Scaling Up Successful Work Project GRAD

The following story is based on the experience of a grant maker and his grantee partners, working together in the field of educational reform in the United States. Grantmakers working in other fields will appreciate insights on issues such as:

  • Changing grantmaking strategies 
  • Scaling up success 
  • Establishing a new institution 
  • Connecting grantees
  • Recruiting new donors 
  • Evaluating objectively

Steven Zwerling
Senior Program Officer, The Ford Foundation

Hello, I’m Steven Zwerling. You’re about to hear a story about my involvement with a project called Project GRAD. I encountered a project that was producing results that many educational professionals – like myself – hadn’t anticipated. And as a result, I had to change my grantmaking strategy and direction. One thing I attempted to do was to try to invite previous grantees to consider joining the new project, while at the same time persuading the grantees to expand the scope of the work in which they were involved.

Along the way I found a new and unexpected role as a grantmaker. I needed to do various things to help with the scaling up effort that I hadn’t anticipated, including helping GRAD establish a new national organization. I needed to find ways to help grantees that were becoming involved to connect and learn from each other. I also became very active in attempting to mobilize other donors – private, corporate, and governmental. It was also necessary to organize and support an objective external evaluation.

I hope this story will be useful to you in your own grantmaking, and I hope this story will serve as a springboard for you to share your own insights and experiences with colleagues on the craft of grantmaking.

Dr. Gene Harris
Executive Director (1999 -2001), Project GRAD Columbus

What Project GRAD does is it brings all of the important elements together that educators have desired for years. If only we had this; if only we had a reading program that worked; if only our kids could do mathematics. If somebody would only work with us in the community, or at home, to deal with some of the major issues that children bring to school. If only there was an opportunity to link with higher education.

Project GRAD answers all the “if onlys” that many educators have had over the years. It is quite incredible how all of those elements work together to provide one very smooth educational option for children.

First Success: Houston

Dr. Billie Kennedy
Program Implementation Manager, Project GRAD USA

Project GRAD stands for Graduation Really Achieves Dreams. I went to Marshall Middle School as an administrator about 11 or 12 years ago. I had come into a real hellhole. We had fights daily; we had gang fights two to three times a week. A couple of times a month we would have a major neighborhood rumble. School was really scary. But we worked hard. We worked really hard setting up policies and procedures for teachers and for kids. Teachers didn’t have any emotional energy and very little physical energy. They worked hard to try to teach, but we weren’t getting anywhere. We were one of the lowest performing middle
schools in the district and our high school across the street was the lowest performing high school in the district.

When Jim Ketelsen retired and took on this educational reform as his retirement goal, we came together because we had to find something. He helped us by doing some of the legwork and the research and then bringing us programs to look at and choose among. That’s how we came up with these five components.

The first one is the scholarships and that’s really the dream builder. When the scholarship is available and you know that every child can go to college, then when you look out across your class you know
that if you do your job with every student there, they’ll be in college because there’s a way. The second one is a reading program – Success for All – a national, proven program with good results. Third is Move it Math, out of the University of Houston. Fourth is Communities in Schools (CIS). The first part of the CIS program is helping students with their emotional and social needs. The other side that CIS really focuses on is family involvement. The last program is Consistency Management & Cooperative Discipline (CMCD), and again, it’s another well-proven, nationally successful program.

Sharon Jacobson
Executive Director, Project GRAD Houston

We use practices and programs that have already been proved and established. Obviously, having the five strong components and the fact that they were proven is very important, but now it’s the behind
the scenes activity that makes it work. We can’t expect people to immediately embrace these components, and we can’t leave them to their own devices to keep working through this. They’ve got too many other things pulling at them. Project GRAD has to be there and so that’s where innovation is. A second innovation is the way we attack this as a feeder pattern. Everybody has to have the same attitude – using the same programs, seeing the child from kindergarten all the way through high school.

Jim Ketelsen
Chairman Project GRAD USA, Fmr. Chairman & CEO, Tenneco

With five or six years in the program, we have made some really great achievements in our first feeder system, which consists of seven elementary schools and a middle school, feeding into Davis High School. In math we’ve gone from 44 percent passing to 85 percent in the elementary schools. 97 percent have passed in fifth grade. This is important because the children have had the math program from pre-kindergarten all the way through fifth grade. In reading we’ve gone from 63 percent passing to 84 percent passing in the elementary schools, and 89 percent in fifth grade.

In eighth grade we’ve gone from just 15 percent passing math in 1995 to 86 percent passing currently, and from 36 percent to 76 percent in reading. Before we started, approximately 175 children per year were graduating from Davis High School. Today it’s over 300. We averaged about 20 kids a year going to college before we started the program. Now we have 130 per year. Remember that this is a group of children who are all low income, and yet we’ve achieved these levels.

