Kauffman Foundation announces $2.5 million in grants for KC area schools, education programs

Cristina Ortiz was in the first class of Kauffman Scholars and graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a bachelor of science degree in electrical and computer engineering in May 2013. The foundation is now expanding its support of local students with $2.5 million in grants to schools and education programs.
Cristina Ortiz was in the first class of Kauffman Scholars and graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City with a bachelor of science degree in electrical and computer engineering in May 2013. The foundation is now expanding its support of local students with $2.5 million in grants to schools and education programs. The Kansas City Star

With $2.5 million in new grants, the Kauffman Foundation on Thursday signaled a new drive to play collaborator in education and support the ideas of others.

By investing $1 million in the parent-led Kansas City Midtown Community School Initiative’s plan for charter schools and an additional $1.5 million in 10 local college prep and scholarship programs, the foundation is backing new players in its own field.

“We don’t have to have all the answers,” said Wendy Guillies, Kauffman Foundation acting president and CEO. “We don’t have to own everything.”

The seed money for the midtown charters is joining with $1 million from the Walton Family Foundation and $650,000 from the Hall Family Foundation to secure a charter school idea that came from parents around a living room coffee table less than 18 months ago.

“We keep pinching ourselves,” said Kristin Littrell, one of the founding parents. “These schools will really happen.”

The parents have teamed with the national Citizens of the World charter school organization to develop plans to open early elementary grades in two schools in 2016 and gradually expand with a middle school and then a high school by 2027.

The Kauffman Foundation has long made investment in local education a primary pillar in Ewing Marion Kauffman’s mission to unleash new generations of entrepreneurs.

In recent years, the foundation had focused most of its resources on developing and opening its own public charter school, the Kauffman School — while maintaining its Kauffman Scholars program, which provides support and financial aid to first-generation college students.

The foundation’s leadership emerged from new strategic planning last year ready to spread its resources and experience among other programs and institutions pursuing the same mission.

“There are other people who can do this in different ways,” said Aaron North, the foundation’s vice president of education. “We approach this with humility and determination. There is an urgency here.”

The 10 postsecondary education support and scholarship programs receiving shares of the Kauffman investments include public and private school programs and community-based programs.

Schools benefiting from the grants are the Kansas City Public Schools’ Early College Academy; the Kansas City, Kan., Public Schools’ Diploma+ program; a collaboration between Bishop Ward High School and Donnelly College; and the Cristo Rey partnership with Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley.

Other beneficiaries are the Black Community Scholarship Fund; the Hispanic Development Fund Scholarship; the Go-Long Scholarship Fund; the Kansas City Opportunities Scholarship Fund; the Transition into Post-Secondary Studies Scholarship; and the Guadalupe Centers Inc. Tony Aguirre Scholarship.

All of the scholarship programs are supported by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, North said, and carry on missions of helping create college access and support for disadvantaged students.

All of them, as well as the midtown charter parents and Citizens of the World, at their core “fundamentally believe that all students can learn,” North said. “All students can meet high expectations.”

All three of the major foundations supporting the midtown charter school effort were impressed at the unique approach that rose from the community, he said.

When the parents determined they wanted to create new local public schools, they didn’t go knocking on doors in search of a charter school operator. Instead, they drew up their mission and published a request for proposals in charter school publications across the nation.

It may be the first such parent-produced request of its kind. Citizens of the World co-founder Kriste Dragon had never seen anything like it.

The charter organization, which runs schools in California and New York, made its pitch and became the parents’ choice.

But Citizens of the World also spent time checking out Kansas City to see whether the community was right to support the school plan.

Thursday’s announcement of the Kauffman and other grants caps what Dragon said has proved to be a ripe environment to launch its first set of schools in the Midwest.

“We’re incredibly grateful the way things have come together,” Dragon said. The parent-led model “is really inspiring, and we think it’s an idea other cities can use.”

The midtown initiative intends to target the area of the city from the Missouri River to Brush Creek and from the state line to Prospect Avenue, purposefully reaching across the historical racial dividing line of Troost Avenue in hopes of creating a richly diverse school, Littrell said.

One of the main reasons the parents chose Citizens of the World, she said, is that the charter organization has made economic and cultural diversity a prime objective in establishing its schools.

While the Kauffman Foundation is distributing support to the college scholarship programs, it is maintaining its Kauffman Scholars program as the last classes continue on through college, North said.

The program has evolved since it launched in 2003 as a refined version of Ewing Kauffman’s original investment in Westport High School graduates in the 1990s with Project Choice.

The scholars program has provided tutoring and life coaching for qualifying students in the Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., school districts, as well as financial support for college.

Programs like Kansas City Public Schools’ Early College Academy have taken on similar missions, giving high school students actual college experience and opportunities to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree.

The 18 district students who graduated from the program last May jumped into a range of college experiences — the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and even the Massachusetts Institute of Technology among them.

The school district’s program has grown to 83 students this year at a cost of $2,300 per semester. Kauffman is providing a $300,000 boost.

These programs “give students opportunities they might not have otherwise,” Kansas City Superintendent Steve Green said. “The benefits — to students and Kansas City overall — will continue to increase exponentially.”

The last Kauffman Scholars class entered as seventh-graders in 2011. The program will have invested some $140 million in more than 2,200 students by the time the last students finish college around 2022.

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.