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A Partnership for Newark's Children and Families

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Barbara Reisman is executive director of the Schumann Fund for New Jersey.

In 2001, the Schumann Fund for New Jersey and 10 private and corporate foundations agreed to collaborate on the multi-year Newark Lighthouse Initiative. The Initiative, led by two state nonprofit partners, the Association for Children of New Jersey and New Jersey Community Capital, had program and policy goals: to help three Newark-based early childhood programs move from good to exemplary, and to identify policy changes that would be necessary to enable other early-childhood programs to engage in similar efforts.

Funders over the initiative’s six-year life included the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Schumann Fund for New Jersey, Prudential Foundation, Lucent Technologies Foundation, Bank of America, Grable Foundation, Sagner Family Fund, Victoria Foundation, Toys “R” Us Children’s Fund, Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey, BEA Foundation, United Way of Essex and West Hudson, MCJ Foundation, and Rosie’s For All Kids Foundation. Many funders agreed to make multi-year grants or to consider proposals for renewal of support over the life of the project.

The money was used first to support a needs assessment for each center, and then to help the centers attract and retain the most qualified teachers, implement the best teaching methods, and obtain or renovate to improve facilities. A portion of the funds was set aside for an independent evaluation of the initiative. The three centers chosen – Friendly Fuld Neighborhood Child Care, Ironbound Children’s Center, and Vailsburg Child Development Center – already had strong programs and recognized leadership. The funders believed that the extra support would enable them to improve the quality of their programs, serve as exemplars for other programs in the city, and provide teachers and parents tangible evidence of what quality looks like.

The Schumann Fund participated in the collaborative for a number of reasons. First, we understood the value of high-quality early-childhood education to children’s later success in school and in the workforce. We knew that many of the community-based programs in Newark had been operating for years with insufficient resources. We viewed the Abbott decision, which requires that the state’s 31 poorest school districts make “high-quality, well-planned preschool” available to every three-and four-year-old in those districts, as an opportunity to expand access to preschool and improve it significantly. We recognized that our investment in quality improvement could be sustained by the operating funds that the state and districts were providing to the preschool programs.

Second, each collaborating funder brought different strengths: knowledge of early-childhood policy and evaluation, expertise in community economic development, and long-term commitment to community service organizations in Newark. Third, we believed that by working together, we could more effectively use our finite resources. We could make it possible for grantees to focus on quality improvement rather than raising monies from separate funders. Participating grantmakers helped to develop the project’s framework and encouraged their colleagues to consider supporting it. Finally, we believed that by modeling collaboration among ourselves, we could encourage greater collaboration among our grantees.

There were challenges, of course. Each grantmaker had different guidelines, reporting requirements, and timetables and processes for reviewing proposals. Some were able to make multi-year grants; others were not. Several changed their guidelines or operating approach during the course of the project and were not able to continue funding it for the entire six years. During its initial phase, some elements of the original proposal changed, including the evaluation process and timeline. It took longer for the project to get off the ground than we originally anticipated. But ultimately, the trust that was established between all of the involved parties enabled us to approve the changes in the operations and timeline.

The Lighthouse project achieved its original goals of supporting quality improvements in all of the participating programs. The Association for Children of New Jersey and New Jersey Community Capital provided excellent technical assistance and planning support and identified obstacles to quality improvement that needed to be addressed through policy advocacy. In addition, the directors of two of the three programs have become effective leaders in Newark’s early-childhood community, and have presented their experiences with this project to national audiences.

This effort required us to commit time and expertise, in addition to money. It takes more effort to collaborate than it does to work in our conventional way, but it is worth it. We came away with a new appreciation for the work of our grantees; an understanding of the need for flexibility amid changing conditions on the ground; and the satisfaction – backed up by a dynamic evaluation – that our efforts contributed to tangible improvements in life-opportunities for the children and families that the centers serve.

Would we do it again? We are. This year, several New Jersey funders joined with six nonprofits, including three community organizing groups, to respond to a national request for proposal for support of education organizing. We were awarded the grant, the only statewide effort of the four that were awarded. We anticipate that the effort will engage parents and community members in local and statewide efforts to improve schools. And, we have brought national attention and national money to our work.

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