Leapfrogging Inequity in Montgomery County

Guest post by Kimberly Rusnak, Project Director for the Children's Opportunity Fund

What is leapfrogging in education? The concept was explored with a group of Community Foundation donors at our most recent President’s Forum in Montgomery County. It is the ability to jump ahead or disrupt existing paradigms to make rapid and non-linear progress. It is the possibility to transform what and how children learn so that young people can develop a broad set of skills needed to thrive. The concept is discussed by Rebecca Winthrop, a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institute, in her new book, Leapfrogging Inequality: Remaking Education to Help Young People Thrive

The first major point covered during the talk sought to answer a critical question: What is the goal of education? Though it seems like such a simple question, the answers in the room were vastly different. Some of the answers were: the goal is to teach basic skills of reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. This was countered with the goal to ensure sustainable employment. Or is the goal to provide young people with the tools for a fulfilling life and to encourage active civic participation? Or all of the above?

The answer posed to the group by Ms. Winthrop was called, “Academic +,” also known as The Breadth-of-Skills-Movement. While an education system must prioritize knowledge acquisition, there must also be a strong emphasis on developing skills needed to use that knowledge in different settings overtime. This includes academic subjects, plus globally relevant topics, communication skills, problem solving skills; and trying to prepare students for the future. It’s a tough job—and no single approach is the perfect solution because learning happens everywhere—at home, at school, in the community. 

In an average year, an elementary school student only spends 14% of their time in school (based on a 7-hour school day, 180 days  per year). Roughly 33% of a student’s time is spent sleeping, and 53% of their time is spent awake and out of school. If the majority (53%) of learning happens at home, in the community and among peers, think about what that means. 

For many families that cannot afford quality early learning and pre-K access, fee-based out of school programs, private tutoring and costly summer camps, the opportunities and exposure to academic and non-academic skills and knowledge are very different compared to affluent families who can. The families who cannot afford expensive out-of-school supports are often immigrants and people of color; which is why the opportunity gap and racial inequity exists in almost every county and city in the United States.  Race and poverty are not the same thing, but there are strong correlations in the world of education.  As Kevin Beverly, a Trustee of The Community Foundation reflected:

“Encouraging educators to open the aperture and look beyond the standard approaches is a key to helping our at-risk youth excel.” 

In order to make major strides and changes in education, we must take big leaps and major calculated risks to achieve greater change for children and address this inequity. We must do our work differently so that we can achieve different results. Incremental change is not enough; we must find ways to leapfrog. As Shirley Brandman, an Education Advocate in Montgomery County reflected:

“Our commitment to equity will only become real when we can invest in tangible strategies that catch students up and keep them on track academically.  Making more than a year's worth of progress in a year of schooling is key and the insights shared about how we can harness innovation to leapfrog or accelerate learning should inspire us to rededicate our efforts.” 

There were several examples of this idea shared at the President’s Forum last week.  An initiative called, LEMA (Literacy and Math Education Labs) has created board games that teach literacy, numeracy, teamwork and collaboration at the same time. Another example was Wonderschool in California who works with families, educators and childcare providers to helps individuals start their own businesses by assisting with licensing, marketing and everything in between. 

I have spent my entire career working in education and the field of out of school time.  I am excited for the opportunity to take my experiences and knowledge and put them to work in Montgomery County through the Children’s Opportunity Fund. It is our goal to help every child succeed.  The Fund focuses on supporting and scaling evidence-based initiatives that are meeting gaps in Montgomery County. 

Thank you to Rebecca Winthrop for sharing her knowledge and expertise.  Our community will use these learnings and others to help investigate opportunities to innovate and address inequity in education in Montgomery County, and across the region. 

Kimberly joined The Community Foundation in the summer of 2018.  Through her previous experience as a Program Officer with the Social Innovation Fund, she oversaw a portfolio of innovative interventions ranging from cradle to career.  Kimberly came to The Community Foundation well-versed in program development, nonprofit management and community development.  She is a passionate advocate for young people and believes it is critical that we provide equal opportunities to all. 

