Can a charitable foundation save a school district? We’re about to find out

high school students

With an infusion of $51 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek Public Schools is attempting something rare: reversing the flow of students leaving a district through school choice policies.

Kim Carter can cite a lot of numbers about Battle Creek Public Schools, all of them bad.

43. That’s the percent of children who live in the district where Carter is superintendent, but leave to attend school elsewhere. The city’s more affluent, and typically white students have fled the district for other schools in the region through Michigan’s school of choice policy, leaving behind the students who are at the highest risk of classroom struggles.

250. That’s the average decline in enrollment every year over the past 10 years. That adds up to an even uglier number…

$20 million. Which is the lost state funding because of dropping enrollment. The results have been predictable: Layoffs. Pay freezes. Building closures. Teachers fleeing the district almost as fast as students in a self-perpetuating spiral.

Last week, Carter had a new number to announce, a number that gave her (and her city) a breath of hope:

$51 million. Over the next five years, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has committed that amount to help turn around the struggling school district that serves the foundation’s home city. It’s a staggering figure compared to past Kellogg grants to the district of around $1 million, and one that will allow Battle Creek to retool its academic offerings, from extended pre-K to programs aimed at improving college and career readiness.

In the past, Kellogg has supported specific education programs within a school district. This effort is the first time the foundation has thrown its sizable weight into helping a school district from to bottom.

“This is monumental,” said New York University researcher David Kirkland, who led a study funded by Kellogg of the Battle Creek school district. “I haven’t seen anything like this – a philanthropy investing so much with a belief they can actually turn a system around.”

The Kellogg grant is intended to give the district’s remaining students the same opportunities as the mostly white students who have fled to suburban schools. It’s the largest education commitment to an individual district by the multi-billion-dollar philanthropic organization.

The grant also represents a historic effort to stem the school choice tide that is re-segregating schools and gutting the budgets of urban districts across the state.

If it doesn’t work, it will be historic in a different way: If $51 million can’t offer enough academic incentives to keep families in their home school districts, what can?

Students, and money, leaving

The NYU study found sobering discrepancies between the academic opportunities  offered to students in Battle Creek schools and those in neighboring districts.

For example, 27 percent of high school students at neighboring Lakeview Public Schools were enrolled in an Advanced Placement class (a class that can offer college credit if students score highly enough on placement tests), compared with 11 percent in Battle Creek. Perhaps as a consequence, Lakeview graduates are far more likely to earn at least a two-year college degree.  

A 2016 Bridge Magazine analysis of school of choice data found that Battle Creek loses more than four out of 10 students to classrooms outside the district. Many of those departing students are white. While 7-in-10 Battle Creek residents are white, just 36 percent of Battle Creek Public School students are white, according to recent census and school enrollment data. Lakeview, a popular destination, is 80 percent white.

How does school of choice affect your school district?

“Structural inequality and segregation are consistent barriers to college and career readiness” in Battle Creek, states the NYU study.

Other districts across the state also are battling segregation and struggling to stay afloat financially because of Michigan’s school choice policy, which tens of thousands of families use to move their children from home districts to classrooms in neighboring communities.

“Over the years, we’ve lost over $20 million to declining enrollment,” Carter said. “We’ve had to increase our student-to-staff ratio and we’ve closed two buildings in the last year or so, which means we have less classroom space. We own and operate an outdoor education center that was available for all elementary grades. We’ve had to cut the programs to just fifth grade. We’ve had staffing cuts, pay freezes and benefits concessions.”

For all the criticism, Michigan’s generous school choice policy is lauded by many for providing quality options to families when a neighborhood school is failing their children, while others point to some studies showing academic improvement.

Six years after graduation, only 15 percent of Battle Creek students had earned at least a two-year degree, compared with 44 percent at Lakeview and 34 percent at Marshall,  according data available at .

“I wasn’t shocked by the (NYU) study,” Carter said. “We live with this on a daily basis. We were pretty aware of the challenges. For us, the report highlighted our issues for the community so they could see our struggles.”

