6 years and $50M later, Omaha educational philanthropy undergoing overhaul - Omaha.com
Published Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:06 pm
6 years and $50M later, Omaha educational philanthropy undergoing overhaul

Building Bright Futures, the educational philanthropy started six years ago to help make sure every metro-area kid graduates from high school, is set to undergo a major overhaul.

The group's board of directors has spent around $50 million since 2007 but now wonders if being more focused would have improved results.

So the board will narrow its focus to three areas: addressing the shortage of early childhood education teachers; getting and analyzing data; and helping districts prepare principals for high-poverty schools. Gone from the group's mission are efforts to influence public policy.

The board, which includes Wallace Weitz, Mike Fahey and Susie Buffett, hopes a narrower mission will solidify the group's successes, said Ken Bird, Building Bright Futures' interim chief executive officer.

New mission's focus areas

Increase number of certified early childhood education teachers

Get and analyze data for Omaha-area schools

Help districts prepare principals for high-poverty schools

Old mission's focus areas

Early childhood education


Academic support and student engagement


Board members realized they couldn't do it all for the metro area's poor kids. The organization supported a range of services, including early childhood programs, mentoring organizations and anti-truancy efforts in Omaha high schools.

“Maybe they took on more than was humanly possible,” said Bird, who is leading the transition.

“If it were solvable by a half-dozen philanthropists in Omaha, it would have been solved around the world a long time ago,” he said.

Some of the group's previous work will continue. Building Healthy Futures, a spinoff organization, will continue running the school-based health centers in eight Omaha schools. Avenue Scholars, which works with disadvantaged and underperforming high school students, also will continue.

Other efforts of Building Bright Futures will disappear or be picked up or funded through other organizations, including the organization's public policy efforts. The group's staff has shrunk from 11 to five.

Among those gone from the staff: former Rep. John Cavanaugh, the group's executive director since its inception. Cavanaugh, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, was making more than $250,000 annually.

Weitz and other Omaha philanthropists came together six years ago in an effort to weaken poverty's hold on student achievement. Within five years, every poor child in Douglas and Sarpy Counties was to have access to health care, tutors and mentors, and the opportunity to go to college.

“Part of what we found out was our ideas weren't the new solution,” said Weitz, board chairman.

The board funded numerous educational efforts, including more early childhood education opportunities for poor kids and more opportunities for kids to be mentored.

The group did have tangible achievements, such as establishing health clinics at schools with a high number of low-income students.

Where the money goes

Building Bright Futures spent $8.2 million in 2011, the most recent year the IRS Form 990 is available. Among the spending:

$287,000 salary for Executive Director John Cavanaugh

$185,000 salary for Chief Operating Officer Rachel Wise

$108,000 salary for Chief Financial Officer Tom McLaughlin

$606,000 for other salaries and wages

$67,000 for office rent

$5.2 million contribution to local nonprofits with similar missions of preparing students for postsecondary education

$947,000 contribution to Building Healthy Futures

$795,000 spent on academic support and re-engagement programs for students

But it also had investments that were harder to judge.

For instance, Building Bright Futures gave about $1.8 million to early childhood programs this year, Bird said, but the benefactor decided how to use the money.

Building Bright Futures also found itself funding and running programs, such as anti-truancy positions, rather than funding them off the ground and letting others pay for them.

Bird said the organization spent about $7 million a year. Most of the money is donated by Omaha philanthropists, though the group has received some federal grants.

The group's new way forward, like its old way, will be the first of its kind in the metro area.

The Learning Community and area school districts are making strong pushes for more early childhood programs for low-income kids. But districts often struggle to find teachers for those programs, Bellevue Superintendent Frank Harwood said.

He welcomed Building Bright Futures' focus on the shortage.

Bird said the organization plans to work with Creighton University, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Metropolitan Community College and Samuel Meisels, executive director of the University of Nebraska's Buffett Early Childhood Institute, to ease the shortage.

Building Bright Futures also will try to get reliable student data to see which programs work, Weitz said.

For example, Bird said, it could analyze such questions as which reading program was most successful with Omaha third-graders from low-income families?

Getting accurate data on such topics has long been a challenge.

Superintendents also are enthused about the new principal-­preparation effort. The two- to three-year program could host a new class of up to 30 principals each year, Bird said. District leaders, including Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans, have signed off on the idea, Bird said.

Bird plans to form an advisory board and craft a strategic plan with that board in the next six months. By Jan. 1, he said, Building Bright Futures should be looking for a permanent leader.

Weitz said it's natural that some of the group's programs flopped and others succeeded. He said he's glad the group tried a broader approach.

“It's worth trying, taking some chances.”

Contact the writer: Jonathon Braden

jonathon.braden@owh.com    |   402-444-1074    |  

Jonathon writes about education, mostly the Omaha Public Schools, Nebraska's largest district.

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