


A friend of mine who is a federal judge in the county told me once that his biggest lament in this job is the fact that about 60% of the people he convicts to the criminal justice system suffer from some degree of mental illness which is often undiagnosed.


This week the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a sobering article in the Sunday Focus Section describing the fate of the nearly 300 mentally defendants who file into Cuyahoga County jail each day. The article explains that there are Mental Health services sections in the jail and even mental health courts.  The challenges lie in the area of providing the psychiatric support and most importantly, the medications needed to stabilize patients. 


The Nord Family Foundation has a legacy of providing support to the mentally and emotionally ill members of the community.  Founder Walter Nord served on the Lorain County Mental Health board in the 1940’s and with personal investment leveraged with funding from the State Mental Health board established what is now The Nord Center.


Mental Health First Aid is (MHFA) is a public education program that helps the public identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance use disorders. Its importance is articulated best thy the Arizona Department of Health Services.

 “Nearly 1 million people a year suffer a heart attack – making teaching CPR an important element in public health education. But while 1 million is a big number, it represents less than 1 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, about one in four Americans experience depression, anxiety or other mental illness. That means you’re much more likely to encounter someone having a mental health crisis than someone having a heart attack.”

The MHFA program is offered in the form of a 12-hour course that presents an overview of mental illness and substance use disorders in the U.S. and introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems, builds understanding of their impact, and overviews common treatments. Those who complete the 12-hour course are then certified as Mental Health First Aiders and learn a 5-step action plan encompassing the skills, resources and knowledge to help an individual in crisis connect with appropriate professional, peer, social, and self-help care. The program is suitable for a variety of audiences including primary care professionals, employers and business leaders, faith communities, school personnel and educators, state police and corrections officers, nursing home staff, mental health authorities, state policymakers, and the general public. 


Suggested by Trustee who had heard about the MHFA our staff has been laying the groundwork for a foundation initiative to bring MHFA to Lorain County. To institutionalize MHFA in Lorain County, we are initiating a Train-the-Trainer option.  One local individual has completed  national instructor training through Mental Health First Aid USA.  This is a five-day training program that results in a three-year certification as a MHFA Instructor, qualified to offer the 12-hour community education course and certify Mental Health First Aiders.  Instructors must commit to provide MHFA training at least three times annually in their community.


The Lorain County Board of Mental Health has committed financial and in-kind resources to assist with the launch of this effort.  

Starting this summer, MHFA courses will be offered in Lorain County, at no cost to Lorain County residents.  The 12-hour course is ideally offered over two consecutive days for a maximum of 25 people at a time.  Each participant is provided with a workbook and a variety of handouts.  . 


A number of suitable training facilities are available in Lorain County. The Lorain County Chapter of the American Red Cross has offered their facility as a community training location, underscoring the intent of MHFA to become as common as the Red Cross’ First Aid training program.


Foundation investment in the pilot is $20,000.  This amount will cover the costs associated with training a local Instructor, then to subsequently offer a total of up to six community trainings over a two-year period for a total of 300 people.  We see this as an important contribution to educating the public on the need to understand mental illness in our communities and respond appropriately.

Many thanks to Senior Program Officer Karen Cook who did most of the research behind this post.

The Maestro and the Mayor – Music for all schools

Hope for the Impossible to Achieve the Extraordinary

Those were the words Cleveland Orchestra director Franz Welser-Most used at the City Club to describe his vision of Cleveland as the “Music City of America.”  One week later in the same venue, Mayor Jackson said he wanted the Cleveland Schools to be on par with the Cleveland Clinic and the Cleveland Orchestra.  Few cities have the remarkable concentration of music resources than Cleveland. The Mayor and the Maestro recognize this as Cleveland’s niche above other cities.  “Cleveland cannot compete with the masses of India, China and Japan…where you can compete is you have to find niches and you have to be the best in that niche.”  The challenge for the school board and superintendent is to harness that niche and bring it to scale so all children can “Make Music!” Done properly, Cleveland schools could be extraordinary and unlike any district in the country.