Discovering Project GRAD

Steven Zwerling

In 1991, when my predecessor left, I joined the foundation as a program officer and my assignment was to think about how community colleges could serve to help more – to provide more opportunity
for people from low-income backgrounds. I developed a hypothesis that you really needed to form very broad kinds of partnerships within cities that could then develop a plan of action. Community colleges would play a central role in this. They were supposed to develop a plan of action and then carry it out. They were developing plans – they had a little special project over here, a little special project over there, rather than doing something that cuts deeper and is more systemic. Not a lot was occurring on the ground in a substantial way, at scale, of a sort that was going to really contribute to closing the achievement gap in these places.

Meanwhile, a number of us here at the foundation had been hearing about a project in Houston called Project GRAD. Project GRAD is organized in a feeder pattern, so it had some of the elements obviously that we were looking for. But it was pretty obvious no community college was in sight. It didn’t have a partnership. It did not fit our theory of change. The letter came in and we took a careful look at it and sent him a standard reject letter saying that it sounded great, and to keep us informed of his progress. He did keep us informed of his progress, and we sent notes saying, “Sounds great, keep us informed of further progress.”

Jim Ketelsen

think that it was in January of 1995 that we made another approach to the Ford Foundation. At that point in time they said they would come and look at the program.

Steven Zwerling

I went there very skeptical. We went around the schools and by midday the first day I was starting to be pretty impressed. Something unique or special seemed to be going on there. I talked to a lot of kids, and then Jim pulled out some summaries of the data of what was actually happening. The before and after picture looked pretty good.

I went home and at three o’clock in the morning I was staring at the ceiling. I began to say to myself, “I want to go back there.” I thought something was going on there that I didn’t really understand. I didn’t know if I was really capable of understanding, but I wanted to go back there and take a second look. I made a second trip on my own about a month later, and I began to understand more profoundly what was going on. I began to slowly but surely recognize the potential power of it. I took a much closer look at the evidence that they were gathering. They were producing real evidence that the program could make a difference in the lives of kids. I was really beginning to realize that this might be something that could make a significant contribution to closing the academic achievement gap. In part I was nervous – the closer to sensing its power, the more nervous I became, because I didn’t know what to do with that.

I began to become a different kind of a program officer. I began to realize that my job was not to figure out the solutions to problems but, more profoundly, to have my eyes open wide enough and my understanding sufficiently available to help identify things that contribute to the solution of problems. Then I had to try to figure out what I could do to be helpful to them.

Jim Ketelsen is a Houston guy. His plan was to bring Project GRAD to all six of those schools and the schools that connected to them. That was his horizon. One of the roles that I think I’ve played is to help lure him out of his garage in a sense, and to suggest to him that this might be even more powerful than he was imagining. I said to him, “We’ll help fund the first feeder and provide resources to help go into a second feeder. But Jim, if the evidence is convincing, we’re going to test to see whether or not Project GRAD could take hold and be successful in places other than Houston. The only way we’re going to know that is by helping it expand beyond Houston.”

He thought about it for a long time. That’s very unusual. In all of my grantmaking, I have never met anyone not to say, “Give me the money.” Even before you tell them what they have to do they’ll say, “I’ll do it.”

He was very laconic. He called up, said, “OK,” and that was it. We began to become partners. As a grant maker, you’re someone who helps provide a perspective or raises questions or rotates the prism a little bit. You might say, “If you look at it this way what do you see? I don’t see – what do you see?”

Together, we began to think about how to roll this thing out. Maybe some of the other 15 Partnership Program sites might find Project GRAD attractive and might think about adopting it for themselves. I asked them, “How about we all go to Houston together?” There was a little resistance, and frankly, I dragged them to Houston.

Here in front of you is a group of people working together with 8,000 students and eight or nine schools. Together we looked at the data, which was very impressive in regard to student achievement. Frankly, I was surprised by the lack of enthusiasm on the part of representatives.

They didn’t want to reproduce someone else’s way of doing things, even if that way of doing things was better than what they were inventing. As it turned out, just two - Newark and Los Angeles - are doing it and doing it quite well.

Cheryl Mabey
Chair (1993-1999) Los Angeles PASS

Thinking back, we all went grumbling, “What is this? Why do we have to go to Houston?” What could we possibly learn in Houston that would translate to a city like Los Angeles or Newark?

But what we saw in Houston was – as one of my colleagues said – hope. For so long we had been hammered by students not achieving. For the first time in our professional lives we saw that a city with a plan was educating all children. We sent in excess of 75 folks from Los Angeles to go down to Houston. The team from Houston was marvelous in accommodating this bizarre request because people couldn’t believe the results. But seeing it, and seeing the joy the children have when they know they’re going to be successful is very addictive in a very positive way.