Closing the Achievement Gap in Montgomery County

The Children’s Opportunity Fund champions and supports strategic investments to improve the lives of low-income children and families in Montgomery County. The Fund was launched jointly by the Montgomery County Government and Montgomery County Public Schools to identify priority areas for investment based on unmet need and to help align resources toward effective multi-sector collaborations serving the County’s most vulnerable youth and their families. In July 2017, the Fund made its inaugural grants which were leveraged against matching dollars to launch and expand innovative, evidence-informed programs throughout the county. We are pleased to report that the Fund recently made another $623,000 in grants to these high-impact organizations to further support their vital work:

Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) works to create high-quality learning opportunities for the children who need them most, mobilizing schools and communities to expand learning time beyond the traditional school day and school year. The 2017 grant from the Children’s Opportunity Fund supported BELL’s Summer program which provided educational services to 1,134 rising 3-5th graders. For six and one-half hours per day, five days a week, the program blended academics with nutrition, enrichment, and mentorship at no cost to lower income families. The result was an increase in the average scholar’s literacy by 1.5 months and math skills by 3 months, increased self-confidence for 98% of scholars, and improved scholar attitudes about school which led to a 93% average daily attendance rate. Read about Bell’s efforts to prevent the ‘summer slide’ in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun.

I have been inspired by Montgomery County’s commitment to equity in education. Families and MCPS educators have advocated for increasing access to the BELL Summer program with evidence-based instruction and engaging resources to accelerate scholars’ learning year-round. The Children Opportunity Fund’s visionary investment in BELL Summer has helped us double this collective impact in summer 2018 and serve 2,100 young people across 11 Title I MCPS schools!
— Damon Johnson, Vice President, Partner Impact, BELL

Family Service’s Thriving Germantown Collaboration. As Germantown has grown and become more diverse, so has the rate of increased poverty (16% versus 6% countywide) and the economic, health, and educational disparities for the most vulnerable residents. Over 20 community nonprofit partners established a five-year collective impact initiative, Thriving Germantown Community HUB, designed to help Germantown families connect to health care, early child care, adult education, employment, and more. Family Services, Inc. was selected to provide leadership for this multi-sector, multi-generational care coordination initiative to improve student/family health and wellness outcomes, achieve academic success, and ensure that children have safe, stable and nurturing environments in which to live. A grant from the Children’s Opportunity Fund supported the coordination of work around early childhood care and education. In its first year, Thriving Germantown provided 99 comprehensive family risk assessments and facilitated referrals and linkages to appropriate resources and services for 131 children, adults and families. Read more about the school and leaders behind the Thriving Germantown collaboration in Bethesda Magazine’s 2017 December cover story, “Hope Lives Here.”

TG families.jpg
Partnerships are at the heart of Thriving Germantown – with families from the Daly School community, school staff, and over a dozen community health and social services organizations. The investments from COF are particularly helpful in supporting our early care and academic related service coordination. We’re excited to include as goals for the new year deepening our reach into the community, enhancing data sharing and collaboration with our partners, and developing a permanent shared nonprofit services facility for the Germantown community.
— Kylie McCleaf, CEO Family Services, Inc.

Urban Alliance is committed to helping underserved youth gain the experience, support, and training necessary to compete in the labor market and embark on a pathway to self-sufficiency. With the grant from the Children’s Opportunity Fund, Urban Alliance expanded its High School Internship Program into Montgomery County to provide career preparation and internships to high school seniors in the East County area. Through the program, students had the opportunity to gain significant professional development training, one-on-one mentoring from adult professionals, and paid, real-world work experience. The program placed 30 interns at worksites around the county, with a 100% retention rate – all youth who began the program in the fall are still actively enrolled. While their post high school plans are still in progress, all Montgomery interns have applied to college, all have been accepted to at least one institution, and all have completed a resume.

Anna Hargrave, Executive Director of the Community Foundation in Montgomery County, poses with Urban Alliance Scholars.

Anna Hargrave, Executive Director of the Community Foundation in Montgomery County, poses with Urban Alliance Scholars.