One promising example is a foundation supported pilot between the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and the New York-based Education Through Music.  ETM has a simple mission: “forming long-term partnerships with inner-city schools to help principals establish and sustain school-wide music education programs that reach every student.”   Our trustees support this goal because we can no longer understand how any school cannot include music as a core curricular discipline.  Our challenge to the Cleveland leadership is to create a school system where every school has a trained music education professional on staff and that music is valued for the fundamental contribution it makes to student learning.

Ray Kurzweil’s book How to Create a Mind – The Secret of Human Thought Revealed explains that the human brain has developed a unique capacity to recognize patterns and recall sequences of patterns, “…however, we are not born with a neocortex filled with any of these patterns. Our neocortex is virgin territory when our brain is created.  It has the capacity of learning and therefore of creating connections between the pattern recognizers, but it gains those connections from experience.  This learning process begins even before we are born, occurring simultaneously within the biological process of actually growing a brain.” By the third trimester “…the fetus is having experiences, and the neocortex is learning.  She can hear sounds, especially her mother’s heartbeat, which is one likely reason that the rhythmic qualities of music are universal to human culture.   Every human civilization ever discovered has had music as part of its culture which is not the case with other art forms, such as pictorial art. “

Nationally, schools have embraced STEM and virtually all the K-12 STEM curriculum have as their core the ability for students to “recognize and analyze patterns and trends, and to sequence events.” In large measure, those same schools have eliminated music as a core curriculum and effectively, “outsourced” music training to institutions like the Orchestra and the Rock Hall, as well as many excellent nonprofits that succeed often by finding the one teacher in the one building who will invite their programming into the schools. Philanthropy has enabled this travesty by supporting the programs –which though excellent, are considered by the schools an “add-on.”  With a human phenomenon so fundamental to human brain activity why on earth would schools not include music as a core curricular standard thereby ensuring access and exposure for every child? 

The Mayor and the Maestro have set the bar high.  Perhaps now is the time to reach for what may be considered impossible and to leverage the excellence in human capital coupled with unparalleled technology used at many of our music institutions and bring to scale the efforts that ETM and Oberlin have piloted to ensure that each school will have paid full-time staff to teach music to every child.  In that kind of district, visits to the Orchestra, the Rock Hall or any other musical event will magnify a child’s experience of life.  Aristotle said of teachers, “Those who educate children well are more to be honored than they who produce them; for these only gave them life, those the art of living well.”

Living in a city where that happens would indeed be Extraordinary.

Teach for America: A Review of two programs in two States

In June 2011, the Nord Family Foundation approved  two large grants to support Teach for America in two geographic areas.  The first, in Northeast Ohio is $450,000 over three years and the other was $150,000 as a match to help launch TFA in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina – featured in a Nord Family Foundation supported video, “The Corridor of Shame.”  Their reports reflect the complexity of introducing innovative and effective solutions in two different political, cultural and economic contexts.


Teach for America in NE Ohio anticipated that 100 corps members would be teaching in the Cleveland and Lorain area in 2012-2013.  Many of the corps members were scheduled for placement within the Cleveland Municipal School Districts.   Conversations had already given indication that the Elyria Schools would also hire teachers. In the spring of 2012, due to a massive budget deficit, the CMSD laid off over 500 teachers. Elyria experienced similarly drastic budget cuts and laid-off teachers as well.  Lorain City Schools continued under administrative upheaval with an interim Superintendent, a massive budget deficit and construction of a new high school.    All of the districts mentioned continued to place in the Academic Emergency or Continuous Improvement status, lowest on the State Reports.  Under the 2013 revised report card, each of the districts would earn an F status.   Despite efforts on the part of the major foundations, none of the public districts could hire new teachers given the rules of collective bargaining.  As a result, TFA in NE Ohio reduced its projected numbers to 50, earning placements in some of the highest achieving, charter schools that serve impoverished communities yet continue to place in the range of “Academic Excellence” and/or “Effective” rankings due to excellence in teaching.  Each of the charter schools welcome TFA recruits with open arms and continue to be grateful for the talent and energy they bring to the schools.