‘Every classroom at every school’

In simplest terms, Battle Creek students need more and get less.

The Kellogg grant is the equivalent of a D-Day assault on the district’s education shortcomings. The impact of the infusion of cash will be felt “in every classroom at every level in every school,” Carter said.

The grant will fund:

  • An extended pre-K school year

  • A six-week, full-day summer transition program to help prepare young students for kindergarten

  • A middle-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) academy

  • An early middle college program, an International Baccalaureate program, and high school academies aligned with various academic fields of interest

  • Recruitment and retention incentives for teachers, and additional opportunities for professional development

  • Literacy support staff in early elementary grades to help struggling readers

  • More investment in arts and athletics

  • A comprehensive behavior education plan focused on alternatives to school suspension

  • And curriculum upgrades. Clark noted that the district’s the math curriculum hasn’t been updated in over a decade.

Under the plan, education experts from around the state and the country will help Battle Creek administrators create effective programs. “Over the next couple of years, we’ll be able to implement a comprehensive reform effort aimed at every student at every grade level,” Carter said.

The program’s success will be measured by future reading and math scores, graduation rates and college attainment rates.

“This grant wasn’t created in a vacuum,” said LaJune Montgomery Tabron, Kellogg president and CEO. “This results from several years of work with the community. We canvassed every household in Battle Creek and reached out to thousands of residents. This is an opportunity to see transformation in public education.”

LaJune Montgomery Tabron: “We’ve watched as education has been disinvested over the years.”

It’s also an opportunity to try to slow, stop or even reverse the flow of students leaving Battle Creek through school choice. “We’re hoping as we shore up our system, residents will choose to return,” Carter said. “We’re going to market and tell our story. That’s something we haven’t done well in recent years.”

The grant lasts five years, with the hopes of “stabilizing” the district,” Tabron said. After that, the long-term health of the district will depend on convincing more of the city’s families to return their children to their neighborhood schools.

A closely watched experiment

Battle Creek is in a unique situation. Not many struggling school districts have a charitable foundation with a $7.3-billion endowment just a seven-minute walk away from its superintendent’s desk. (Disclosure: The Kellogg Foundation is a funder of The Center for Michigan, which includes Bridge Magazine). But those involved in the Kellogg-funded effort say they believe there may be lessons for other school districts

For Kirkland, the NYU researcher, the lessons involve learning which of the numerous efforts developed through the grant have the biggest impact on learning.

For Carter, it’s about learning that efforts to turnaround schools are only successful if the community is involved.

For Tabron, the lesson is aimed at Michigan’s legislators. “If we find out what resources are required to provide quality education for all, that’s something we can take back to the state level,” Tabron said. “We’ve watched as education has been disinvested over the years. I hope this does catalyze a discussion about how education is funded.”

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Thu, 05/11/2017 - 7:55am

Mark Zuckerberg did the same thing with Camden NJ - $100 Million! Google it and see how that worked out! It's culture, everything else is insignificant. We can't bring ourselves to admit it.

Mark Higbee
Thu, 05/11/2017 - 12:10pm

Matt, wasn't Zuckerberg's $100 million put into the Newark schools, and largely focused on so called "tech" solutions? Yes, it failed to transform the district, but teachers in the district were largely excluded from the planning and budgeting. Instead, outside "experts" set priorities and wasted a lot of capital. This article about Battle Creek and the Kellogg Foundation suggest that there is much grounds for optimism in this case.

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 8:15am

You could be right on the school. The point is that every time there is one of these attempts the results have been the same and the excuses fly. Then some almost penniless Indian family comes in and their kid become the valedictorian and goes to Harvard. The sponsors of these efforts are unwilling to state that predominant priorities and life choices are creating their own under culture that is hostile to their objectives.

Fri, 05/12/2017 - 2:15pm

I wonder if the reason they avoid the cultural impact on learning is that they are afraid of being called for 'profiling.'

