Philanthropy’s Role in Education Equity and the Return to Learn: A Conversation with The Skillman Foundation
As students and families prepare for the uncertainty of the 2020-21 school year, philanthropy continues to play a vital role in cultivating an equitable future for Michigan’s children. A CMF member, dedicated to championing Detroit children, continues its role as a leader at the local and state level, advocating for students in both the short- and long-term.
The Skillman Foundation describes itself as a “fierce champion for Detroit children.” The foundation has spearheaded initiatives, partnerships and programs to ensure Detroit youth have the opportunities they need to become the city’s next generation of leaders.
Like other facets of life, education has been forced to adapt to meet children’s needs during the pandemic. When schools closed in March, Michigan’s education, government, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors reevaluated their roles as the pandemic brought new and old challenges facing children to light.
“We are exacerbating inequities in the state right now,” Tonya Allen, president and CEO at The Skillman Foundation said. “We do not have a solid equity plan in the state in terms of technology. Students and families in urban, rural and even suburban environments lack the tools to participate fully in remote learning opportunities. In this day and age, a computer and internet access are just as vital as a pencil and paper.”
The Skillman Foundation has been a leader in bridging Detroit’s digital divide since the pandemic began. As CMF has reported The Skillman Foundation, together with four other CMF members and several other funders, helped to fund the Connected Futures and Tech Fund for Detroit Students initiatives, both designed to provide computers and internet access to the city’s students and families.
But the foundation says addressing technology is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Children and families are facing so many challenges at the moment,” Punita Dani Thurman, the foundation’s vice president for program and strategy said. “The disruption of regular learning and schedules has been hard on so many families. Parents working from home have had to become teachers and tutors for their kids while trying to balance their work responsibilities; and parents who have had to go into work have had to find ways to ensure their kids are safe and learning while they are gone. Not to mention access to food and other resources and services that has been disrupted with school closures.”
As philanthropic leaders, Allen and Thurman—like other CMF members—have had to adapt and evolve strategies to better support students, families and educators during the pandemic.
“This is unlike any crisis that any of us have lived through,” Thurman said. “In Detroit, so many funders came together right after the outbreak and strategies have changed. We went from trying to solve a problem to living through a problem. We saw an intentionality to connect, collaborate and share information.”
Thurman notes that many funders in and around Detroit knew that stability and support were not only vital for students but also for the organizations that support them.
“Whether it was giving new grants or reworking existing grants, many funders came together to support the nonprofits not only with dollars, but with information and other supports,” Thurman said.
Collaboration has been a vital tool for Allen, who serves as chair of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s Return to Learn Advisory Council, where she has worked with educators, health experts and other stakeholders to advise the governor on school re-openings. As chair, she saw the need for collaboration between philanthropy and others to ensure Michigan students can learn safely and effectively.
“As a philanthropic leader and on behalf of The Skillman Foundation’s mission, it was really important for me that the state addressed the inequities in our educational system. Launch Michigan and the Return to Learn Council were natural outgrowths of that, allowing the philanthropic sector to insert itself into dynamics deeply embedded in the education sector.”
Allen—who also serves as a co-chair for Launch Michigan—knows that foundations are uniquely positioned to address the challenges the state faces in education.
“We sit on a very interesting perch that allows us to look at the perspectives of students without having an embedded interest, as you would as an educator. My role in both the Return to Learn Council and Launch Michigan allowed me to look at those daily dynamics and to see what we ought to be doing to increase and improve our academic proficiency for all students, particularly for students who live in areas that may not have as strong of educational systems.”
Allen and Thurman know the importance of utilizing the perspectives of those with a vested interest in what the foundation and the Return to Learn Council do as schools look to reopen in the fall.
“Philanthropy can think about how to work above individual system interests,” Thurman said. “We can see issues across systems and foster relationships with schools and community and neighborhood partners. We can lead some of the innovation surrounding decelerating learning loss. We have the opportunity to use our funding to change systems to better support students and families now and in the future.”
“The (Return to Learn) Council really had to get acclimated with what was going on in our state, across the country and around the world,” Allen said. “Because the pandemic is a global issue, we had far more places to look to for our own learning and direction. Michigan has a strong leader in Governor Whitmer who has enforced what we know can help mitigate COVID. We had to ground ourselves in the data, understand the data and design an approach that wouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all, but would provide a baseline for schools that would open their doors to help mitigate the spread of the disease.”
Though the Return to Learn Council provided Governor Whitmer with guidance to create the MI Safe Start plan, Allen says the work is not over.
“We’re working on answering questions and providing guidance to school districts as they gear up for the fall,” she said. “We know that, once school starts, we will have to continue to provide leadership and guidance to schools. Because individual school openings are so varied—with many schools going virtual for the first part of the year—it will delay how we operationalize how school buildings open safely until later in the year. We’ll be monitoring them and providing guidance, and we’ll work until the governor decides that we have done enough.”
Despite all the work that has already been done, The Skillman Foundation and other philanthropic organizations say that the pandemic is an opportunity for a clean slate to address inequities in education and beyond.
