Over the past two decades, the city of Atlanta has had four school superintendents, three mayors, two housing authority leaders and dozens of City Council, Board of Education and Housing Authority board members. During this same time frame, three Atlanta “place-based funders” on the east side of the city have remained focused on addressing education and equity through strategic investments in people and partnerships in targeted neighborhoods.

These Atlanta place-based funders are targeting their philanthropic efforts and support collaboratively around the key issues of health, education and neighborhood vitality:

Place-based funding is a philanthropic strategy that focuses on a particular community or neighborhood (Backer et all). By investing locally in the communities they serve, they embed themselves in the communities with a multi-faceted often collaborative approach to creating change.

“A place-based funder has and intimate tie to the particular place…uses a wide-angle, multifaceted lens in work that is about community resilience and vitality. They may work on one problem or issue at a time, but do so with respect for local history, and culture, a commitment to identifying and mobilizing local assets, and an interest in building local capacity to weather the next storm.”

—Janice Foster

These foundations are working collaboratively across neighborhoods because the schools that they support are located within the same (Maynard Jackson H.S.) cluster of feeder schools in Atlanta Public Schools. The funders, along with the United Way of Greater Atlanta, helped to create the concept of the “Jackson Innovation Cluster” in the 2013-14 school year with the assistance of Dr. Pedro Noguera’s team at New York University*. 

Essentially, the Jackson Innovation Cluster concept allows nine traditional schools (one high school, a middle school and seven elementary schools) along with three charter schools (one Pre-K to 12 and two K-8 models) in this cluster to work together, learn together to address inequities and provide a 21st century education for all students. In addition, the funders invest significantly in early learning centers and support bridge building between centers and the elementary schools in the cluster.

Each foundation has a core competency that has driven its approach to place-based funding and the investments have shifted over the years as the landscape has changed:

  • Casey Foundation: with its two-generation approach, the Atlanta Civic Site has invested deeply in workforce development for adults (Center for Working Families) and a high quality early learning center (Dunbar Educare Center) for children.
  • CF Foundation: using its knowledge in the construction field, this foundation began with the reinvention of public housing and replaced the East Lake Meadows housing project with the East Lake Villages mixed income housing development. The development has a YMCA with extensive aftercare activities and an Early Learning Center on site. Recognizing that housing and education are inextricably linked, the foundation decided to invest in building the first charter school in the district of Atlanta Public Schools – Charles R. Drew Charter School.
  • Zeist Foundation: with its co-founder, Dr. George Brumley, Jr. leading the Emory Medical School Department of Pediatrics, a strategic decision was made to select the Edgewood neighborhood school – Whitefoord Elementary in 1994 for the first school based health center in Georgia. Students who attend Whitefoord and their too young for school siblings, have access to on-site health and dental care where they can be treated for a host of common, acute and chronic childhood conditions. With similar community, school, business and philanthropic support, this is a model that could be successfully replicated in communities nationwide and beyond.

With support from the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the place-based funders have maintained a “learning community of practice” for more than a decade, spending quality time together in their respective neighborhoods, sharing lessons learned and asking for advice on challenging issues.

The Zeist Foundation is unique among the Atlanta place-based funders group because it also has a traditional grantmaking process that funds nonprofits across the state of Georgia that serve children, youth and families in the areas of education, arts & culture, and health & human services. Consequently, the foundation has a broad array of organizations that it can rely upon to provide additional services or programs for families who live in the target neighborhood.

