Former NYC teachers aim to "revolutionize educational philanthropy"

Two former New York City schoolteachers have taken to heart Teach for America’s intention to create innovators who maintain a commitment to educational equity even after they leave the classroom — they’ve started a nonprofit organization designed to facilitate individual giving to public schools.

Jessica Rauch and Eli Savit, who now live in Michigan, recently won $10,000 in start-up funds in the August competition on, which pits new business ideas against each other in public voting. Their initiative, The Generation Project, aims to “revolutionize educational philanthropy” by facilitating connections between schools and individuals who want to donate to them.

From 2005 to 2007, Rauch taught English language learners at PS 86 in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx; Savit taught 8th-grade social studies at IS 339 in the South Bronx. “As a new teacher, my time was very limited; between lesson planning, after-school tutoring, and graduate school, I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to find individualized opportunities for all of my students,” wrote Rauch in an email to GothamSchools. “Although my administration was great and tried hard to expose students to various enrichment activities, I wished there was an easy way to further expand my students’ horizons.” For example, Rauch wrote, one of Savit’s students who had developed an interest in domestic affairs could have attended a program in Washington, D.C., if Savit could easily have found a way to pay for it.

Motivated by their own experiences, Rauch and Savit are working to create a database of prepaid gifts, “shaped by [funders’] own passions and priorities,” that schools and teachers can apply to receive. This approach represents an inversion of the one taken by the popular website, where potential donors browse funding requests from teachers who have identified particular needs for their classroom.

“DonorsChoose is awesome, but it serves a different role for under-resourced schools than we propose,” Rauch wrote. While DonorsChoose helps make up “funding shortfalls in the classroom,” The Generation Project aims to expose students to new experiences outside the classroom, often while developing and exploring their own interests. “As a teacher, there was no way I could research and design cool opportunities for all my individual students,” wrote Rauch, but if existing opportunities were easy to find — and fund — she would have had no trouble connecting her students to ones appropriate for them. And under The Generation Project’s model, Rauch noted, teachers won’t wind up planning a great project, only to find themselves unable to execute it; instead, they’ll be able to organize their curriculum planning around opportunities that already exist. Finally, Rauch and Savit hope that because Generation Project donors will be personally invested in the projects they fund, they will be more likely to build relationships with their recipients and give again.

With the IdeaBlob money, Rauch and Savit plan to build up The Generation Project’s website. Over at IdeaBlob, the September new-business competition is in full swing; contenders include plenty of education-related projects.

Payday coming soon

Pension paybacks for Detroit district employees may show up in March  

Thousands of Detroit district school employees may reap the benefits of a lawsuit over pension funding as soon as March.

School employees who worked for Detroit’s main district between 2010 and 2011 can expect refund checks in their mailboxes soon, district leaders say, but making sure the money ends up in the right place will be difficult.

The reimbursements are the outcome of a controversial move during Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration to withhold additional money from employees’ paychecks to pay for retiree health care benefits.

The Michigan Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the state Court of Appeals that the withdrawals were unconstitutional. As a result, the state is giving back $550 million to school employees with interest. The amount employees get depends on what they were paid at the time, either 1.5 or 3 percent of their salary.

While every district in the state is charged with handling the refunds, the Detroit district has a larger burden, tasked with processing 13,416 refunds totaling $28.9 million.

Some of the employees no longer work for the district and do not have an updated address on file, the district said, so employees have been asked to update their information by Feb. 28.

Another challenge: The district is trying to fill five positions in the financial department, the area charged with issuing the checks.

Jeremy Vidito, the district’s chief financial officer, said the state did not allocate extra dollars for additional support staff to help with the task, so the department is working overtime to process the checks.

“It’s prioritizing,” he said. “So there are items that we are going to push back to make sure this happens. It’s also … asking people to do more with less.”

Despite the challenges, the district said it plans to begin mailing checks starting the third week of March.


heated discussion

Aurora budget talks devolve into charter school spat

Aurora Public Schools board of directors and Superintendent Rico Munn, center.

Aurora isn’t facing major budget cuts, and school board members don’t have any significant disagreements with their superintendent’s budget priorities, but that didn’t stop a school board meeting this week from turning into a heated back and forth. At issue: the impact of charter schools, how new board members got elected, and what that says about what the community wants.

Four of the seven school board members were elected in November as part of a union-supported slate, sometimes speaking against charter schools. Many have been wondering what changes the new board will bring for the fifth largest district in the state, and Tuesday’s discussion shined a light on some rising tensions about different priorities.

The budget discussion was the last agenda item for the school board. District staff and Superintendent Rico Munn intended for the school board to provide guidance on whether their proposed budget priorities were the right ones.

Union-backed members who were sworn in in November pressed the superintendent and staff to talk about how charter schools would impact the district’s long-term finances.

“What I’ve always said is that charter schools have a negative impact on our financial model,” Munn said.

Veteran board member Dan Jorgensen asked Munn to clarify his statement.

“I don’t say necessarily it’s negative to the district, I say it’s negative to our financial model,” Munn said. “I just think that’s a fact.”

Then the conversation turned to the community. Board member Monica Colbert, one of the longer-serving board members, said the district is changing whether or not the board agrees because the community is demanding something different. The community “came out in droves” asking for the DSST charter school, she said.

Board President Marques Ivey, who was elected in November, disagreed.

“Not (to) this group that was voted in, I guess,” Ivey said. “I have to look at it in that way as well.”

Jorgensen supported Colbert’s argument.

“I think often times our perspective is also skewed by who we engage with, of course,” Jorgensen said. “But we need to be mindful we are here to represent our whole community.”

He added that a small fraction of Aurora’s registered voters voted in the school board election, saying, “there’s no mandate here at this table.”

When Ivey tried to dispute the numbers, Jorgensen continued.

“It’s not a debate,” he said. “That’s not the point. No one sits here based on — I mean there’s a lot of factors that contributed, like half a million dollars behind us or this or that.”

November’s election included large spending from the union and from pro-reform groups. The union slate of board members raised less money on their individual campaigns, but had the most outside help from union spending, totaling more than $225,000.

“I’m not going to let you get away with that shot,” Ivey said, stopping Jorgensen.

Then another board member stepped in to change the subject and ask for a word change on Munn’s list of budget priorities.

The district isn’t expecting to make significant budget cuts this coming school year, but in order to pay for some new directives the school board would like to see, district staff must find places to shrink the budget to make room.

The proposed priorities include being able to attract and retain staff, addressing inequalities, and funding work around social, emotional and behavioral needs. More specifically, one of the changes the district is studying is whether they can afford to create a centralized language office to make it easier for families and staff to access translation and interpretation help. It was a change several parents and community members showed up to the meeting to ask for.

Board members did not have major objections to the superintendent’s proposed priorities.

During the self-evaluation period at the end of the meeting, board member Kevin Cox said things aren’t as bad as they look.

“We’re building cohesion despite what may seem like heated discussions,” Cox said.

Things could be worse, he added – he’s heard of other groups getting in fist fights.

Correction: A quote in this story was changed to remove an expletive after Chalkbeat reviewed a higher quality audio recording of the meeting.