Leveraging for strategic impact: Equitable Education portfolio awards $5.16 million in grants

History tells us that extraordinary change begins by way of small but significant steps that often aren't even visible at first glance.

For example, as we welcome this portfolio's Annual Funding Opportunity awards, I notice, on the surface, similar numbers as last year: 99 applications requesting $12.8 million in funding, with 40 grants totaling $5.16 million eventually awarded.

Grant recipients also include, once again, a broad mix of urban and rural organizations stretching from Portland to eastern Oregon. There are both independent and collaborative team efforts, featuring organizations of all types, trying to redress disparity in public education from different approaches: by amending policy and systems and by proposing both short and long-term impacts.

But as I dig deeper through the numbers and each of the 2018 grant proposals, I see a reason — woven subtly into the many narrative threads of this year's grantees — to be excited by the potential of seismic, systemic change in education across the state. The organizations funded reveal a small wave of momentum that clarifies the guiding, game-changing spirit of this portfolio. Our North Star, if you will.

That tiny murmur actually made its presence known last year, during our inaugural season, when we funded a multi-year $250,000 grant for Oregon Coast Community College (OCCC) in Newport. In a sentence, the proposal outlined a collaboration between OCCC, the Lincoln County School District, Tillamook Bay Community College and Western Oregon University to grow a teacher workforce for Lincoln County.

The details, however, revealed a deeper story that's still progressing and will continue to evolve for some time.

It's no secret there is a shortage of teachers in Oregon coastal communities. But more importantly, data show that the teaching workforce in the state is 90 percent white even though the student body — like the coastal population as a whole — is increasing in racial diversity. The OCCC proposal recognized this inequity and formulated a plan to recruit high school students of color who have an interest in teaching. The collaborative effort seeks to shepherd students from high school into a community college network and then onto four-year institutions such as Western Oregon University, where they can prepare for the professional credentialing process.

This year, to our delight, the trend involving community colleges continued but in an even more targeted way. Columbia Gorge Community College and Chemeketa Community College each proposed plans similar to OCCC's in scale and focus. Their proposals call for direct outcomes intended to recruit and transition a diverse student pool into the teaching profession so they may eventually serve their respective communities. Aside from diversifying the workforce in their regions, each proposal applauds diversity itself: Biliteracy is treated as a tool meant to be celebrated, one that adds to the life potential of bicultural students.

Only time will show if these unique, forward-thinking projects achieve fruition, but I believe they will. The implications could be staggering and could tell us several critical things.

In 1991, the Oregon Legislature passed the Minority Teacher Act, which means Oregon has been working to close the diversity gap between students and teachers for 27 years. But the progress made over nearly three decades has been modest, perhaps because it's difficult for members of any legislature to commit to systemic change when the state operates on two and four-year cycles. But here's the problem: You can't plan for long-term solutions when you don't have time for leverage.

This is where philanthropic organizations like Meyer can add to the discussion and make a tangible difference. For example, over the past two years we have received education grant requests that exceed $35 million in funding. For us, this is evidence of the depth of need that is out there. Although our $5.16 million in grants for equitable education are microscopic compared with Oregon public school system budgets that total in the billions, we aren't tied to limited duration planning cycles that understandably handcuff risk-taking for the sake of pragmatism.

These projects also buttress what those of us working in the education sector have always believed: Community colleges are uniquely poised to serve as low-barrier intermediaries for diverse student populations. What's more, they have the entrepreneurial initiative to build enduring and replicable networks that catapult students toward achieving their dreams.

As I look at the first two years of funding opportunities as one continuous story, I see three proposals that, while unrelated to one another practically, emanate from the same governing spirit and ethos: School districts and the communities they serve recognize the value of empowering their diverse populations and providing students with educators who reflect their history and backgrounds. Community colleges have taken note and are acting on it.

Collectively, these events spur Meyer and the Equitable Education portfolio to think about the job we're doing and how it can be done better as we move forward.

Three years ago, we at Meyer decided to focus our efforts exclusively on achieving equity in Oregon. For those of us working in the Equitable Education portfolio, that now means we must always hew to the meaning of the word "equitable" and our North Star of advancing meaningful public education for anyone who has faced enduring, systemic barriers to equal access: students of color, those living in poverty or as part of the foster care system, young people with disabilities, members of the LGBTQ community and more.

Practically, our commitment to equity demands we remain laser focused within our lane and to support projects that don't just feature high representation of our priority students. We have to fund projects that meet and satisfy student needs, above all. Without targeted investments for those experiencing disparities, disparities grow, resulting in even greater inequities in the very classrooms where we are trying to eliminate them.

Our efforts have a chance to operate as a catalyst for change and possibly shift how institutions conduct business. One day, for example, we may even alter how public resources are spent or advance ideas that other institutions can emulate without fear of risk.

Admittedly, I'm describing game-changing, potentially transformative, scenarios here. But this year's annual funding opportunity fills me with the potential of promise that, after two years, the Equitable Education portfolio is very much on to something.


P.S. I encourage you to review the full list of 2018 Equitable Education Annual Funding Opportunity grantees here