Simmons: Fund could have lasting impact

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

President Ruth Simmons and Providence education officials expect the University’s $10-million endowment to support local public schools will provide a much-needed boost to the city’s struggling schools and serve as a model for other institutions’ engagement with their communities. Yet the city awaits further details on how and when the funds will be used.

The Corporation also approved on Saturday an initiative to waive tuition, beginning in the 2008-2009 academic year, for ten fellows in the Urban Education Policy and Master of Arts in Teaching programs who commit to serving area public schools for a minimum of three years.

The proposals come in response to the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice’s report, released last November, which recommended Brown enhance its outreach to Providence public schools by, for example, providing more professional support for teachers, further funding the Urban Education Policy Program and coordinating efforts with other universities in Rhode Island.

Simmons, who crafted the University’s response after discussing the report with several academic departments and committees, told The Herald she expects the $10-million endowment will effect change in Providence and attract donors. The Corporation will monitor use of the funds, which will be managed as part of the University’s endowment.

Simmons said she hopes other communities will follow Brown’s lead and set up similar endowment funds for public schools. As citizens do not vote to increase their own taxes to fund public schools, Simmons said she hopes the endowment, called the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, will serve as an alternative for school funding.

“I would vote tomorrow to increase my taxes so the schools would be better,” she said. “In part, I can afford to do that. Some families can’t.”

Americans may be interested in helping out public schools, but don’t know how, she said. “There is no way to manage (money) in a way that is consistent with the way (donors) think the funds should be managed, and therefore we miss a huge opportunity in the country to do for public schools what we do for universities,” Simmons said.

Supporting local public schools will also help the University attract employees and faculty. “When we go to recruit someone, the first question parents ask is, ‘How are the schools?’ ” Simmons said.

Despite her enthusiasm for the proposals’ impact, Simmons acknowledged their implementation had yet to be determined. “There are many things that have to be worked out,” she said. “It’s not a finding that we should do an x, y or z. It’s a finding that there’s an opportunity here, and we should do the further work on it to determine how it should be done.”

Though the proposals did not address some of the committee’s recommendations, the response reflects the spirit of the committee’s report, she said.

The report made a compelling case that the legacy of slavery can be seen in income and education disparities among black Americans – disparities that can be addressed in part through public education in urban areas, she said.

“We didn’t make an effort to answer the recommendations one-for-one,” she said. “We got lots of recommendations from other people that … were frankly better than the committee’s ideas,” she added.

Of the response’s various proposals – including a memorial to commemorate the slave trade and several academic initiatives – Simmons said the Corporation discussed support for Providence public schools the most.

Alums across the country care about local schools, Simmons said, as she recalled fielding questions from Brown alums in Phoenix about aiding Providence public schools.

“I think that’s because (alums) had a memorable experience with the city when they were here and they continue to care about what happens here,” she said. “This gives them a concrete way to help.”

“It’s very hard to find people who disagree on the importance of the schools, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we raised it very quickly and if we went over 10 million, frankly,” Simmons said. “One person could come in and do the whole thing.”

She added that recent news of unreliable or unethical spending behavior in charities will make people even more likely to donate to a fund they believe they can trust. “There are very few organizations that have that track record for the use of funds,” she said.

“One day Brown will be 800 years old. And when it’s 800 years old, the money that you gave to help with teaching will still be used for teaching,” she said.

But the most important lesson of the University’s response to its ties to slavery can’t be expressed through a fund or fellowship program, Simmons said. She urged students to confront the contentious issues of their generation.

“What you’re obligated to do in your time is to engage with the issues. Don’t take a pass, don’t say, ‘Yes there’s genocide going on in the world, but that has no impact on me,'” Simmons said. “Don’t take a pass because the people who took a pass in the 1700s probably prolonged for an incredibly long period of time the unjust enslavement of people. Not only did they do that but the legacy of the unjust enslavement continued for centuries.”

Providence reactsDonnie Evans, superintendent of the Providence Public School District, called the proposed $10-million endowment “a big surprise.”

“I knew that we would benefit in some way because I had had conversations with President Simmons and members of her staff,” he said. But, he added, “This is much more than we dreamed of.”

The commitment to raise $10 million and also support MAT and UEP students who agree to serve Providence schools – equally important to supporting the school distrct, Evans said – will take Brown’s relationship with the school district “to a higher level.”

Jose Gonzalez, director of special projects and university relations at the school district, said he hopes Brown’s engagement in the public schools will “change the city of Providence for good.”

“There’s been a lot of efforts from different (Brown) departments, but this is major,” Gonzalez said. “This is very big in comparison.”

He expects his colleagues and the superintendent will be asked to propose strategies for the funds’ use.

Officials at Brown understand how to effectively collaborate with the school district, “rather than throwing money at us,” Gonzalez said. “There’s a lot of well-intended organizations, (but) it’s really different when an organization thinks they know what they want to do for a community rather than asking the community what they think they need from us,” he said.

The endowment gives the University “the flexibility to think strategically at a given point in time to prioritize what are the highest needs at the moment,” said Professor of Education Kenneth Wong.

Mayor David Cicilline ’83 praised the response in a statement Saturday. “This initiative establishes Brown University as among the foremost community leaders in Providence and a national pioneer in developing innovative approaches to strengthening the relationship between universities and their host communities,” he said.

Ward 2 Councilman Cliff Wood said the creation of the endowment fund surprised him, even though he knew of Simmons’ interest in Providence schools. “I suspected (Brown) would do something with the schools but what a wonderful thing to do,” he said.

Though Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Peter McWalters has met with officials from Simmons’ office, he is not fully aware of what steps the University will take next.

“The commissioner is waiting eagerly to receive more details about this grant,” said department spokesman Elliot Krieger. “Providence certainly needs the help and it’s the larger urban district, but if (support is) available in a wider sphere, he’d be interested in knowing that.”

Mark Kravatz, facilitator of school support and community/family engagement at the Hope High School complex, praised the proposal to hire an outside evaluator to monitor the initiatives’ progress. It shows that “Brown is going to be in it in for the long haul and that means a lot,” he said.

Funding the fellowsThough Wong praised the endowment as “a welcoming surprise,” he said he expected the response would support the UEP program, which he directs, and the MAT program.

There are currently eight students in the UEP program and 40 in the MAT program, Wong said, but he expects those numbers will grow to 20 to 25 for the UEP program and 50 for the MAT program by the 2008-09 academic year. Though Simmons said she had wanted to provide fee waivers for more fellows, Wong said 10 was a manageable number to begin with.

“We have every intention to make sure that we are going to grow this fellowship program,” Wong said, adding that fellows could number 20 to 25 in three or four years, he said.

Josh Marland GS, a master’s candidate in the UEP program, said placing graduates in Providence schools may prove difficult because of union regulations and budget constraints.

“They have the right idea,” Marland said. He added that university partnerships with local schools are currently in vogue, and “Brown is at the forefront of it.”

Clara Webb GS, a master’s candidate in the MAT program, said she hoped the tuition waiver would not come at the expense of financial aid for other students in the two programs. Financial aid for students in the MAT program has shrunk over the past two years and the tuition waivers will help attract more students, said Associate Professor of Education John Tyler, who chairs the department. Tyler said the department submitted a proposal to Simmons that included the recommendation to waive tuition fees.

“The fellowships will make the program more competitive with our peers out there,” such as Duke and Yale universities, he said. “We know we have lost some students to these programs.”

But the University’s proposals could eventually yield more than the initial announcement suggests.

“If you look maybe toward the end of the response, it says this is the beginning,” Simmons said.

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