Philanthropy’s Role in Education Equity and the Return to Learn: A Conversation with The Skillman Foundation
As students and families prepare for the uncertainty of the 2020-21 school year, philanthropy continues to play a vital role in cultivating an equitable future for Michigan’s children. A CMF member, dedicated to championing Detroit children, continues its role as a leader at the local and state level, advocating for students in both the short- and long-term.
The Skillman Foundation describes itself as a “fierce champion for Detroit children.” The foundation has spearheaded initiatives, partnerships and programs to ensure Detroit youth have the opportunities they need to become the city’s next generation of leaders.
Like other facets of life, education has been forced to adapt to meet children’s needs during the pandemic. When schools closed in March, Michigan’s education, government, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors reevaluated their roles as the pandemic brought new and old challenges facing children to light.
“We are exacerbating inequities in the state right now,” Tonya Allen, president and CEO at The Skillman Foundation said. “We do not have a solid equity plan in the state in terms of technology. Students and families in urban, rural and even suburban environments lack the tools to participate fully in remote learning opportunities. In this day and age, a computer and internet access are just as vital as a pencil and paper.”
The Skillman Foundation has been a leader in bridging Detroit’s digital divide since the pandemic began. As CMF has reported The Skillman Foundation, together with four other CMF members and several other funders, helped to fund the Connected Futures and Tech Fund for Detroit Students initiatives, both designed to provide computers and internet access to the city’s students and families.
But the Foundation says addressing technology is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Children and families are facing so many challenges at the moment,” Punita Dani Thurman, the Foundation’s vice president for program and strategy said. “The disruption of regular learning and schedules has been hard on so many families. Parents working from home have had to become teachers and tutors for their kids while trying to balance their work responsibilities; and parents who have had to go into work have had to find ways to ensure their kids are safe and learning while they are gone. Not to mention access to food and other resources and services that has been disrupted with school closures.”
As philanthropic leaders, Allen and Thurman—like other CMF members—have had to adapt and evolve strategies to better support students, families and educators during the pandemic.
“This is unlike any crisis that any of us have lived through,” Thurman said. “In Detroit, so many funders came together right after the outbreak and strategies have changed. We went from trying to solve a problem to living through a problem. We saw an intentionality to connect, collaborate and share information.”
Thurman notes that many funders in and around Detroit knew that stability and support were not only vital for students but also for the organizations that support them.
“Whether it was giving new grants or reworking existing grants, many funders came together to support the nonprofits not only with dollars, but with information and other supports,” Thurman said.
Collaboration has been a vital tool for Allen, who serves as chair of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council, where she has worked with educators, health experts and other stakeholders to advise the governor on school re-openings. As chair, she saw the need for collaboration between philanthropy and others to ensure Michigan students can learn safely and effectively.
“As a philanthropic leader and on behalf of The Skillman Foundation’s mission, it was really important for me that the state addressed the inequities in our educational system. Launch Michigan and the Return to Learn Council were natural outgrowths of that, allowing the philanthropic sector to insert itself into dynamics deeply embedded in the education sector.”
Allen—who also serves as a co-chair for Launch Michigan—knows that foundations are uniquely positioned to address the challenges the state faces in education.
“We sit on a very interesting perch that allows us to look at the perspectives of students without having an embedded interest, as you would as an educator. My role in both the Return to Learn Council and Launch Michigan allowed me to look at those daily dynamics and to see what we ought to be doing to increase and improve our academic proficiency for all students, particularly for students who live in areas that may not have as strong of educational systems.”
Allen and Thurman know the importance of utilizing the perspectives of those with a vested interest in what the foundation and the Return to Learn Council do as schools look to reopen in the fall.
“Philanthropy can think about how to work above individual system interests,” Thurman said. “We can see issues across systems and foster relationships with schools and community and neighborhood partners. We can lead some of the innovation surrounding decelerating learning loss. We have the opportunity to use our funding to change systems to better support students and families now and in the future.”
“The (Return to Learn) Council really had to get acclimated with what was going on in our state, across the country and around the world,” Allen said. “Because the pandemic is a global issue, we had far more places to look to for our own learning and direction. Michigan has a strong leader in Governor Whitmer who has enforced what we know can help mitigate COVID. We had to ground ourselves in the data, understand the data and design an approach that wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all, but would provide a baseline for schools that would open their doors to help mitigate the spread of the disease.”
Though the Return to Learn Council provided Governor Whitmer with guidance to create the MI Safe Start plan, Allen says the work is not over.
“We’re working on answering questions and providing guidance to school districts as they gear up for the fall,” she said. “We know that, once school starts, we will have to continue to provide leadership and guidance to schools. Because individual school openings are so varied—with many schools going virtual for the first part of the year—it will delay how we operationalize how school buildings open safely until later in the year. We’ll be monitoring them and providing guidance, and we’ll work until the governor decides that we have done enough.”
Despite all the work that has already been done, The Skillman Foundation and other philanthropic organizations say that the pandemic is an opportunity for a clean slate to address inequities in education and beyond.
“The philanthropic community has to stand up to champion the issue of equity,” Allen said. “This is the time where we can rebuild funding and system models in a way that creates equity to allow every Michigan child to get a high-quality education.”