Nestled within the suburbs of a city once known to light the way of the world, a primary school is leading kids down the path of philanthropy, and doing so with a hands-on approach.
Brown School, a private, nondenominational elementary and middle school in Schenectady, enrolls 300 students from grades one through eight. Its mission statement is “to inspire each student to love learning while striving for academic excellence.”
“I think the premise is that all kids have talents that can be pushed forward,” said Patti Vitale, Head of School for Brown School.
Vitale smiles as she observes the daily scamper of running feet immediately halt to a walk as students approach her open door. But she also she beams with an inner pride, describing how students wear curious badges of honor while at school. Vitale said the badges state: Ask me of my accomplishment. “And, they will tell you,” she said. “They need to recognize that they can set goals and accomplish them.”
Three years ago, Brown established the IGNITE program. The curriculum is designed to provide support and enrichment for students, specifically in the middle school ages of sixth to eighth grade, said teacher and program director Nina Rae Benway. The current assignment calls for eighth graders to start a not-for-profit with an impact on the community. Some students focused on initiatives to help the poor gain better access to medicine, others looked towards establishing shelters and food pantries for animals.
To help the students along the way, IGNITE arranges for experts to visit them and talk about their areas of business. “Our goal is to get real world mentors in here to speak,” said Benway.
In the simulated community the program creates, the lower grades are involved as well. They serve as potential investors. As Carmen Duncan, Founder and CEO of Mission Accomplished, explained to students, figuring out how to fund your mission should be your first step towards a life in social philanthropy.
“Understand how money will come in before you put your heart into it,” said Duncan, explaining the first steps include reaching out to local legislatures, corporations and other local leaders. Networking within the community helps drive funds, but it also helps to find people willing to help. “Get your support before you implement,” she said.
In the hour-long tutorial, Duncan went into business details, holding the classroom’s attention as she discussed the structure of personnel, the chain of command and everyone’s responsibility, and the benefits of establishing a 501c tax-exempt not-for-profit versus a limited liability partnership. Duncan started the morning seated in a round-table forum, listening and taking notes as each student shared the details of their not-for-profit and each of their desired goals. Once she was done, she proceeded to share her own experiences, some not learned in any business school.
Duncan obtained her undergraduate degree at Maria College, and later went on to receive a graduate degree at Sage Schools. Her determination may set her apart from her peers, but her backstory underlines her conviction.
When she was a 16-year-old Albany High school student, Duncan’s father was incarcerated and her mother did not live in the area. She became homeless. “It’s been a journey,” said the now 31-year-old Albany native. “In one time in my life I wouldn’t really talk about it. I thought people would judge me and not gravitate towards me. But, then I realized how much it helps young people and to further understand that, though you may go through obstacles, you can’t give up on yourself.”
She proceeded to “bounce” from one house to the next, couch surfing. Her clothes would be scattered across five different houses. While she was in class, her focus would be on where she’d sleep, where she’d eat next. While her peers talked about college, she too shared her wishes to go to Spelman College, a liberal arts school in Atlanta. But, she found people weren’t listening to her.
Emotional support was another vital business aspect Duncan impressed upon the aspiring entrepreneurs – something that’s important, regardless of how confident a person may be in oneself.
“I think being driven and having confidence in your work, and the individuals you surround yourself with to support you to succeed in your vision, is important,” said Duncan.
Fortunately, a friend listened to her, had her speak to her school guidance councilor, and they both followed each other through college.
“There are times you want to throw in the towel, and I think we have to have a certain level of humaneness to help people understand that it’s never going to be easy,” said Duncan. “Whatever your success is, those obstacles are going to come, but make sure you have that network of people to help you through the process.”
The obstacles this mentor was able to overcome in her life provides an instant bond with those halted by their own.
“Being young and trying to start something like this: You don’t really know what you’re doing at first,” said sixth-grader, Lia Richter. “Being able to have someone to look up to and ask is really helpful.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.