By creating publicly-funded, inner-city college preparatory schools, Raj Vinnakota and The SEED Foundation are changing the way the public, private, and citizen sectors invest in education and urban communities.
The New Idea
Imagine walking up the driveway to a new college preparatory school. Students, dressed in the school uniform, pour out of the main academic building, a building that houses gleaming new classrooms, a modern library, a computer center, and state-of-the-art science laboratories. The athletic field and tennis courts are in sight, and two dormitories and a Student Services Building, complete with a kitchen, dining room, gymnasium, and theatre are just steps away. Now imagine, across the street, public housing projects. The neighborhood is one of the poorest in the city. These are the students public education forgot.This is The SEED Foundation's vision for inner-city students, schools, and communities. The SEED model applies the benefits of a private college preparatory education–close attention from dedicated teachers, round-the-clock supervision and assistance, the status of belonging to a well-regarded school–to inner-city children whose futures would be severely compromised if they continue to live in an unstable home or neighborhood. Of course, public and private schools have always had special programs for bright, promising kids from tough neighborhoods. But The SEED Foundation believes that transporting students from poor neighborhoods to study in a distant, foreign environment doesn't present a solution; instead, he works with communities to build safe, nurturing schools within the inner city. This collaboration is possible because SEED schools, unlike elite prep schools, are paid for with public money. By deftly tapping existing funds, The SEED Foundation is able to finance most of the school with dollars that already fund assorted and disjointed programs for urban students. Raj, co-founder of The SEED Foundation, envisions the schools becoming focal points of change in the community–lively, economically viable institutions that have a vested interest in community development and enough clout to attract further investment. With the first school open for classes in Washington, D.C., now in its fifth year of operation, Raj and The SEED Foundation are now showing other American cities what can be done and how to pay for it.
The need to address issues of education for the inner city is clear. Nationwide, only 70 percent of students graduate from high school and less than 35 percent graduate from college; these less-than-ideal percentages drop even lower in the country's inner cities. In Washington, D.C., only 55 percent of students enrolled in public school will graduate from high school. The cost of this failure goes beyond individuals, extending to communities and to the entire nation by fueling crime and furthering economic disparity. Environments characterized by violence, substance abuse, low educational achievement, child abuse and neglect, poor nutrition, and limited access to health care surround inner- city children. The reality of inner-city life is that a certain number of children will never have a meaningful chance of receiving high-quality education unless the challenges they face at home, in their families, and in their neighborhoods are addressed simultaneously. To create a safe environment for economically and socially disadvantaged students, a limited number of residential schools exist. Those that do exist rely on a treatment approach, are located outside of the urban area that they serve, and lack sustainable funding models.
In 1997 Raj founded The SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) Foundation to prepare students academically and socially for success in college and in the professional world beyond. The first mandate of the Foundation is to set up SEED Schools–public boarding schools that serve inner-city children. Modeled on the best college preparatory programs in the country, the schools will be financially sustainable and dedicated to excellence. The second mandate is to improve public education and urban policy through evaluation, policy reform, and reallocation of public and private resources.Importantly, each SEED school will be a catalyst for the community it serves. Beyond bringing significant investments to the community, the SEED Foundation relies on local residents and parents in the planning and governance of each school. It also develops strategic community partnerships, institutes student community service programs, and offers communities the use of its facilities for community events and neighborhood meetings.
In 1998 the Foundation launched its first school, the SEED Public Charter School of Washington, D.C. The school operates a ten-month program that nurtures students–and in many cases, their families–and encourages children to strive for academic excellence. Each student lives in a "house" in one of the campus' two dormitories and is assigned a houseparent. Each day after classes, they may choose to participate such activities as drama club, debate, book club, and art and dance classes. After dinner, teachers and volunteers are on hand to assist with study hall. Each student spends two weekends a month with his or her family. In addition to the ten-month program, the SEED school conducts a six-week summer program for students who have difficulty meeting academic requirements during the regular school year. The school began with forty seventh-graders in 1998, drawn at random from the community. Each year, it adds a grade level and is currently educating two hundred thirty students in grades seven through eleven. It will grow to three hundred students next year. Demand for the school is high; currently, there are three applicants for every student slot. To select a site for the school, The SEED Foundation team spent hours with neighborhood associations, community development corporations, parents, and city officials, finally settling on the site of a former public school that had been repeatedly arsoned.
To aid its mission, the SEED school developed a Community Relations and Parent program, the goals of which are to support parents' involvement in their children's education, to reach students in the community who would be well-served by the residential program, and to build a strong relationship with the community at large. Parents are asked to volunteer six hours each month at the school and participate in student educational plans and school sponsored activities. The SEED school supports students' families with programs that teach computer skills, help parents find jobs, and teach family counseling. While the model continues to evolve, Raj notes that the "vision for the Seed Foundation is that it will become one of the leading institutions for urban areas and the mechanism for revitalizing a number of urban areas. Our philosophy is that you need to have a whole community to build a successful education system." Through public and private dollars, The SEED Foundation has created a replicable model that will allow each school to sustain itself and to support a per-pupil cost of $22,000 per year. Each school will initially secure public funds for operating costs. This includes a per-pupil allocation as well as additional public funds for the residential, facility, and special needs allocation. Private funds must be secured from individual donors, foundations, and banks for campus development. For the Washington, D.C., campus, a $14.1 million construction loan was secured from Bank of America in the bank's largest loan to a charter school to date. In addition, a District of Columbia bond issue has provided long-term financing and a capital campaign will meet the equity components of the new SEED Campus as well as provide operating expenses for the Foundation and the school. Finally, an endowment will insure the long-term sustainability of each SEED school.
Having brought in a steady stream of public funding and built a new campus near completion, the SEED Foundation is expanding its breadth of operations beyond the SEED School in order to fulfill its vision of being a national model for urban education. The Foundation will complete the construction and renovation of the SEED school's permanent site; complete a fundraising campaign for the Foundation and the Washington school; explore additional revenue-generating opportunities; and identify new sites in other cities desperately seeking a solution to inner-city education. The SEED Foundation will also begin to disseminate the results of its work as a tool to be used for the field of education. From the beginning, the Foundation established an independent evaluation to determine the effectiveness and ability of a boarding school to provide a world-class college preparatory education to urban students. The evaluation was also charged with identifying items that could be replicable in the traditional public school system as well as key elements that allowed them to establish a successful charter school. The findings of this evaluation will be used to shape the Foundation's expansion effort as well as the education field and charter school movement.
Raj has understood the value of education from a very early age. He was born in Switzerland in 1971 to a university professor and a second-grade teacher. His parents, both from India, taught him that education is "priority 1, 2, and 3." Growing up, he heard countless stories of how his grandfather made sacrifices to send his children to school. A farmer in Andhra Pradesh, India, he earned only 30 rupees a month, 80 percent of which he used for the education of his children, all of whom–four boys and two girls–went to college. Grounded in an appreciation for education and a love of learning, Raj excelled in school and, among other achievements, won second-place at an international science fair for his research in microbiology. He remained driven at Princeton University, where he studied molecular biology and public policy. After graduation he went to work for a management consulting organization. But his interest in education grew, and he began to think about how to create options for young people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Three years into his job, he took a two-month leave-of-absence to research residential educational models for urban students. He traveled the country looking at models, interviewing experts, and sleeping on friends' couches. He returned with four hundred pages of research and economic models, convinced that he was "on to something," and two months later, he and business partner Eric Adler launched the SEED Foundation.