To address the equity challenge in its place-based philanthropy in Atlanta the Zeist Foundation has employed various strategies:

  • Building Social Capital – spending time in the neighborhood to develop relationships with residents and workers; hiring staff from the neighborhood to work for the nonprofits; requiring that board composition for the neighborhood organization has at least half of its membership from the consumer ranks.
  • Encouraging Convening – nonprofit partners, school teachers, neighborhood leaders, parents and other stakeholders are allowed to use the foundation’s Edgewood office for meetings and retreats; hosts a monthly meeting of the nonprofit grantees that work within the Jackson cluster and special guests are invited.
  • Master Planning – as part of its affordable housing strategy, the foundation invested in a master planning process for the Edgewood neighborhood that invited all stakeholders, including school children, to participate. In accordance with the foundation’s mantra – “do no harm” – this process was initiated to generate a community commitment to equity in Edgewood.
  • Public Private Partnerships – from the school based health centers to affordable housing, the foundation has worked with public sector partners, such as Atlanta Public Schools and the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, to leverage equitable public investments.
  • Supporting Leadership Development – school leaders, nonprofit leaders and family leaders have received foundation support to further their leadership development through local and national resources.
  • Fostering Board Service & Learning – foundation staff and board members serve on nonprofit governing boards and advisory boards to advance the respective missions and learn how best to support nonprofit organizations.

This combination of strategies, along with foundation grants, has planted seeds for sustainability and success that have been quite fruitful in advancing education and addressing equity:

  • Get Georgia Reading – in alignment with its early learning portfolio, the foundation has strengthened the local version of the national Grade Level Reading Campaign by supporting a (Jackson cluster) prototype for a seamless path from early learning to elementary.
  • Edgewood Community Learning Garden Center – after accepting the special anniversary gift – installation of a community garden – from the tool company Fiskars as part of its 360th birthday celebration in 2009, the foundation has invested continuously in farm-to-school and farm-to-table activities offered by nonprofit organizations serving the Edgewood neighborhood. A new building is under construction to allow indoor garden classes and demonstrations for children, youth and families in Edgewood.
  • CREATE (Collaboration and Reflection Enhancing Atlanta Teacher Effectiveness) project – a multiyear teacher residency program with more than 40 Georgia State University seniors placed in traditional and charter schools; they receive coaching, apprenticeships through Georgia Tech, and mindfulness training through Emory University. The foundation provides matching funds.
  • Support for the School Principal Stephanie Johnson the Maynard Jackson H.S. leader was chosen as the 2016 Georgia High School Principal of the Year in her fourth year of service at the school. She made an effort to attract, foster relationships with and welcome diverse families from all socioeconomic levels (i.e. students from middle class families, gentrifying neighborhoods and charter schools) and improved academic and social outcomes for all students. From support for a College Advising Corps member to student incentives and cluster professional development days, the foundation has supported school priorities. The principal is one of three finalists for National Principal of the Year!
  • Transit Oriented Development – as part of the Edgewood Master Plan an underutilized train station parking lot is being transformed into a mixed use development with 400+ units of housing (25% affordable apartments) and a cultural space that will become home to Moving In The Spirit, a youth development dance organization and one of the foundation’s grantees.

After more than 20 years, the initial foundation investment in Edgewood – the school based health center at Whitefoord Elementary, has inspired Atlanta Public Schools to replicate this model and two new school based health centers have opened at Miles Elementary and Dobbs Elementary for the 2016-17 school year.  Equity in education begins with healthy students because it improves attendance, vision, hearing, attention and even addresses hunger. And this school based health center pilot in the Edgewood neighborhood is now being replicated in Atlanta and across the state of Georgia due to the Zeist Foundation’s long-term commitment to equity and education for all.

* Dr. Pedro Noguera is no longer at NYU; he is a distinguished professor of education in the Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences at UCLA.

Atiba Mbiwan
Atiba Mbiwan is associate director of the Zeist Foundation, a family foundation based in Atlanta that supports nonprofits serving children, youth and families in Georgia. The Zeist Foundation embraces a holistic approach in its grantmaking in the areas of education, arts & culture and health & human services. Over the past two decades, the Foundation has established a reputation in Atlanta for its “Place-Based Philanthropy” in the Edgewood neighborhood where it piloted a school based health center and helped to create the Whitefoord Community Program in the 1990s. While the Foundation continues its commitment to the Edgewood neighborhood, it has also invested in scaling a signature public-private partnership that aligns with its values of collaboration and innovation–the school based health centers initiated by the PARTNERS for Equity in Child & Adolescent Health project under the leadership of Emory pediatrician Dr. Veda Johnson.