“The Children’s Opportunity Fund is making it possible for Urban Alliance to provide even more young people in Montgomery County with early, meaningful work experience and professional development to help them succeed in adulthood. We’re so grateful to the Greater Washington Community Foundation for their dedication to improving outcomes for underserved youth by helping us to sustain and grow our program here in the county.”
— Eshauna Smith, CEO of Urban Alliance

The Children’s Opportunity Fund Announces Initial Grants in Montgomery County

July 17, 2017 -- The Greater Washington Community Foundation has announced the Children’s Opportunity Fund’s (COF) first grants of $625,000 to three high-impact nonprofit organizations in Montgomery County, Maryland.  All three groups provide life-changing educational opportunities for low-income children and reflect the COF’s innovative and systemic approach to closing the opportunity gap for children and youth in Montgomery County.  These first three grants include nearly $625,000 in public funding and will leverage an additional $625,000 in private matching funds, totaling a $1.25 million investment. 

Children’s Opportunity Fund Grants June 2017

The Children’s Opportunity Fund's initial grants will serve over 1,200 students in the following ways:

Building Educated Leaders for Life (BELL) works to create high-quality learning opportunities for the children who need them most, so that they, too, can develop the skills, interests, and determination to excel.  BELL builds educational equality by mobilizing schools and communities and expanding learning time beyond the traditional school day and school year.  BELL exists to transform the academic achievements, self-confidence, and life trajectories of children living in under-resourced communities. The grant from COF will support educational services to students currently attending Montgomery County Public Schools Summer Program in partnership with the Norman R. and Ruth Rales Foundation, Montgomery County Government and MCPS.

The Urban Alliance Foundation, Inc. partners with businesses to empower under-resourced youth to aspire, work, and succeed through paid internships, formal training, and mentorship. The grant from COF will expand the Urban Alliance High School Internship Program into Montgomery County by providing career preparation and internships to low-income high school students in the east county area.

Family Services, Inc. (FSI) provides high-quality services for newborns to adults to foster health and well-being in the home, school, and community.  FSI currently serves over 27,000 of the most vulnerable residents through more than 36 programs throughout Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties. The grant announced today supports the coordination of work around early childhood care and education for participants of the newly formed Thriving Germantown Collaboration.

Although Montgomery County is the 11th richest county in the United States, most people are shocked to discover that over 200,000 people are living below self-sufficiency levels and over a third of MCPS students quality for free and reduced meals  — widening the opportunity gap for children and families.  The latest U.S. Census data show 12 census tracts with poverty rates of 18 percent or more.

The Children’s Opportunity Fund is working to close the opportunity gap for children and their families; address the need for integration among health, education, and social investments for vulnerable children; and diminish the disparity in educational achievement between children from wealthy and low-income families.

About the Children’s Opportunity Fund

The Children’s Opportunity Fund (COF) is a component fund of the Greater Washington Community Foundation (The Community Foundation) and its local office in Montgomery County. Funded jointly by the government of Montgomery County, Maryland, and Montgomery County Public Schools to leverage public funds to attract private investment, COF champions, plans and funds strategic investments that improve the lives of low-income children and families in the county. With a focus on innovative, evidence-informed efforts targeted at closing the opportunity gap, COF identifies priority areas for investment based on unmet need, aligns resources toward effective multi-sector collaborations serving the county’s most vulnerable youth and their families, and seeks new funding sources.

COF is guided by and works closely with a Policy Leadership Group and Steering Committee representing leaders from government, philanthropy, business and the community. These leaders include:

 Children’s Opportunity Fund Policy Leadership Group

  • Ike Leggett, County Executive, Montgomery County
  • Nancy Navarro, Councilmember, Montgomery County Council
  • Patricia O' Neill, Member, Montgomery County Board of Education
  • Jack Smith, Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools

 Children’s Opportunity Fund Steering Committee

  • Uma Ahluwalia, Director, Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services
  • Gabriel Albornoz, Director, Montgomery County Department of Recreation
  • David Asai, Senior Director of Science Education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  • Kevin Beverly, President and CEO, Social and Scientific Systems
  • Parker Hamilton, Director, Montgomery County Public Libraries
  • Anna Hargrave, Executive Director, Montgomery County, Greater Washington Community Foundation
  • Julian Haynes, Program Officer, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation
  • April Kaplan, Executive Director, Montgomery County Collaboration Council for Children, Youth and Families
  • Agnes Leshner, Board Member, Montgomery's Kids
  • Maria Navarro, Chief Academic Officer, Montgomery County Public Schools
  • David Petr, President/CEO, Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation

For more information on the Children’s Opportunity Fund, click here.



Mala B. Thakur

Executive Director, Children's Opportunity Fund

Greater Washington Community Foundation