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Belk Foundation to focus on helping teachers

Just three years after announcing it would only give money to education programs, the Belk Foundation has decided to narrow its focus even further by helping programs for the state’s struggling teachers.

The Charlotte-based foundation, which last year gave $2.4 million in grants to improve education, says it now intends to help only two types of initiatives: Those that recruit, develop and retain teachers and school leaders; and those that help K-3 students stay on grade level.

Experts say singling out programs that help teachers has become a trend among nonprofits, as an increasing number seek ways to show their grants are having a measurable impact.

Belk Foundation officials have been considering the shift for more than a year but say now seems the right time to go public, given the sweeping changes recently made to the state’s public education system. The controversial changes include ending tenure for teachers, cutting out extra pay for advanced degrees starting next year, and trimming classroom jobs.

The result has been a series of teacher protests around the state, as educators note they’ve been denied a raise five of the past six years. North Carolina is now 46th among the states in average teacher pay, experts say.

“I think a lot of folks are paying attention to teachers now, and rightfully so. This has been a period of taking away without replacing,” said Johanna Edens Anderson, executive director of the foundation.

“We recognize that the status quo isn’t working because nearly half of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and that’s a national statistic. If you look at large urban districts like CMS, half of them leave in the first three years.”

The foundation’s change means aid will no longer go to programs helping middle and high school students, including some that the foundation funded in the past that provided teens with college counseling.

Instead, that money will be redirected to entities that work with teachers and principals, such as Teach for America and Queens University’s School Executive Leadership Academy.

“Donors want to make a difference, and you can’t do that if you try to be everything to everybody,” said Katie Morris, board chair of the Belk Foundation. “That means letting go of other things and focusing on the one or two things you can do best.”

Local funders such as the Wells Fargo Foundation and the Women’s Impact Fund also support teacher development programs, but Belk Foundation officials say they may be the first in the region to commit the bulk of their money to that cause.

Morris said other foundations across the nation have embraced the approach and found success, the closest of which is the Winston-Salem-based Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.

Supporting teacher development makes sense, she said, because research shows 60 percent of the achievement in classrooms can be attributed to teachers and principals who excel at their jobs.

The foundation also relied on research to settle on the second focus area of helping K-3 students stay on grade level, particularly in the critical skill of reading. Those who don’t master reading by the third grade typically struggle the remainder of their time in school, she said.

Of the $2.4 million in grants awarded by the foundation last year, half were spent on Charlotte-area students. The remainder went to programs outside the area.

Among the programs that are excited about Belk’s decision are the Charlotte Teachers Institute, a partnership between UNC Charlotte, Davidson College and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The teacher enrichment program has seen a 55 percent jump in applications over the past two years and has a waiting list of teachers who want to enter the program.

Money from nonprofits such as the Belk Foundation could help expand capacity, said Scott Gartlan, executive director of the institute.

“Many factors go into the success of children, but as we look more closely, we see it’s teachers who spend the majority of the day with them,” he said. “More and more funding agencies are recognizing the role of teachers and how we’re asking so much of them.”

Jashonai Payne, a fifth-grade teacher at Clear Creek Elementary in Charlotte, is among those who have sought out career development at the Charlotte Teachers Institute.

She said the recent setbacks in pay and state funding for schools can’t overshadow the fact that teachers love their jobs. She just wishes more state leaders recognized what they bring to the jobs, beyond college degrees.

“We have a spirit and we persevere,” Payne said. “We get in this professional because our real love and real calling is the students and making a difference in their lives.

“Support from organizations like the Belk Foundation helps us to keep going and stay encouraged. It lets us know there are people who care what we do. That renews our spirit and helps us come back every day.”

The Belk Foundation has long had an interest in education, with its co-creator, William Henry Belk (founder of the Belk stores chain) serving on the Charlotte School Commission, a precursor to the board of education. Since 2000, the foundation has distributed more than $37 million to charities across the Southeast, with the bulk of it going to education.

Before 2010, the foundation spread its money among a variety of nonprofit causes, including critical needs charities and shelter programs. In addition to Charlotte, it supports groups in Atlanta and Birmingham, Ala.

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