By Lynsey Wood Jeffries, CEO of Higher Achievement
November 4th, 2013 — The joke around the office is that “It’s All Happening” is this year’s motto. The more I consider it, the more it rings true.
Last week was a perfect example. On Tuesday, the executive director of Higher Achievement Richmond, Tyren Frazier, was named one of the city’s “40 under 40”. Also, on Tuesday, we released the results of our randomized-control trial (RCT) study to the media. On Wednesday, we hosted twenty visitors from the Wallace Foundation’s board and staff at our Ward 7 Center, just after they met with the US Secretary of Education. And on Thursday, we hosted 800 guests at the Warner Theater for an inspiring gala, which raised $1.2 million – record-breaking on many fronts.
These three, frenetic, exciting days definitely felt like “it’s all happening”. But, it didn’t happen by accident. This success is the result of months and years of grit, perseverance and reflection. The qualities that we espouse for our scholars, and that Paul Tough has written about in “How Children Succeed”, we have exhibited as an organization. And, it is beginning to pay off.
First – Richmond. Our Richmond affiliate opened its doors to scholars in 2011. But, like many new initiatives, it struggled to secure diverse revenue. However, after three unsuccessful applications, a big win came in September 2013 when we were awarded the 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the State of Virginia – $165,000 per year for three years. Also, in September, we promoted Tyren from Director of Programs to Executive Director, recognizing his stellar leadership, commitment, and vision. Turns out that others noticed his talents too! Thus, he was named one of Richmond’s “40 under 40”.
Second, the results of our study. The seeds of this study were planted in 2001, when then-Executive Director, Maureen Holla, connected with Leigh Linden, a graduate student at the time, to answer the skeptic’s question about Higher Achievement: wouldn’t these motivated kids do just as well without Higher Achievement? As a scrappy organization serving just 150 DC students with a $700,000 annual budget, we aimed to launch a $4 million major research study. Ambitious was an understatement. After three unsuccessful applications to the William T. Grant Foundation, we were finally awarded a grant in 2005, matched by Atlantic Philanthropies, Wallace Foundation and others. Our ambitious study started in earnest in 2006. Now, in 2013, we have the final results. We are among the only 2% of nonprofits in the country to have this type of “gold-standard” proof, and it demonstrates impact in reading and math test scores (with sustained gains in math), high school placement, and family engagement in education – over an equally motivated control group. And, the press is paying attention – from the Sacramento Bee to Ed Week. Our scrappy ambitions were prescient.
Third, the Wallace Foundation visit. When I stepped into the role of National CEO last year, I had to orchestrate a dramatic organizational turn-around. My first week on the job was chaotic, and it was also the week of a visit from our Wallace Foundation program officer. The Wallace Foundation was our biggest national funder. Tricky timing, to say the least. Over the past year, we have reinforced the strengthen of our program to the Wallace Foundation, engaged them in our strategic planning, and heightened their excitement about our new strategic direction for whole school impact. As a result, they granted us $500,000. And, when their (very fancy) national board was coming to Washington, they asked us to host them for a Center visit. Thanks to the tireless work of our Ward 7 team, they witnessed an extraordinary afternoon of a proud school partnership and inspiring scholars tackling social justice principles.
Finally, our gala. The roots of this success trace back to at least 2009, when Steve Goldstein, a long-time board member, invited Mitchell Schear to our Higher Achievement fundraiser, which raised $318,000. The next year, we honored Steve at our gala and he convinced Mitchell to be a co-chair. Gradually, Mitchell was drawn closer to our mission. Then, we scheduled him for a visit of our Ward 6 Center and he was hooked. Our scholars, especially Sydney – a compelling 6th grader, demonstrated the impact of our program. And, once Mitchell was hooked, he reeled in the seemingly the whole commercial real estate industry. Since 2009, each successive gala raised more and more dollars. When we crested $1 million last year, we were sure we had maxed out. But, Mitchell, his Vornado/Charles E. Smith team, our other co-chairs, and many others pushed further. We raised $1.2 million and inspired more than 800 guests! Throughout that splendid evening, I marveled at the beauty of new connections in the city. Grandmothers from Congress Heights talking with corporate executives from Northern Virginia, 10th grade poets connecting with reporters from the business journal. Not only did we raise record-breaking dollars, but we tightened the social fabric of our community.
At that was just ONE WEEK!
In the next ten months of our fiscal year, we will be implementing and evaluating our new “whole school impact strategy”, which will enable us to serve 70% more scholars directly and impact 7000 students – by 2016.
All the pieces are coming together. And, it all starts NOW.