Negotiations continue with the CMSD academic leaders as well as with union officials.  It looks at if the CMSD will agree to 15 TFA candidates for 2013-2014 school hear.  We hold out the same hope for Lorain County where Nord Family Foundation staff as well as Stocker Foundation staff continues to meet with the school Superintendents and curriculum directors at both Elyria and Lorain Schools.  In each case the leaders are willing to have the students, but the union leaders are likely to continue to protest those efforts.  In the meantime, corps members will be placed in charter schools. One area of hope is the Innovation Districtsin the CMSD.  These are districts that by law can elect to exempt themselves from many of the administrative restrictions including hiring.    These districts must be in academic emergency for three years or more to qualify.   These districts would be able to hire TFA recruits.  CMSD has schools within the district that meet these qualifications and Nord staff is currently in negotiations with the Superintendent of the Lorain Schools to have his school board consider such a designation.  TFA remains convinced that these innovation Districts will serve as the portal for more TFA staff to participate in the education leadership in the region.  Next year, TFA plans to have 65 new recruits in service.

A personal frustration is that some schools in the State of Ohio are not unlike the schools one could find in the Corridor of Shame in South Carolina.  Despite that reality, Ohio remains resistant to any significant changes to the way schools have always been, despite many incentives from both philanthropy and from the State.  We need to make more concerted efforts to work with School Boards who play a critical role in blocking or ushering innovation into schools.





[1] Innovation Districts were introduced in the 2011-2012 State budget in Ohio

Innovation Districts in Ohio

Innovation is not simply invention; it is inventiveness put to use. Invention without innovation is a pastime.

– Harold Evans – the London Sunday Times
Governor Kasich’s Straight A Fund which will allocate $300 for Innovation Grants for Schools is a gift with remarkable potential but few educators realize it. This idea of an innovation fund has been brewing in the philanthropic sector for the past seven years, and now there is an opportunity to turn that idea to reality. In addition to making grants, foundations seek to stimulate cross-sector collaborations and mobilize stakeholders to create shared solutions. Seeing tremendous challenges in Ohio’s education sector, foundations from across the State collaborated through the Ohio Grantmakers Forum (OGF) to consider what real innovation could look like for the State. Basing its analysis on successful projects funded in classrooms from across the country, OGF published documents in 2006, 2009 and in 2013.
In 2006, Education for Ohio’s Future challenged legislators to “Accelerate Innovations and Options throughout the System.” We said, “Schools, new and old, should reflect current research that supports high-quality and relevant curriculum, expanded forms of autonomy, the development of regional schools, the infusion of technology, a longer school day and school year, and accelerated options for combined high school and college coursework.” In 2009, Beyond Tinkering – called for “Creating Ohio Innovation Zones and an Incentive Fund” and to “Seed transformative educational innovation by attracting and building on promising school and instructional models; introduce district-wide innovations that personalize and deepen teaching and learning; and eliminate operational and regulatory barriers.” In the 2011-2012 biennial budget, the Ohio legislature allowed for “Innovation Schools” and “Innovation School Zones” (3302.6 – Designation as an innovation school) that could waive any collective bargaining agreement that would impede implementation of an innovation plan. A caveat was thrown in that would activate the waiver only if 60% of the members of the bargaining unit in each participating school approved the waiver. What a way to kill innovation! Few superintendents took up the challenge due to the cumbersome language and the lack of understanding of what is available on the market and how real innovation can take place within this ossified bureaucracy. For too many, innovation still means a Smartboard™. The recent 2013 OGF report states, “Technology that is overlaid on an antiquated model of schooling only increases the costs – the model must be recreated. “
In the May 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review, Stacey Childress of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote that, …”increasing the quality of K-12 Public education is vital to long-term economic growth. The U.S. educational sector has ignored technological advancements that have brought dramatic productivity gains to almost all other sectors and needs to introduce smart, personalized-learning programs into the curriculum.”
The Innovation Grants Fund is a remarkable step toward transforming teaching and learning. Effective use of these grants has the potential to change our centralized “educational system,” into “system for education” that can be more flexible to the demand for personalized learning. To support the Grants superintendents and especially school board members must provide teaching professionals culture of inventiveness in order to bring success in learning to scale. For too long we have supported an evaluation system that appears have been designed to create future game-show contestants rather than learners. Placing the power of innovation into the hands of capable teaching professionals will produce assessments that reflect a child’s true understanding of material. State-of-the-art management tools that increase productivity in the private sector should be available in schools and encouraged to demonstrate scalable cost savings.
Real innovation will be accelerated when the State makes use of the same technologies to update its irrational and wasteful system of professional development. This will not be accomplished by pouring more money into traditional education schools but taking cues from online options That mission can be enhanced when Cleveland makes much better use of its television and media to spotlight what works in education.
Philanthropy has funded successful inventions in classrooms and buildings across the country. Only with the collaboration of the government can successful classroom inventions turn into innovations that will benefit all children. Mr. Kasich has provided educational leadership the opportunity for inventiveness not seen before. Let’s figure out ways to make it happen.

