Archives for "Education"

Giving to close Boston’s opportunity gap

Earlier this week, the students in my Nonprofit Giving course at Framingham State University held a ceremony where they honored the work of the Boston-based nonprofit Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They awarded the organization a $10,000 grant to support its vast array of services and supports for the city’s homeless youth.

The overarching goal of the course was for students to see how giving can enable low-income people to access greater opportunity. The class invited local nonprofits to apply for funding that the Learning by Giving Foundation has generously donated to the university. Created by Doris Buffett, this foundation annually supports 40 experiential philanthropy courses at colleges and universities across the U.S.

At the beginning of the course, the class read my book Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream, which offers hands-on strategies for how giving can fuel opportunity. Then, they crafted a grant application, researched local nonprofits, and invited 20 of them to apply for funds. Students subsequently evaluated the 16 grant proposals we received. Lengthy discussion produced the list of four that received site visits (see prior post), and even more intense deliberation preceded the final vote. The students had the option of splitting the Learning by Giving grant in half, but the majority preferred to give it all to one organization.

At the grant ceremony one of my students, Dan, commented that “since the beginning of the process Bridge Over Troubled Waters was one of very few organizations that had strong support from a majority of the class. The organization offers countless services that include, but are not limited to, counseling, high school equivalency and career development, the mobile medical van, runaway services and a transitional living program. The organization addresses a group typically invisible from mainstream media but that deserves to have the opportunity to be upwardly mobile and should be near the forefront of national attention: homeless adolescents.”

Kudos to my students for selecting such a worthy organization to support!

The Final Four

Even though winners of the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were crowned this week, another Final Four is just beginning to heat up!

The students in my Nonprofit Giving course at Framingham State University have $10,000 to give away, thanks to generous support by the Learning by Giving Foundation which annually sponsors 40 experiential philanthropy courses at colleges and universities around the country.

Early in the course, my students read Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream, which familiarized them with how giving can enable low-income people to access greater opportunity. Then, they researched Boston area organizations that appear, at least from their websites, to be doing similarly promising work. As a class, we decided to invite 20 to apply for funding, and received 16 grant proposals. Students have spent the past two weeks discussing the nuances of these proposals, and have narrowed the pool of applicants to four, each of which we’ll be visiting in the next two weeks:

  1. Friends of Boston’s Homeless
  2. Bottom Line
  3. Key Program / Children’s Charter
  4. Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Our first site visit is to Friends of Boston’s Homeless this afternoon. Once we’ve done all four site visits, then comes the BIG DECISION – where to give the $10,000.

Stay tuned for details!

The experience of a lifetime


I’m currently teaching a first-year college seminar, and therefore have been thinking a lot about ways to set a model for what I hope will be these students’ experience of a lifetime over the next few years.

What hasn’t (yet) been part of the course is discussion of just how fortunate they are to be having this opportunity. Rising tuition costs are the most obvious reason many of their peers don’t go to college. Often, so is a lack of adequate preparation and support. That’s why the work of College Bound is so significant. This organization provides promising high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the academic and social supports they need to succeed in four-year colleges.

Founder Lisa Orden Zarin grew up in a low-income neighborhood of Newark, NJ and saw firsthand how many students dropped out of high school and therefore lacked the preparation even to aspire to go to college.

Consider the gains this impressive nonprofit is making: EVERY person in the program’s first four graduating high school classes earned admission to a four-year college or university and 93 percent re-enrolled their sophomore year!

As schools reopen, let’s remember homeless students

GUEST BLOGGER: Tori Dost, Framingham State University (


Unbelievably, the average age of a homeless individual in the United States is eight years old. Too often, children and their families are uprooted from their homes and forced into shelter life, through no fault of their own. However, countless organizations work to ensure that these children will, one day, be able to keep themselves and their own children out of shelters and in comfortable and healthy households of their own. One such organization is School on Wheels of Massachusetts. Its four full time staff members and five hundred total volunteers work tirelessly to achieve their vision of every homeless child breaking the cycle of poverty through education.

In the turbulent life of a homeless child, this organization provides the structure and permanence that he or she needs in order to thrive. When a child or family moves from one shelter to the next, services move with them; hence the name School on Wheels. It offers two main programs to homeless youth in kindergarten through college, including a school supply and a tutoring program. Year-round volunteers prepare backpacks, summer reading bags, and holiday learning boxes, or visit local shelters to provide tutoring services to homeless youth. Both programs aim to level the playing field, putting these youth in a position to succeed.

