Five years after the philanthropic arm of Fairfield-based General Electric approved a grant worth more than $25 million for Stamford's public schools, there has been steady progress in narrowing the city's achievement gap between white and black and Hispanic students, but it has raised questions over the influence of private funds in public education.
The grant will expire at the end of the 2012-13 school year, leaving district officials with difficult decisions about how to continue funding to enhance teaching methods, provide literacy coaches, sharpen education materials in science, math and language arts and improve ability to measure students' progress.
Stamford is one of seven urban areas throughout the U.S. that has received grants through GE's Developing Futures in Education program. Like Stamford, each of the other six districts -- Jefferson County, Ky.; Cincinnati; Erie, Pa.; Atlanta; New York City; and Milwaukee -- are home to GE company facilities.
The multi-national conglomerate's initiative is intended to create better students and in the longer term, better potential employees for GE.
"For us, what we've realized is that there's a real need with the workforce to have students prepared for both college and career, so when they apply for a job at GE, they're actually prepared for those jobs," Kelli Wells, GE Foundation Director of U.S. Education, said this month while sitting in a classroom at Stillmeadow Elementary School.
"We have engineering positions constantly that are open, and yes, we get applicants, but many only meet the basic skills required," she said.
"For America to really remain great and remain competitive, we need to make sure that we have an educated workforce, and you get to that by starting to build that pipeline, by making sure kids in kindergarten through 12th grade are getting the highest quality education possible."
Stamford students aren't simply going to be competing with New York City when they leave their secondary schools, but an entire global marketplace, she said. It's in GE's best interest to make sure that an educated workforce exists. So when Stamford schools applied for a $15.3 million grant to completely reinvent the district's math and science curriculum in late July 2006, citing the goal "to ensure the college readiness of all students upon graduation from high school," the GE Foundation said yes.
With 20 schools and less than 16,000 students, Stamford is relatively tiny compared to some of the other Developing Futures districts, like Jefferson County's 155-school, 98,500-student system, or New York City's 1,700-school, 1.1 million-student system. In fact, Stamford has the second smallest student population of the seven GE Foundation districts -- Erie's system is at the very bottom of the pyramid with 12,500 pupils.
The city also has the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students when compared to the other six communities receiving funds. With 43 percent of the district's population receiving free or reduced-price lunch, Stamford has roughly half the saturation of poverty as Milwaukee, where 83 percent of the city's students receive lunch subsidies; three of four students in both Atlanta and Erie receive the subsidy as well. But Stamford's schools presented very real problems in 2005 -- problems that are still being ironed out after six years of focused and funded interventions from the GE Foundation.
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