While we had had some successes, nothing we’d done was of the scale that would even approach the systemic changes of Houston.

Emulating Project GRAD: Columbus

Teckie Shackelford
Chair, Project GRAD Columbus

I have been involved with the Columbus Public School System for 11 years with a program called I Know I Can, which is a last dollar grant need-based scholarship program in Columbus. We doubled
the number of students from Columbus going to college, but unfortunately after 10 years realized that we would probably not, in eventuality, be able to ever increase that number given the preparedness
of the students coming to us.

The head of the Columbus Foundation sent me an article from the Ford Foundation magazine and on the front of it was Jim Ketelsen’s picture. I immediately met him, had lunch with him, and was immediately jealous, frankly. Jim is known for reaching in his breast pocket, taking out a single sheet of statistics and presenting his case. I knew immediately that I needed to get that to Columbus. 

We had a new, very responsive, receptive superintendent of schools – Rosa Smith. I just happened to hear that she was going to Houston to look at a reading program, so I got on my car phone and almost drove off the road I was so excited about the prospect. I told her, “Rosa, you need to see Jim Ketelsen when you get there.”

Rosa A. Smith
Superintendent (1997-2001), Columbus Public Schools

I was just grateful that he took time that day to see me. I think the most impressive thing about Project GRAD to me is they implemented it in the place least likely to show success. They implemented it, stayed the course and they had the results that we now celebrate all over the country. I had recommended that we close one of our schools – the lowest performing in the district. In the middle of that, I said, “Project GRAD can do this.”

Dr. Gene Harris

Dr. Smith decided to recommend to the board that if we were indeed going to leave the school open, we were going to do something different – radically different. It was decided that Project GRAD would be installed in the Linda McKinley High School feeder pattern.

Project GRAD USA: Working Together

Steven Zwerling

I began to talk to Jim about not just the work on the ground in Houston, but developing a new organization that would be the managing partner – the technical assistant provider – for the expansion of Project GRAD to other places.

So my role as a program officer became more and more working with Jim Ketelsen and his associates on building this infrastructure, this intermediary organization. It’s called Project GRAD USA. There is Project GRAD Houston, Project GRAD Newark, and Project GRAD Los Angeles. But the national entity is called Project GRAD USA. They work very closely with people on the ground at the site in setting up of the right kind of local Project GRAD entity.

Sharon Jacobson

You are continually responding to the pulse of how this is going in the schools with the teachers. If something comes up, we create a task force with the principal and with a consultant from the group and we meet weekly until we resolve the issue. It’s the details that people want to throw up in your face as the obstacles. We do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that’s really what the other cities come and see and learn when we meet with them and consult with them.

Cheryl Mabey

We would not be where we are in any of the components without the entire Houston team. Everything from the very beginning, before we even incorporated, they sent a team down. We had no way of knowing what the budget would be. They spent three solid days crunching numbers, giving us all of their formulas and the 10 years experience they had for how to do the scholarship. From how to figure out how much endowment we would need to sustain that kind of commitment over time to what do these components actually cost, to training.

Dr. Gene Harris

One of the greatest things that has happened as a result of these Project GRAD cities coming on boardis the fact that the Ford Foundation and Houston convene a group of executive directors on a regular basis to address some of the major issues and challenges that we might face. In addition, they allow us to share our successes. It allows us as executive directors to really talk about it out loud. This gives you some third party opportunities to talk those things out, and that’s been great.

Steven Zwerling

One of my jobs as a program officer – when you begin to focus on a project of this kind – is to help mobilize resources for it. I talk to other foundations, I talk to the federal government, and I talk to anybody who is in any way interested in GRAD and might have financial resources to bring to bear. This is one of the real dilemmas. The program officer gets in the mix, attends convenings, shares ideas, floats around, keeps an eye on how things are going, and participates in the evaluation. In the process you tend to get pretty excited about it. You begin to feel that you are a participant in helping this thing succeed. You need to retain a kind of objective skepticism.

One of my roles as a program officer was to help think through a strategy for a national evaluation that would have a great deal of credibility. My view is that it’s best to see what the people doing the work on the ground are using as their own measures of success. In the Project GRAD case they were already in the first feeder in Houston looking at measures of student progress, i.e. evidence of how well the project was achieving its goals.

Part of what’s going on is that people are feeling that they can be innovative within a Project GRAD framework. This is not something that’s imposed on them, but rather they can vary the theme considerably and learn a lot from each other in all directions and simultaneously feel that they are a part of something bigger than their own city. That, in my view, begins to create the feeling of a movement.

Dr. Gene Harris

Steven thinks – and I think he’s right – he’s found something that has great potential for public
education and our kids, and I think he wants to do everything he can to make sure as many students
as possible have access to this exciting notion.

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