Traumatic Brain Injury and Homeless Populations – a role for Philanthropy?

In October 2011, I attended a session at the Annual Meeting of Philanthropy Roundtable with the title: Four Models for Addressing Chronic Unemployment and Homelessness.  Four Models for Addressing Chronic Unemployment and Homelessness

Homelessness, hunger, and unemployment cry out for solutions. The most sustainable solutions, however, often depend on the homeless, hungry, and unemployed building self-reliance and in turn reclaiming their lives and restoring their positions in their families and their communities. Training programs can help people to accomplish this for themselves in a variety of ways. On this panel, representatives of four exemplary social service organizations will outline the best ways for private charity to help people to help themselves—from faith-based approaches and getting people off the streets to providing permanent housing and re-purposing unused food for job training.

Barbara Elliott, president and founder, Center for Renewal and board member, Work Faith Connection
Sister Mary Scullion, executive director and president, Project Home
Jennifer Vigran, chief executive officer, Second Helpings
Matt Minkevitch, executive director, The Road Home
Betsy Bikoff, vice president and chief grant making officer,Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation (Moderator)

Each of the panelists described programs they developed to assist the homeless as they identify a path to self-sufficiency.  It was evident that the number of homeless people is increasing in each of the geographic areas represented by the panel.  “Overwhelming” was a word used to describe the pressures the increased numbers place on their organizations.     Every one of these programs is able to describe success for a large number of the clients they served; but at the same time, they admitted to seeing an increasing number of people for whom the simplest steps to recovery and “self-help” remains a challenge.

Those studying the homeless populations now make distinctions among the people they serve: (1) those who are homeless due to sudden changes in economic situation or temporary set-back and (2) the “chronically homeless” who appear to be mentally and/or emotionally ill and/or with substance dependency.   Typically this group faces a longer time horizon to stabilization and the rates of recidivism are very high.  Some never reach stabilization.      During the question and answer period, I referenced an article from the December 24, 2010 New York Times called, “The Street Level Solution.” The article cites studies that find a significant number of chronically homelessness people having a history of Traumatic Brain Injury (TMI). The author David Bornstein writes that it is important for providers to distinguish the chronically homeless in order to better understand the true problem.  His research brought him to Dr. James O’Connell,“…a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, (he) estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury. ‘For many it was a head injury prior to the time they became homeless,’ he said. ‘They became erratic. They’d have mood swings, bouts of explosive behavior. They couldn’t hold onto their jobs. Drinking made them feel better. They’d end up on the streets.’ ”     I asked the panelists if they were aware of this and related research and; if so, were they seeing it?  Every one of the panelists shook their heads in agreement and suggested that there was little understanding among those in the public sector about the gravity of this problem.  Matt Minkevitch said he is certain that many clients at The Road Home have had a history of past brain injury.

