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How Is a Hedge Fund Like a School?

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Greenblatt and Slavin agreed to create an amped-up version of Success for All at one school, with Greenblatt’s extra money going toward tutoring every struggling student. All that was left was to find the school.

The Success for All Foundation only allows its program to be used in a school where at least 80 percent of the teaching staff agrees to go along with it, so they had to find a school with a staff that was willing to dive into the deep end with Slavin’s program. After Greenblatt hit a few dead ends—a Long Island school system simply wasn’t interested, and a principal at a Brooklyn school seemed too harried to discuss the offer—Slavin thought of P.S. 65Q. Nelson and her staff had already bought into Success for All and had begun using it in the years before the city introduced the mandatory reading curriculum. Slavin knew Nelson could use more help and thought she might want someone to pay for the math program.

“I’m an investor,” Greenblatt says. “I spend my time trying to figure out whether a business model works or not. I wanted to find a school model that worked and roll it out."

Greenblatt’s grant was given through the Success For All Foundation, and not directly to the city, leaving the school room to maneuver around education-department rules. “We provided the grant to Success for All, and they provided all services, including tutors, for free,” Greenblatt says. “You can’t argue with free.”

It was time for Nelson to start spending. Starting with the 2002–2003 school year, P.S. 65Q began receiving $500,000 extra for its budget for five years—or roughly $1,000 for each of the 540 students. Nelson could do anything, Greenblatt said, “if it was reasonable and fit within our budget.”

Nearly half the $500,000 annual budget would be needed to pay for Greenblatt’s plan to supplement Success for All with a dozen part-time tutors, enough to keep as many students as possible from falling behind (working 24 weeks at $22 an hour, each tutor cost Nelson $17,600, or a total of $211,200). That left Nelson with less than $300,000, and she still had to purchase the materials for the new Success for All math program and supplements for the reading program. Those cost about $100,000, bringing the Greenblatt kitty down to less than $200,000.

Next, Nelson hired two new full-time staffers: a facilitator to get the math program going and a tutor coordinator to track every student’s progress, at $50,000 a year each. The $100,000 in salaries, plus the associated benefits, left Nelson with a bit more than $50,000. With that money, she sent fifteen teachers and other staff to Success for All training conferences around the country (at $1,500 per teacher, or $22,500 total) and replenished the school’s empty library ($10,000). She used some of the remaining $25,000 or so on extra Success for All materials, like phonics DVDs and the equipment to play them. The additional manpower Greenblatt’s grant bought also made it possible for Nelson to repurpose staff members paid for by the city to become floating tutors in test-taking skills, helping make the children comfortable with the pacing and format of standardized tests. This cost her nothing.

Nelson and her staff began expanding Success for All immediately. (The school received a waiver from the standard city curriculum; waivers aren’t easy to come by, but Greenblatt’s $2.5 million was hard to overlook.) On a recent stroll through the halls, the teachers in three different reading classes were all using the exact same jargon with their kids. “Sound it out!” “Be a finger detective!” “Ask your partner!” “You got it right? Yeah! Kiss your brain!” Not every education expert believes in such rigid regimentation, and not every teacher would want to teach this way, but the P.S. 65Q teachers say Success for All provides important continuity from grade to grade. “Most of our upper-grade teachers use literature, they use novels, and there’s a lot of creativity involved,” says Beth Longo, Nelson’s former assistant principal, who succeeded her in the job last year. “Yes, SFA is more scripted in the roots, but if we want kids to be good readers, they need to know what the letters sound like, and that has to be taught the same way to everybody, because next year they’re going to be in a different class.”

The new tutoring program was more problematic. For the first year of Greenblatt’s grant, the school continued with a previously existing arrangement to have NYU graduate education students come and tutor during their available hours. But the NYU students never seemed to be available at times that were convenient for the kids. In the pre-Greenblatt world, Nelson would have had to tough it out and take what she could get from NYU—she couldn’t afford to fill the tutoring positions with salaried city employees, and bringing in freelance tutors during the school day might violate the teachers’ contract. But at the end of the year, Greenblatt persuaded Nelson to cut NYU loose and instead put ads in the paper for tutors. “You can’t fire teachers, but this is my money, and you can fire the tutors,” Greenblatt told her. “Let’s find some local people who we can train.”


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