School on Wheels serves 200 youth at 12 sites in four Massachusetts communities, and has proven that its services can open doors for homeless youth. For students like Lorenz, one such door led to a college education. He was a student at Brockton High School when his family became homeless. He and seven other family members were placed in a motel room in Somerset, MA. Lorenz traveled 50 miles to and from school each day. Eventually he chose to be closer to his school and moved into the MainSpring Men’s Shelter in Brockton, where his roommates were two to three times his age.

During this tumultuous time in his life, his guidance counselor introduced him to School on Wheels where he received mentoring and help with his college search, applications, and financial aid forms. Despite the obstacles of moving three times in one year, Lorenz graduated with good grades and perfect attendance! After graduation, he completed a year at Massasoit Community College where he made the Dean’s List. He is now at Bridgewater State University as a BSU Scholar, a competitive program that provides full-ride scholarships for qualified students impacted by homelessness.A serious and dedicated student, he is beating the odds because of his personal commitment to his education and the on-going support and mentoring he receives from School on Wheels.

It is the bright futures of individuals like Lorenz that prove just how far a new backpack and the encouragement of a tutor and mentor can take a child. With the help of School on Wheels of Massachusetts, hundreds more children are able to take that journey.

Expanding Opportunity for San Francisco’s Low-Income Students

GUEST BLOGGER: Melanie Rogers, Director of Development & Communications, SMART


Jonathan Wang, a SMART Scholar who will attend the University of Southern California this fall, shared his story at a recent SMART goes to College Event, a fundraiser and a celebration of Scholar achievements. “Since, 6th grade, I’ve boarded a bus that transports me from my home in the Bayview, one of the city’s most crime ridden districts, to my schools in Pacific Heights, the city’s most affluent zip code. I’ve found this fifty-minute bus ride to be analogous to my family’s transformative journey with the SMART program.”

Since 1997, SMART has empowered financially-disadvantaged San Francisco students and their families to demand more from their educational communities. SMART offers  an eight-year continuum of support to students in the 5th through 12th grades, which includes after-school and summer programming with a  strong college-bound culture, a comprehensive academic and social-emotional support through our tutoring and mentoring program, and strong partnerships with the Bay Area’s most exceptional private schools.  SMART’s organizational goal is that 100% of our students will attend 4-year colleges equipped with the skills and confidence necessary to succeed. Our vision?  That all students, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds, have equal access to quality education, and receive the support needed to reach their full potential. We believe that increased educational opportunities coupled with comprehensive support have the power to transform individual lives, families, and communities.

Jonathan went on to say, “It began in kindergarten when my mom marched ambitiously through the hallways of a reputable public elementary school, determined to obtain a spot for me. When my admission was denied, she broke down into tears. Her fear of a future fraught with uncertainty allowed me to understand, from an early age, that MY education would be the solution to our financial instability.”

While SMART’s emphasis is on providing educational access for students and families, we are also committed to harnessing our community of private school partners  and supporting in their efforts to deepen their commitment towards diversity and inclusivity.  High tuitions, complex admissions and financial aid processes, and rigorous academic curricula prohibit many families from underserved backgrounds from accessing a choice in a private school education. Utilizing 16 years of experience working in this field, SMART has started to offer workshops to schools to help them strategize and better support the common issues and experiences faced by traditionally underrepresented students and families. Together, we aim to encourage educational environments where all children and their families can thrive.

Jonathan Wang presenting the keynote address at SMART Goes to College.

In his speech, Jonathan concluded with, “In my new schools, I found a group of peers that piqued and propagated my intellectual curiosity. Outside of school, I was supported by the SMART community, which was filled with energetic students who came from similar backgrounds to mine, all determined to pursue higher levels of education. With SMART, I finally found the symbolic shuttle to bring me, and my family, from our lives in the Bayview to lives filled with more opportunities.”

Fueling educational opportunity


FUEL Education believes that more low-income youth can and should attain higher education. Research and experience show that the most successful students are those who are supported by their parents in their college ambitions, not just financially, but in decision making, research, and enthusiasm. FUEL Education helps low-income parents in three Greater Boston communities learn about college access and save toward higher education.

FUEL Education offers a creative and powerful contract: we provide incentives toward saving and learning, host monthly educational workshops (Savings Circles) where they learn actionable ways to move their children toward higher education, and inform them about how to pay for it so the students can graduate with little or no debt. Parents respond by saving money, attending the Savings Circles, and putting their knowledge to use. The result is greater involvement by parents in the education of their children, which has been repeatedly shown to be a strong indicator of educational success.

Our model has shown remarkable success. Since 2009, more than 600 families have enrolled. They have opened over 700 educational savings accounts for their children and put away more than $525,000 toward higher education. There are now 164 FUEL Education students matriculating in college. Of those who started before last fall, 89 percent have returned to their studies year to year. This is a remarkable persistence rate since the national average is around 60 percent, and much lower for this at-risk population. So FUEL is hitting it out of the park with results that show the importance and impact of engaging parents as part of the students’ college access toolkit.

