MacKenzie Scott donates millions to nonprofits that work in schools, filling the gaps left by overworked staff


Several hours into her day at Nelsen Middle School in Renton, Gena Woodke emerged from her small office to help watch over the noisy lunchtime crowds. School counselor Tiffany Smith was waiting for him, laptop in hand. Could they call a student’s mother together?

The pupil, who is homeless and lives with his family in someone else’s house, has been absent from school a lot lately, a growing problem among children during the pandemic. And the mother doesn’t answer when Smith calls. Woodke has been luckier — in part because as an employee of the nonprofit Communities In Schools, she has resources to offer that school staff don’t: help with groceries, referrals from housing agencies, school supplies, clothing and more.

Woodke returned to his office with Smith. She’s used to changing plans all the time, doing whatever it takes, running into a student behind on class work, finding ways to make the hallways more welcoming, picking up a banana peel spread out on the ground.

School staff praise Woodke and the nonprofit she works for, Communities in schools, a network of affiliates across the state and nation that supports students and their families. “She’s an incredible asset,” said Nelsen Middle School principal Steve Rencher, citing the relationships Woodke established at the school after just five months there.

In early February, Communities In Schools received an even bigger endorsement: a $133.5 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, the billionaire philanthropist previously married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. The organization’s operations in Washington will receive $5.85 million, including $2.25 million for the state office and the rest directly to three of the 15 affiliates. The Woodke branch is one of them, serving the districts of Renton, Tukwila and Lake Washington. Another select affiliate supports districts in Benton and Franklin counties and a third works on the Key Peninsula in Pierce County.

Scott, famous for her tight mouth about her philanthropic choices, hasn’t explained why she chose those affiliates or landed on Communities In Schools for her largesse, the nonprofit’s Washington director Erin McCallum said. . “That’s the mystery and the magic of philanthropy,” she said. Donors research and come to their own conclusions.

“It’s a very generous gift,” McCallum said, adding significantly to Communities In Schools’ Washington budget, which last year was $12 million.

While many organizations support students, Communities In Schools is unique in that it has a full-time staff member at many of the schools it serves, supplementing the work of counsellors, social workers and other staff. of the district, McCallum said. “We fill in the gaps.”

These vary by neighborhood. The Renton School District, for example, has staff in elementary schools who help families of students with basic needs (positions funded in part by Communities In Schools), but not in middle and high schools, Jaime Greene said. , Executive Director of Communities In Schools of Renton-Tukwila. In these schools, says Greene, “it’s us.”

The Tukwila School District, on the other hand, has staff who work with families. There, Greene said, staff at the nonprofit work to help students with their social and emotional learning, in small groups and one-on-one meetings.

Communities In Schools says it sees a big improvement in academic performance, behavior and attendance among students in its workload, who meet at least once a month with staff. There were about 3,500 last year in Washington, the vast majority low-income and many English-language learners or homeless. Of those in kindergarten through 11, 89% moved on to the next level, and about the same percentage of students graduate from nonprofit Washington in four years, McCallum said.

Woodke sometimes describes himself to students as a “backup”. “Advisors do so many things,” she noted. Three of them at Nelsen Middle School serve more than 900 students, 56% of whom are low-income and 15% are learning English. Woodke, on the other hand, works intensively with 40 to 45 students. The only criteria, she said, is that they have a need she can work on.

She assesses who might have one as she walks the halls. Thirty-three years old, with the tall stature of the former basketball player and coach that she is, her long curly hair dyed neon pink in front, she’s the kind of adult child to gravitate toward. She looks for informal ways to talk and understand what is going on with them.

Students frequently come to his office for snacks, Flamin Hot Cheetos being a runaway favorite. “It allows for an easy foot in the door,” Woodke said. She wants students to know, “If you need anything, I’m another body that’s not tied to the school system.

This is the key. She’s not a disciplinary figure, which doesn’t mean she’s exactly a sweetheart. “What’s the rule about snacks?” she asked two boys who came for snacks during school hours. They are available at lunch or after school, she said, as she has done several times before.

Woodke recently struck up conversations with a girl and learned that she hadn’t turned in a lot of homework. She wants to add the student to her workload, if the girl and her mother agree, and has taken her out of a class this afternoon to discuss it.

Woodke called up the girl’s file on his computer. “You have 30 homework missing,” she said. “What’s with you and math?”

“It’s so hard,” the girl said. The teacher go fast and she gets confused, girl says.

“We have to come up with a plan,” Woodke said. The student readily agreed, only surprised when Woodke said they would meet to check in once a month. “Once a month“, said the girl. She wants once a week. It was good for Woodke.

At another point in the afternoon, Woodke visited a leadership class. Her mission was to involve children in creating posters that will brighten hallways and lead to more community spirit, though she slipped in motivational messages along the way. (There are two things you are able to control, she told them, your attitude and your effort.)

The students were not very happy with the poster idea. “I feel like it’s really no use,” said one.

Woodke persisted. “We’re going to do posters, even if collectively we don’t feel like it would make a huge difference.” Gradually, student ideas began to flow, especially when she suggested incorporating a Hot Cheetos theme, as in “I’m as good as Hot Cheetos”.

Could they use real hot Cheetos bags after eating the contents? What if we had an obstacle course in the corridors? Something with the music?

“So good,” Woodke said after leaving class, excited to get the kids talking. “You saw it was a slow roll… Then you pitch an idea like hot Cheetos and they lose their minds.”

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