The Cost of Changing Lives? Lessons from the Making Waves Foundation: What Does It Cost to Provide Poor Children with Good Schools and Supports for Their Lives outside Them? Not as Much as You Might Think

By Scully, John H.; Holsclaw, Glenn W. | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2011 | Go to article overview

The Cost of Changing Lives? Lessons from the Making Waves Foundation: What Does It Cost to Provide Poor Children with Good Schools and Supports for Their Lives outside Them? Not as Much as You Might Think


Scully, John H., Holsclaw, Glenn W., Phi Delta Kappan


It's getting harder and harder to believe that school reform, all by itself, will be enough to transform the lives of America's most disadvantaged children.

Consider the sober assessment offered recently by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education S. Paul Reville, in a blog for Education Week, where he said his state has "set the nation's highest standards," and been "tough on accountability" all the while investing billions in school capacity. Even so, students from the poorest communities continue to lag far behind their more affluent peers on every measure of achievement. "It is now clear," he concludes, that the prevailing school reform dogma is wrong: Schools alone can't be expected to make up for "the impediments to learning that are commonly associated with poverty." Disadvantaged children need and deserve great teachers and schools, and they also need and deserve many other sources of support.

But how much would it cost to finance those other supports in addition to better curricula, teaching materials, tests, and instruction? They include after-school tutoring, summer learning opportunities, college and career counseling, mental health services, and any other services that might help the poorest children succeed.

For those of us associated with the Making Waves Foundation, the price tag turns out to be quite modest. According to a rigorous analysis of our expenses, the cost of our services has been roughly $21,000 per child per year. Sure, that's more than most school districts currently spend, but it's hardly excessive, especially in comparison to what some of the country's big urban systems currently spend. For example, per-student spending now stands at $14,000 in Boston, more than $16,000 in Washington, D.C., and more than $18,000 in New York City. (For that matter, California now spends about $35,000 per year for each inmate in its prison system.)

What's more, the decision to make that extra investment is a no-brainer, whatever it may cost. Since 1989, our foundation has provided comprehensive social services and academic supports to more than a thousand children selected via lottery from low-income neighborhoods in and around San Francisco and Richmond, Calif. Ninety-nine percent have graduated from high school or are on track to do so. And among those who have reached adulthood since we began our work, fully three-quarters have graduated from a four-year college (many of them from top-tier institutions such as Brown, Harvard, Stanford, Tufts, and the University of California system). This year, Making Waves is helping 500 children in grades 5-9, and our goal is to reach 800 students annually in grades 5-12 by 2015.

Our costs have dropped considerably from the figure that we came to a couple of years ago. Until recently, our expenses included the cost of sending our participating students to high-quality private and parochial schools. Recently, though, in an effort to better ensure that our participants receive consistent instruction throughout the day, we opened our own public charter school, which has relieved us of the tuition burden that we used to carry. As a result, our programs are now significantly less costly than they were just a few years ago. Today, we estimate our total per-child cost to be closer to $15,000 per year--and that includes the roughly $7,000 per child that our local district and the federal government provide for the operation of our charter school.

That budget allows us to provide a rigorous, full day of classroom instruction at our charter school or a private one and supports in five other critical areas:

* Extra academic support. Making Waves intensive tutoring and academic advising in small-group settings every school day, as well as a mandatory Saturday Academy (providing more than 80 additional hours per year of academic instruction). Students in grades 5-8 attend a Summer Academy, which adds up to an additional 120 hours of instruction, and students in grades 9-12 participate in two three-week workshops. …

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