Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Nonprofit faces common dilemma: $3M grant comes with strings

CASA de Maryland Inc., a nonprofit that advocates for low-income immigrants, is partnering with the University of Maryland’s College of Education to launch a program aimed at helping Latino parents in Langley Park become more engaged in their children’s education.

The program, called Learning Together, is set to receive a $3 million grant to be distributed over three years from the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) competition, which awards money to organizations testing innovative ways of improving student achievement.

The i3 fund allocated a total of $135 million, to be doled out to 25 recipients. But there’s a catch: To receive the money, the recipients must secure a 15 percent match from private donors, and they have until Dec. 11 to raise half of that. That’s a fairly common structure, and some experts said it seems to have become more popular in recent years.

Eliza Leighton, who designed and is overseeing Learning Together, said the group is still in talks with potential donors but expects to secure enough funds by the deadline. CASA must secure $225,000 in matching dollars by next Wednesday, and within six months, the group must come up with the other half of the required 15 percent match, which totals $450,000.

One of the first donors to sign on was Adventist HealthCare, a health system based in Gaithersburg that owns several hospitals and clinics in Maryland. Adventist is contributing $100,000 annually for three years, said spokesman Tom Grant. Adventist has supported CASA de Maryland for about a decade, Grant said, but primarily for health-related projects.

“Over the years we’ve seen that health is driven by so many factors — where you live, your education, employment — so getting parents involved with their children’s education was just something we saw as a good idea,” Grant said. “Plus, we may get future employees, future nurses down the road because of working with CASA on these education programs.”

Learning Together focuses on three Langley Park elementary schools. Under the program, people from the community who speak Spanish and understand Latino culture are trained as “neighborhood-based promoters” to connect parents with resources about nutrition, medical care and other factors that affect a child’s education.

“Many parents need support in supporting their children,” Leighton said. “For immigrant parents, in particular, who haven’t experienced the U.S. educational system themselves, who often had little formal education in their home countries, and who, in many cases, have limited English proficiency, they have a desire to be active in their children’s education but are limited in their ability to do so.”

The program also includes 13-week “parents-as-teachers” workshops to teach fundamental parenting information, such as what to expect from a school, what developmental changes to expect from a child and what home activities would be beneficial, Leighton said. These classes are taught half in Spanish and half in English, offering mock scenarios for parents to practice speaking in English with a principal or teacher.

That’s where five faculty members from UM’s College of Education and officials from the Prince George’s County public school system come in. Those educators designed the curriculum for the workshops, as well as organized the program’s teacher-education workshop, a voluntary session to help teachers understand Latinos’ experiences in Langley Park.

“It’s about building bridges,” said Tehani Collazo, who manages the college’s partnerships with local public schools.

The program also includes a series of community events aimed at keeping up momentum during the summer and engaging the community in the broader goals.

CASA de Maryland is also putting up money for the Learning Together program, which builds on the organization’s Langley Park Promise Neighborhoods program, another Department of Education initiative that awarded grants using the same required-match structure.

CASA got $500,000 in federal dollars for that program, which aims to lift distressed communities out of poverty by improving access to education.

Leighton said while organizing Promise Neighborhoods, CASA officials realized the need for deeper parent engagement in their children’s education, so they designed Learning Together and applied for i3 funding.

Grant, at Adventist, said he thinks the structure of the i3 program — making the award contingent on securing the private match — is effective, and makes sense for challenges as complex as improving Latino parents’ engagement in their children’s education.

“It’s important that the burden not just fall to one organization; this creates a sense of community,” Grant said.

That’s one big reason why it’s become common for government agencies to require a dollar match before doling out funds, said Eric Brenner, director of the Maryland Governor’s Grants Office. The concept isn’t new — after all, the same basic idea underlies the Medicaid program, Brenner pointed out, which is a federal-state match — but “anecdotally, it does seem to have increased,” he said.

“You’re seeing more and more pressure to show collaboration in grant applications, and part of that is the ability to raise some funds on your own,” Brenner said. “I’m not sure it’s tied to the recession, but it’s definitely been trending this way. When you have limited funds, you have to make sure the applications are good and that you’re giving it to someone who is serious.”

Brenner said it’s unusual that the i3 program doesn’t require the match upfront — most programs do. The i3 program used to require applicants to secure the entire match within 30 days, but officials changed the rules this year “to facilitate deeper public-private partnerships.”

Maryland received 472 federal grants last year, Brenner said. Of those that required a match, most permitted using state money toward the match, he said. Others, like the i3 grant, were specifically intended to engage the private sector, so no public money could count toward the match.