“The philanthropic community has to stand up to champion the issue of equity,” Allen said. “This is the time where we can rebuild funding and system models in a way that creates equity to allow every Michigan child to get a high-quality education.”
Learn about the Return to Learn Advisory Council.
Read the MI Safe Start Plan.
Learn more about Launch Michigan.
Food Assistance Programs Prepare for Unprecedented School Year
With many unanswered questions about what the 2020-21 school year will look like, ensuring students have access to healthy and nutritious foods, regardless of their learning environment, remains a priority for state leaders.
CMF has reported on a number of local and statewide efforts for the over 345,000 Michigan children who face food insecurity. The pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food for many Michigan children, particularly when schools—a regular provider of meals—ended in-person instruction in March.
As fall approaches, schools face the difficult task of feeding students while operating virtually, in person, or in blended learning environments.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) announced earlier this month it was extending food assistance for over 350,000 Michigan families through August. Families receiving Food Assistance Program (FAP) benefits can receive up to an additional $1,164 in benefits this month depending on household size.
“COVID-19 and its impact on the economy of the nation and state has made it more difficult for many Michigan families to pay for nutritious food,” Lewis Roubal, chief deputy director of opportunity for MDHHS, wrote in a press release. “The department wants to provide additional assistance to help them through this health care and economic emergency.”
With school right around the corner, many families may be wondering how children will be connected with meals given the variety of school environments at play this year. The Michigan Food Security Council is working with officials from MDHHS and the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) to decide how to feed students in all possible scenarios. Below are some of the key decisions made by the council:
All schools (regardless of in-person or virtual learning) will be required to provide meals for students. The state will provide guidance on food delivery and pick up for those students who are attending school virtually.
Food banks will not be allowed to deliver meals in partnership with school districts. Districts will work with the state to determine food distribution tactics.
Families can only receive meals from the district in which their child is registered. While some districts have allowed non-registered students to receive meals, students can only receive meals from their own school districts.
Lunch fees will resume in the fall. Students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch will be required to resume paying for meals.
School districts have already begun adapting to these changes. The Macomb Intermediate School District is allowing teachers of students who have special needs to ride along with home food deliveries to help their students feel connected during this time.
Still, the state recognizes there are challenges with the “new normal” for school lunches.
“I have been talking to food service directors to help them think through the options, which might be serving meals in a cafeteria with students maintaining social distance,” Diane Golzynski, director of health and nutrition services at MDE told WDIV Detroit. “It might be serving meals from a food cart in the hallway, or delivery entirely off-site. Every building is different.”
Learn more about MDE’s Office of Health and Nutrition.
Michigan’s New PFAS Rules Now in Effect
Michigan’s new rules limiting per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water are now in effect.
The state defines PFAS as “a group of potentially harmful contaminants used in thousands of applications globally including firefighting foam, food packaging and many other consumer products. These compounds also are used by industries such as tanneries, metal platers and clothing manufacturers.”
While the new rules were under consideration by the state, in December 2019, CMF’s Public Policy Committee passed a resolution recommending the adoption of standards to protect and improve the health of people and their communities against exposure to PFAS contaminants. CMF staff then responded to the state’s requests for public comment on PFAS standards, stating in part, “We believe that appropriate drinking water standards coupled with timely and accurate public notification, as well as the focus on long-term solutions to address water contaminants, will go a long way in supporting the health and well-being of Michigan’s residents and our environment.”
The new standards were approved by committee earlier this year. As a result, 38 new sites will be under investigation for potentially high PFAS levels. The state says most of these sites are landfills or former manufacturing facilities which are already the subject of ongoing state investigations into other forms of contamination.
The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) leads those investigations and is hosting a series of regional webinars in September to educate the public on the launch of investigations into sites with PFAS contamination exceeding the state's new clean-up standards.
The Green and Blue Network (GBN), a CMF affinity group, has been deeply engaged around the environmental and public health issues related to PFAS contamination both in working with CMF and hosting several learning opportunities for members. The GBN helped to inform CMF’s resolution and public comments on the rules.
“Throughout these efforts, we have tried to lift up the voices of community members whose wells and lives have been poisoned by these chemicals because this issue is such a threat to communities, their residents and the Great Lakes. We worked with CMF leaders to develop a policy position,” Tim Eder, co-chair of the Green and Blue Network and program officer of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation said.
Eder said the new standards will set levels to guide testing, monitoring and target clean up levels.
“Many scientists believe the levels should be lower or zero but what Michigan approved is a major step forward and sets Michigan apart in comparison to other states. It is also worth noting that Michigan had to act because the federal government has so far failed to establish standards for PFAS. Our state has a legacy of leading the way,” he said.
Eder said the work around PFAS will be ongoing and there will be more opportunities for philanthropy to get engaged.
Freshwater Future, a nonprofit organization supported by the Mott Foundation and the Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, is opening a PFAS testing lab where residents can send their water and soil samples for testing. Eder said a new statewide coalition is forming to coordinate and support such local efforts.
Connect with an upcoming virtual regional PFAS meeting.
Learn more about GBN.