The Nasuuna family is a perfect example of how the FUEL Education system works. They immigrated from Somalia looking for a better life and joined FUEL when their oldest child, Bahiya, was in tenth grade. Having not gone to college themselves, Bahiya’s parents had no idea what the process was or how much it would cost. With FUEL’s help, they started attending Savings Circles and opened an educational savings account. Bahiya focused on her studies and got good grades all through high school while her parents continued to save and learn all they could about how to get her into college. Last fall, Bahiya began a pre-med track as public health major at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a full scholarship and is well on her way to a productive future for herself and her family. “FUEL helped get me where I am because it taught my mom things we didn’t know about college,” she said. “FUEL also helped us save $3,000, which really reduced our monthly payment for the payment plan I had.”

Low-income youth are falling well behind the educational curve because fewer of them are entering and staying in college, scared off by the high cost and crushing debt load. These students are being deprived of opportunities for themselves and their families, and the country’s workforce is being denied their intelligence, creativity, diversity, and energy. FUEL’s combination of incentivized learning and saving, and access to scholarships is a powerful package that helps underserved families gain the knowledge and skills that unlock college for their children. Our work empowers families to take steps that improve their own future and bolster their communities by educating their children. We are excited to have created a model that allows more underserved Massachusetts youth to follow their educational ambitions, improve their own prospects, and contribute their energy and ideas to the nation.

Breaking the poverty cycle through Education

GUEST BLOGGER: Sean Finlay, Marketing & Communications Coordinator, X-Cel Education


X-Cel Education, is a nonprofit education organization which provides High School Equivalency (HSE) and college preparation classes to out-of-school low income adults in the Greater Boston area. X-Cel was founded in 2000 by two adult educators, Don Sands and Mamadou Ndiaye, who devised a solution to a challenge they identified in the adult education system. Many times programs have to turn away students because of the high demand. Those who are turned away sit on waiting lists for months, and, once enrolled often face the same issues that led them to drop out in the first place; a one size fits all system.

X-Cel has been designed with a unique program model that alleviates the difficulties faced by out-of-school youth and adults. We offer free pre-HSE, HSE prep, and college prep classes at six locations around Greater Boston that have been identified as high need areas. We do not have wait lists and students can begin classes immediately upon entering. When a student arrives for the first time they are given an assessment that identifies their strengths and weaknesses. A customized learning path is designed to fit their needs and they are able to work through their studies at their own pace. To ensure our students are prepared to take their HSE exam, every 4 months, students’ progress is tracked using the TABE test, a nationally-recognized assessment of adult academic skills.

Our model depends heavily on partnerships with community based organizations and a large volunteer pool. We partner with community-based organizations to secure donated space for our programs. In return X-Cel offers educational services to the organization’s clients. Each week an average of 45 volunteers come through our doors to assist our students. Sometimes they tutor several students during the two and a half hour sessions while other times they assist a single student in an area where they are struggling. By utilizing donated space and volunteers we ensure that our overhead costs are low and more of each donor’s money goes straight to the students. In the past year we have implemented an additional support system to our graduates who are currently enrolled at an area college. We noticed that the tutors and other aids at the colleges often didn’t provide adequate help and ran on schedules designed for full time students. Many of our students have families, full-time jobs, and other responsibilities that made attending these sessions inconvenient and they would often go without the needed help. To combat these issues we gathered volunteers who could meet with these students in locations and at times that fit into our students’ schedules.

X-Cel has a culture of success. Since our inception in 2000, 903 students have increased their math or reading by one grade level, 533 have completed their HSE credential, and 305 have moved on to post-secondary education. This past year alone, we had 72 students complete their exam and 50 moved into a post-secondary program, which are among the highest numbers in the city of Boston. Part of our success has come from the X-Cel community that is often referred to as a family. Of our employees, 50% of them are X-Cel graduates. They are the first people who prospective students meet upon walking through our doors. They are from the same neighborhoods, the same backgrounds and have been in our students’ shoes. They understand the difficulties facing our students and will go out of their way to assist in any way they can. Our staff cares about our students and will often reach out to a student if they feel something is going wrong. Our staff and volunteers have been known to stay late or meet a student outside of class to help them conquer a particular subject area.

As we look to the future, we are assessing our next steps, and generating ideas on how to further assist underserved adult learners in Greater Boston. We plan to open classes in Mattapan and East Boston in the near future and build new relationships that can assist in achieving these goals.

