In 2005, Paul Merage created the Children First Foundation with Marshall Kaplan as its Executive Director. One of Marshall’s missions was to enable El Sol’s at-risk children to become academically competitive with students in the upscale Irvine school district.
Marshall did at least two things that differentiated this launch from most nonprofit startups. First he defined his program’s objectives in terms of outcome measures (rather than services to be delivered) and retained two independent evaluators to measure the outcomes annually. Second, unlike most nonprofit startups, Marshall did not have a preconceived notion of what services his nonprofit would provide. Instead, he was committed to bringing in whatever services were needed to get the desired outcome.
As the at-risk children’s needs emerged, Marshall expanded the services offered to include health and dental care, a food bank, in home parental coaching by Americorp volunteers, case managers to assess each child’s needs with follow-up home visits by retired teachers and pediatricians, educational and legal services for parents, etc., etc..
As Marshall added services to address emerging needs, El Sol’s Academic Performance Index (API) scores rose every year from 559 in 2003 to 843 in 2009. In 2009, 85.2% of El Sol’s students were math proficient, compared to 85.5% in the upscale Irvine school district. In 2010, El Sol was named a “California Distinguished School”, in recognition of it being in the top 4% of all the public schools in California.
What is the learning? First, there is nothing very surprising about the needs of El Sol’s at-risk children and their families. Second, all the services that Marshall brought into El Sol existed elsewhere in the county prior to Marshall’s initiative. What Marshall did was recruit the services that the children at El Sol needed, and managed them to insure that each child and family got the support they needed to have a successful outcome.
What is the message? Foundations, government agencies and philanthropists should seriously consider actively recruiting and funding entrepreneurial community leaders like Marshall Kaplan, to deliver the desired educational outcomes in an at-risk neighborhood rather than funding even more nonprofits to deliver even more specialized services for at-risk children. The Merage Foundation and Marshall Kaplan showed us a way forward. Who will take the next step?