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Sunday, 12 May 2013 22:00

Kalamazoo Community Foundation makes education its top priority

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Carrie Pickett-Erway represented The Learning Network in February at The Center for Michigan’s “The Future of Education in Michigan” symposium at the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center. Pickett-Erway, second from left, is pictured here with moderator Blaine Lam, Ron Kitchens and Cindy Rubel. Carrie Pickett-Erway represented The Learning Network in February at The Center for Michigan’s “The Future of Education in Michigan” symposium at the Radisson Plaza Hotel at Kalamazoo Center. Pickett-Erway, second from left, is pictured here with moderator Blaine Lam, Ron Kitchens and Cindy Rubel. COURTESY PHOTO: Anthony Steinberg

KALAMAZOO — When anonymous donors in Kalamazoo committed millions of dollars to local schoolchildren, the city cemented itself as the “education community.”

So perhaps it’s only fitting that leadership at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation is focusing its efforts on education.

During an Education Summit in Kalamazoo earlier this year, Kalamazoo Community Foundation announced a major initiative called the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, for which it will serve as the fiscal agent in addition to being a lead partner and convener.

But the importance of education is not a new concept for the foundation to embrace, said the organization’s top leader.

“Five years ago, our board identified education as our major priority,” said Carrie Pickett-Erway, president and chief executive officer of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation. “We have leadership initiatives, grant making that we’re involved in and grantmakers. We align everything we can do to deepen and strengthen our impact on education.

“This was in response to the Kalamazoo Promise. As a community, we really need to focus and align with what other programs are out there. We had lot of concerns about college completion rates, college readiness rates and pre-school through college and work.”

Cradle-to-career is how Pickett-Erway defines this early childhood education initiative. She is chairwoman of the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo, which will be a unifying force to ensure that all children in the county will be ready for school, a post-secondary education and a career. The Learning Network is being funded by a $6 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a $5 million grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

Within the Learning Network, there are three Action Networks: Kindergarten Readiness, College and Career Readiness, and Adult Learning. Pickett-Erway said these action networks support the mission of the Learning Network to create and sustain a culture of learning at home, in school, at work and throughout the community.

“The Learning Network was established to be a generational initiative,” Pickett-Erway said. “We’re building a structure in the community to keep at this work and to increase educational outcomes for children. We are going deeper and broader throughout that developmental continuum.”

The primary work of the Learning Network is being done at the community level. Action Network members are bringing together practitioners and helping families navigate tasks such as filling out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms or providing tutoring. They also are bringing parents and students into the conversation about what the needs are in the community.

The role of convener for local initiatives like the Learning Network fits well with the mission for community foundations like the Kalamazoo group.

“Community foundation leaders have to be the ones there for the big, bold community initiatives,” said Kevin K. Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation in Reading, Pa. and chairman of the board of directors for the Council on Foundations. “We have this permanent endowment that insulates us from the downside of risky decisions. There is a certain independence that goes with having an endowment.”

Those endowments, many of which were established three or more decades ago, give community foundations sustainability and enable them to focus on building their in-house strength in areas such as governance, management and grantmaking practices, says Emmett D. Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, located in Mountain View, Calif.

With a solid infrastructure and national standards for the field, he says it is now time for community foundations to be proactive leaders in addressing entrenched community problems such as persistent poverty, unemployment or underemployment, lack of adequate education and preventive health care, and environmental damage.

In terms of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s role 15 years ago, Pickett-Erway said it had a much more reactive presence in the community.

“These days, we’re recognizing that by funding hundreds of nonprofits and instead of waiting and reacting to it, we’re convening partners, but we’re also initiating conversations about best practices and funding pilot projects to get the good work up and running,” Pickett-Erway said.

“We don’t just fund one housing or health agency. We have the perspective to see that there may be some duplication or opportunities to support and collaborate. It’s part of every conversation we have with grant seekers, and we still do trust that our nonprofit partners know best where the opportunities are.”

Although education is now a top priority for the Community Foundation, Pickett-Erway said the organization will continue to focus its efforts on other needs in the community because the foundation is responsible for responding to the needs of the entire community and not excluding parts of the community. She said the foundation’s donor base understands the critical role education plays in future success for the Kalamazoo area.

“Education is the pathway to a self-sufficient life and safe, affordable, stable housing for families,” Pickett-Erway said. “If you have access to education, you will have access to a well-paying job.”

Some donors have asked for reassurance that the Community Foundation will continue to fund other needs in the community, such as youth development, and have been assured that those other identified areas of need won’t be left behind.

“I think we have some very savvy donors in our community, many of whom understand the logic of education as a pathway to improving everything else,” Pickett-Erway said. “For most of our donors, it makes sense. They’re very comfortable with the transition we’re leading.”

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