In his opinion, the crisis is rooted in the fact that clients often present symptoms that look more like those that need to treated by an assortment prescribed psychotropic drugs usually through mental health departments.  He described one client in particular who had been in and out of the mental health system treated as a schizophrenic and sedated.  He never responded to the pharmacopeia of psychotropic medications which puzzled the many physicians and mental health providers. The client who was well-known to all at the Road Home discussed his suffering on many occasions.  He killed himself after a particularly violent episode.  His case was of enough interest that an autopsy was performed.  The autopsy report showed that the man was not schizophrenic at all, but had been experiencing brain seizures related directly to a traumatic brain injury.

Clearly the chronically homeless will remain a challenge for many in the years to come.   Most disturbing to us and the providers is the increasing number of veterans who are appearing at homeless shelters across the country.  This phenomenon parallels the stories of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – a subset of whom have experienced brain trauma.

As a foundation that hopes to address the root causes of poverty, I think this apparent link between homelessness and TBI is worth exploring. I would suggest that other foundations that support programs dealing with homeless populations do the same. Since January 1, 2002, The Nord Family Foundation trustees approved 70 grants totaling $1,460,300 that provided support in some form or another to homeless populations.   This number includes grants across both the Health and Human Services &Civic Affairs program areas, and includes supportive programs such as Children’s Garden that provides child care for homeless families and the Lorain County Furniture Bank that provided furniture to families transitioning out of homelessness.   Other foundation grants by geographic areas (excluding matching grants) include:

Lorain County: 

Family Promise of Lorain County
Catholic Charities Family Center and St. Joe’s Shelter

Cuyahoga County:

Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greater Cleveland
West Side Catholic Center


Damen Project
The Delores Project
The Gathering Place
St. Francis Center
Urban Peak
Warren Village
Step 13


Family Shelter
Salvation Army Midlands
Women’s Shelter

The Nord Family Foundation’s concern for the homeless can be traced to the early 1940’s when Walter Nord became invested in creating the Nord Center due to the large number of returning war veterans who suffered from “shell shock” and who had little support.   How many of those men had experienced some form of TBI in their service?  Then, as now, the more severe manifestations of TBI were referred to the mental health system.  Advances in biotechnology have improved the understanding of the brain and its functions.  Doctors are now discovering what many front-line providers have sensed for a long time; that is. the cognitive and physical manifestations in the homeless that people attribute to mental illness, mental retardation and or drug use have deeper idiopathic explanations.  Consequently the way to really help these people is advocating for expanded primary health care access to those suffering from homelessness. Forging partnerships between mental health providers and primary health care workers who can better diagnose TBI will help to relieve the crush on the overtaxed mental health systems and at the same time better address the root causes of homelessness.

In September 2011, I was introduced to the Craig Hospital in Denver Colorado.   Craig is dedicated exclusively to Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).  In follow-up to my visit, I asked several staff members if they too were looking at this topic.  I made connection with Kristi Staniszewski, RPT Clinical Specialist from the Research Department.  Kristi let me know the link between TBI and homeless populations is recognized as underreported and an important policy item for the Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado.   Kristi asked she thought there might be value in the Nord Family Foundation helping the alliance convene a meeting of clinicians, and providers who are seeking support to advance the recommendations of the Executive Order on Traumatic Brain Injury – Final Report which was presented to Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. in December 2009.     With minimal investment of funding, the foundation is in a position to convene a discussion on the subject to include providers and appropriate medical practitioners to gather more information on TBI and its impact on the social service sector.  My research revealed that in one conference on the topic took place in 2010 in Maine.  I included an opening talk by one of the presenters.   Please notice that she starts her talk saying that few conference on the topic of homlessness every address the link with TBI.  We can serve as a catalyst and hopefully bring this topic to NE Ohio, Columbia, SC; and perhaps Boston.

I welcome any comments from foundation representatives or service providers.

From invention to innovation

Innovation is not simply invention; it is inventiveness put to use. Invention without innovation is a pastime.

– Harold Evans – former editor of the London Sunday Times

Innovation has become quite the bantered word in philanthropy. The Stanford Social Innovation Review has featured several articles on social innovation. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has dedicated a series of conferences to the challenge of scaling what works.

