Education Foundations Fuel Innovation

Apr 4, 2022

Hard as it is to believe today, in the early 1900s many Americans viewed automobiles suspiciously. After all, those new contraptions were no match for horses.

It can take major disruptions to alter entrenched perspectives, but necessity is a powerful change agent.

This was the case in San Francisco in 1906 when a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and subsequent fire devastated the city. As Laura Hillenbrand describes in her book Seabiscuit, automobiles came through in that time of need. With horses injured or unwilling to venture down cracked streets lined with burning buildings, the unique power of automobiles to reach injured people—to help save lives—came into focus. Views changed.

It’s an old story: Innovators and early adopters of change sometimes face ridicule, or worse. Yet, as we know well, history tends to vindicate–even celebrate–the nimble thinkers, the risk takers, the dreamers.

Two-plus years into a pandemic that altered what already was a fast-changing world, innovation is essential. Just as people must embrace agility and adaptability to thrive in a landscape that now seems to shift by the hour, so must the larger systems that support our society.

That includes K-12 education, which faces serious challenges.

Today, we face a mental health crisis among K-12 students. We face persistent achievement gaps. We face a teacher shortage. (A January 2022 poll by the National Education Association finds that 55% of teachers intend to leave the profession earlier than they had planned.) We face a changing economy that requires young people to graduate with new skill sets and new ways of thinking.

Today, the status quo won’t do.

One way to initiate change and address these problems is the education foundation model. The best education foundations connect innovative thought leaders, invested stakeholders and philanthropists, and school districts to support students and teachers—and to test new ideas, innovate education, and take risks.

In July of 2021, I was elected to serve as Membership Chair of the Florida Consortium of Education Foundations. The Consortium is an organization that supports all the local education foundations across the state. My roles as president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County and as Membership Chair of the Consortium allow a unique view into these foundations and their ability to power innovation and address urgent needs so students and teachers can thrive.

The Pinellas Education Foundation, for example, has done trailblazing work to close the literacy gap between elementary school girls and boys. It moved thoughtfully, intentionally, and quickly, collaborating with the school district to pilot a program to support six schools, which now reaches 10 schools.

Abandoning a one-size-fits-all approach, educators adopt different strategies to best teach boys and girls. The remarkable reading gains boys have shown since the program launched illuminate how new thinking and strong collaboration can create lasting change.

Here in Sarasota County, the Education Foundation, recognizing the urgent need to prepare high school students for college, career, and life, in 2018 collaborated with the district to open our first two Student Success Centers. Since then, we have opened three more centers, two in area high schools and one standalone center in the Rosemary District.

Staffed with expert advisors, these centers provide comprehensive, individualized, accessible support to students who most need assistance in finding their purpose, identifying a pathway, formulating a plan, and preparing for life after high school. The yearly increases in visitors and the level of preparedness with which many underserved students graduate is a testament to our innovative solution to an issue of access and a need to foster relationships that make a difference.

Education foundations understand the challenges that face local school districts and communities without losing sight of nationwide issues. They can mobilize quickly, as so many across Florida did during the pandemic to provide vital support to students and teachers. They test new ideas. Sometimes these tests don’t go as expected, but much innovation has sprung from so-called failed ideas.

The best education foundations are always learning, testing, adjusting, researching more, launching, innovating—driven by an urgency to prepare students for life and to help ensure a thriving community.

Today, in the automobile industry, hybrid and electric vehicles are helping to address fuel and climate crises. Skeptics scoff, just as in 1906 right before the ground began to shake in San Francisco. Yet, new ideas continue to emerge that create solutions and hope.

I have faith in the power of education foundations to do just that—to catalyze change and to create solutions that best meet the needs of our students and teachers. And I have hope because I see it happening every day.

Our creative community does amazing things when we band together. To our neighbors, friends, and all community members who believe in the power of innovation and recognize the dynamic effect when innovation and education intersect: We invite you to contact us, learn how to get involved, and help us support our students and teachers.