If you would like to stay updated on X-Cel, please visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

Importing Innovation for Big Community Impact

GUEST BLOGGER: Casey Johnson, Founding Executive Director, GreenLight Fund Bay Area

At GreenLight Fund, importing is at the very core of what we do — Boston, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area on an annual basis. We import proven nonprofit models into our communities when we know that they will address a critical gap in services for low-income children, youth and families and achieve measurable results.

To achieve our mission of changing the life trajectories of children and families in GreenLight’s three communities, we must do this importing well, with significant work on the front-end – selecting organizations to join our portfolio – AND on the back-end – launching and supporting those organizations in our GreenLight communities.

Front-end: Selection

GreenLight first spends a tremendous amount of time identifying and understanding the most critical needs facing low-income children, youth and families in our communities. We lean on community leaders, philanthropic leaders, recent data and policy reports, as well as our local Selection Advisory Council, to help us identify urgent needs in the community. We hone in on the gaps where services are not being provided by the existing nonprofit and public sectors, and then search the country to find models that have a proven track record of meeting these needs in other cities. We look for program innovation and results, past experience with scaling and growth, adaptability, as well as strong leadership and operational excellence. Our diligence is a rigorous process, designed to ask the tough questions and get the right answers from potential organizations, and ensure a strong fit within the local community. This deep due diligence takes between 9-12 months. Once selected by GreenLight, the work does not end there – we then partner with the selected organization to build a strong foundation locally.

Back-end: Launch & Support

Once a nonprofit makes it into the GreenLight portfolio, our support focuses on the early-stage, start-up phase of these organizations coming into our communities. Our goal is to help organizations have demonstrated impact in the new community as quickly as possible, as well as a plan for sustainability and growth in the short and long-term. Our support includes:

  • Early stage funding. Like a venture capital fund, we are all about seeding the organizations that show the most promise. Total contributions are typically in the $600K to $800K range over four years.
  • Recruiting assistance. We help recruit and assess talent to ensure exceptional individuals take the helm of the new organization and serve on its board.
  • Planning. GreenLight Fund works with local organizations to help programs plan for growth and make necessary adaptations to meet the local community’s unique circumstances.
  • Outreach. The new organization needs community stakeholders who believe in its mission. GreenLight facilitates outreach to the key political, funding, corporate and nonprofit groups in the community.
  • Support. GreenLight Fund provides early-stage operational and management guidance, including taking a local board seat for a minimum of 6 years.

In addition, we host events to help our funded organizations meet community leaders, find board members, talk to donors, and connect with strategic advisors.


Right now, GreenLight is supporting 12 nonprofit organizations that are transforming the lives of low-income children, youth and families in Boston, Philadelphia and the San Francisco Bay Area with engaged support from GreenLight. Our portfolio will impact 40,000 children and families this year and 100,000 by 2019, having leveraged our initial $11.5M in portfolio investments with an additional $43M in external commitments to GreenLight organizations by the end of 2014.

There is a lot of dialogue right now about “scaling what works.” We have helped import some of the best of “what’s working” into our communities: Friends of the Children, Raising A Reader, Peer Health Exchange, Youth Villages, Family Independence Initiative, Single Stop USA, Blueprint Schools, College Advising Corps, Year Up, Genesys Works and uAspire. Individually, each of these organizations are achieving tremendous outcomes in their respective areas, including: helping low-income families move out of poverty, preparing children to enter kindergarten with strong literacy skills, and connecting community college students with financial benefits and resources that will help them stay in school, finish their degree, and achieve better career outcomes.

GreenLight has chosen to scale what works only when LOCAL FIT is front-and-center as a critical factor in determining their importation AND there is early-stage support upon entry and through their first few years on the ground beyond just funding.

For GreenLight, importing has proven itself to be more than just bringing something from one place to another. Importing innovation, when done well, can produce significant, measurable impact in our communities.


Casey Johnson is the Founding Executive Director of GreenLight Fund Bay Area, which launched two years ago and has already imported GreenLight’s first two Bay Area portfolio organizations – Genesys Works and uAspire – as a part of GreenLight’s Social Innovation Fund Initiative. Casey’s background is anchored in the nonprofit sector, working with education organizations such as Raising A Reader, National Commission for Teaching & America’s Future and Room to Read in the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston and Washington, D.C. Casey is a former grantee of GreenLight Fund, having been a part of the successful launch of Raising A Reader in Massachusetts.

Creating community among the formerly homeless


The “Community” in Community Housing Partnership does not simply give the organization’s name a nice ring to it. CHP truly operates with the intent to create a close-knit community, and understands the value of a stable community in the life of a person who is experiencing the turbulence of homelessness.