In too many cases, foundations fund creative programs initiated by nonprofit organizations which prove effective by many measures, but for reasons unknown to many, fail to be replicated in other communities. These are cases where inventiveness is not put to use. Knowing these efforts are more than mere pastimes, many in the philanthropic and nonprofit communities are beginning to ponder these issues.

The Innovator’s Way – Essential Practices for Successful Innovation by Peter J. Denning and Robert Dunham is prominent in the business section at most book stores. Geared primarily to the business sector, the book is completely relevant to the nonprofit and foundation sector as well. The writers insist that an innovator can determine success when three factors converge:

Domain expertise – is your skill in the community of practice you aim to change.

Social interaction practices – is your skill at influencing others and mobilizing action around your ideas.

Opportunities – acknowledging that you cannot control your environment, but you can control how you engage with it. Successful innovators have a high sensitivity to people’s concerns and breakdowns, an ability that might be called “reading the world.”

I would argue that most foundations have – by their nature – all three elements for successful innovation. Their interaction with grantees sheds light on domain experience; successful staff members sense opportunities to read the world and convey that to trustees; and finally, the ability to convene people from sectors outside the ambit of the nonprofit world provides singular social interaction practices that can indeed bring “inventions” in the nonprofit world to scale.

The Nord Family Foundation has made several grants to support technological inventions that demonstrate improvements in the ways children and adults learn, as in the case of past support of CAST – The Center for Applied Special Technologies. Early support for this pilot program in Lorain County schools resulted in two highly successful products, the Thinking Reader™ and Science Writer™, which are software tools that embrace CAST’s highly successful Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pedagogy.

The foundation’s support to the Bellefaire Monarch School enabled computer programmers at Monarch’s commercial site (Monarch Teaching Technologies, Inc.) to pilot and refine the interactive software program Vizzle™ that is now being offered for an IPO. In March, Vizzle’s inventor wrote to us to let us know that Vizzle was now being implemented in twenty-eight schools across the Los Angeles Unified School District to help children with autism. Research shows that children with autism pay more attention and retain more of what they learn when lessons are presented interactively utilizing technology. Similarly, The Manila Times announced a significant Vizzle pilot program backed by the Philippines’ Department of Education. This news was reported in at least four Filipino daily papers.  Just last month, Vizzle was featured in Crain’s Cleveland Business.

Recognizing the potential Vizzle had to enhance the ability of special education teachers in public schools to improve their ability to work with the increasing number of autistic children in schools, the Nord Family Foundation trustees approved a grant to the Joshua School in Denver. Joshua School focuses entirely on autistic children and, like the Monarch School in Cleveland, is a personalized but very expensive program. Families without the ability to pay the $20,000 tuition ($60,000 at Monarch) are left to fend on their own. Joshua School, in collaboration with Monarch, provides the program and training for public school teachers. In Denver, public school special education teachers from around the state come to Joshua to learn Vizzle.

This is just one example of how the foundation took an invention in Cleveland and helped bring it to scale nationwide and seed it internationally. That is the essence of inventiveness – a legacy for which this family is both familiar and proud.

Funding education programs that “teach” the Constitution

Over the past few years, the Nord Family Foundation has received requests to support programs that encourage better knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.  The Liberty Day project, prints pocket-sized copies of the Constitution which are distributed to schools across the country on “Liberty Day”  We provided support to the Bill of Rights Institute for several years but stopped after a sudden administrative house cleaning took place a little over a year ago. (For those in nonprofit work, a turnover of an executive as well as other key staff in a short period of time will flag concern for funders).   Finally, the trustees turned down a request from the John Ashbrook Center at Ashland University to support a summer institute for teachers from various States to spend two weeks learning about the U.S. Constitution from a panel of scholars from selected universities across the country.  The blatant political bias left some uneasy providing support to that project.

I find it curious with the apparent proliferation of non-school based non-profits that have taken on the responsibility to provide teacher training on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of  Rights.  I would agree that a majority of teachers do not fully understand the Constitution. The bitter partisan political debates, the acrimony and personal attacks parallel the vituperation between religious sects and denominations. The middle east is a sad and tragic example and in the west, one only look at the bitterness in Northern Ireland between “Catholics” and “Protestants.”  Killing appears to be justified based on one’s interpretation of “truth.”