The reality is that culture is in parts and they exist in every location from the family heritage, see p-233 'Outlier' by Malcolm Gladwell describing how that can happen, to the micro culture the student creates with those kids they socialize with inside and outside of school. KIPP charter schools [started in the inner city of Houston and the south Bronx] creates a micro culture for the students and both the teachers and the students become believers in the students' capacities and their control, and establish high learning expectations.

When kids are interested they find learning is in their control and they succeed, but those with the money and those wanting to spend the money take the path of least resistance/least effort, and make it about adults talking to adults ignoring the kids.
With the continual successes of KIPP schools I am surprise the people spending Kellogge's money aren't talking about the KIPP approach.

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 9:57am

We have been forced into this unhealthy scenario that insures that some schools will suffer while others profit from the schools of choice and school funding formulas we have adopted. Prop A in 1994 helped to give us relief from the property taxes used to provide the primary funding for school operations, and for a number of years it helped to begin to close the gap between the highest and lowest funded districts. Our current funding formula stopped working to achieve the goal of equitable school funding for all districts many years ago, and it needs to be changed as has been suggested by many studies. School of choice rules just increase the number of districts that cannot provide quality programming due to a lack of equitable funding. Until we fix these systems, our schools will continue to become even more segregated by race and poverty.

Chuck Jordan
Thu, 05/11/2017 - 12:27pm

Matt is right.
"If $51 million can’t offer enough academic incentives to keep families in their home school districts, what can?" No amount of money can teach a child who doesn't want to learn, whose parents don't really care one way or the other because education never did much for them. Choice siphons off the parents and students who want a better education and can afford the transportation. It is more difficult to educate minorities and low income students, especially in a segregated school. It will take a complete change of focus and will to turn around education in Michigan. It takes a different attitude - that we are going to educate every student and part of that is to show that education will make a difference in prospects after high school. For that to happen there also must be jobs and opportunities for these students. Otherwise, they grow up like their parents who don't see any real benefit in education. It can be done, but we must move away from the School "reform" efforts that do more harm than good, that value testing over learning and believe vouchers will solve all our problems. Money misspent will not help.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 05/11/2017 - 1:14pm


Safety? Safety? Safety?

I still haven't found the part in this piece relating to WHY parents are pulling their children out of the Battle Creek Public Schools.

Perhaps The Bridge should look into THAT aspect when writing future stories on this topic?

Library Mark
Thu, 05/11/2017 - 8:04pm

I hear that often from parents who live in the BCPS district but send their kids elsewhere. I ask them if a 'Kalamazoo Promise'-style system was in place, would they send their kids to BCPS? I have yet to hear any of them say yes. It's not about the money. It's about keeping their kids safe. The foundations' money is not going to change that.

Thu, 05/11/2017 - 2:41pm

Why is there no mention about what the students are going to do, it seems it is all about what the money will do, what adults may do.
I wish it were that simple, for that seems to be the message every time we hear of a request for more money or a new program.
I was always told that learning was due to what the student does [I verified that with early lack of interest and my later commitment to learning]. If this is wrong I would like to hear why and how it is wrong so I can stop fretting over the apparent exclusion of the student role/responsibilities whenever there are claims for new programs, more spending, and even when kids have academic success.
I recall an article Mr. French did on the merger of Walled Lake schools, a follow up article to see how the kids are doing and what they think about learning and the students role/responsibilities could very valuable to readers and educators alike. Mr. French drew out some very enlightening thoughts and ideas from those students, he seemed have developed a re-pore with them, it would seem he could use that to help us to better understand those students and what they have been doing.

Library Mark
Thu, 05/11/2017 - 7:53pm

This will just forestall the inevitable for another five years. What WKKF should have done was offer some money to BCPS to encourage them to begin the process of dissolving the district/merging with the other schools in the area. The BCPS student body has become extremely toxic with bad behaviors, yet admin has done nothing to address this fact. It's nearly impossible to teach there. Those teachers who can have left the district for other schools or retired early. More money will not save this district.