I struggled with requests to support Constitutional programs, finding hard to discern between what is history and what is political histrionics! Thanks to an article in the January 2011 New Yorker, by Harvard History Profession, Jill Lepore, called “The Commandments-The Constitution and its worshippers.” I think I have better insight.  After reading it, I would be interested to know the trustees thoughts on how we should address requests to “teach” the constitution in schools and among the citizenry.  Comments are welcome!


Philanthropy and Race to the Top – The Experience in Ohio

In 2010, The Nord Family Foundation provided support for the Ohio Grantmakers Forum’s (OGF) education initiative making this the third year for such support.  Trustees were provided a detailed report on the role The Nord Family Foundation played in participating in the state-wide stakeholders meetings which resulted in the 2009 publication of, Beyond Tinkering: Creating Real Opportunities for Today’s Learners and for Generations of Ohioans to Come.

In 2010, OGF has taken a very active role in working with the Governor’s office and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) in order to secure a potential $400 million in Race to the Top (RTT) funding from the Federal Government.

Ohio was not selected in the first round of applicants for the highly competitive Race to the Top competition.  When the initial request for proposals (RFP) came out, OGF urged ODE to conduct more outreach and stakeholder involvement and encouraged ODE to make use of the working  group teams that had already been assembled for Beyond Tinkering.  ODE made a decision to go it alone.

The first-round application process was not transparent.  Members of the State Legislature asked to see drafts, but this request was denied.  Not surprising, this alienated many in the State Legislature especially from the Republican minority whose endorsement was required by the Feds.  ODE found the process overwhelming given the short timeline.  Its effort to “manage” the process was disastrous.  Ohio went into the competition in Washington in fourth place, based on preliminary criteria.  After the March 2010 presentation in DC, Ohio went from 4th to 10th place among 16 competing states.  Even a phone call from President Obama’s office to put this important swing state into priority was ignored.  It was that bad.

ODE and the Governor’s office justified the lack of transparency claiming they were worried about information leaking out because it was a competitive process. Quite frankly, this is the way they do business at ODE.   The legislature, Governor’s office and the ODE had a field day of finger –pointing.

At this point, OGF once again offered assistance to the Governor’s office stating that without its expertise they would not be successful in Round 2.  The Cleveland Foundation, Gund Foundation, KnowledgeWorks and Martha Holden Jennings Foundations pooled funds allowing OGF to hire a consultant whose prior experience was with the Tennessee RTT application (Tennessee was one of the states to receive RTT funding in the first round.  The Governor demanded that ODE work with the consultant and be more open to stakeholder involvement and input.

OGF’s activities in preparing the application for Round 2 of the Race to the Top application:

1.       The first effort was to help the ODE and the Governor’s office manage communication with the legislature and conduct meaningful outreach with the stakeholders who had been involved with the Beyond Tinkering activities. (These included philanthropy, and organizations like the State School Board Association, the Ohio Teachers Union, district superintendents and teachers (novel thought!) and social service agencies.

2.       OGF partnered with KIDSOhio and tasked specifically for producing regular and accurate information to the legislators, including House and Senate Republicans for their input to the application.

3.       Race to the Top Application Progress Summaries were sent to all stakeholders to keep them informed. Several stakeholder meetings were convened by OGF in service to the Governor’s office.

In August 2010, Ohio was awarded a Race to the Top grant of $400 million to improve education.  It is interesting to note the emphasis on including successful charter schools in eligibility for support.  Another Nord Family Foundation grantee, the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) has played a critical role in ensuring the quality of charter school certification and training in the State.  Last month, OAPCS sponsored a state-wide event in which State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Deborah Delisle acknowledged the critical importance OAPCS plays in improving the quality of education in Ohio.  Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised OAPCS for its innovative seminar called The Ohio Alliance Conference on Collaborative Practices focused on shared learning between traditional public and charter schools.

Lesson learned:

Changing a huge entity like public education is an enormous undertaking requiring focus, discipline and determination.