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Smaller Mass. cities seek non-profit to bolster schools

The Brockton schools boss has a question: What about us? He and his peers are tired of seeing foundation funds flow mainly to troubled schools in Boston

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Rosalind Murphy, a corps member of Teach for America, teaches history at Revere High.

In making a pitch to nonprofit groups to provide money or programs to Brockton’s schools, Superintendent Matthew Malone delivers a seemingly frugal message: Think small, not big.

Malone is not talking dollar figures, but rather the size of the school district. At a time when many nonprofits tend to prefer working with schools in Boston and other major cities nationwide, Malone and other superintendents in Massachusetts are touting their districts as incubators to develop reforms that, if successful, could be expanded to the metropolises.

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But time and again, the sales pitches fall flat.

“People do listen - I’ve had great conversations with all sorts of people,’’ said Malone. But he added, “It’s either you are not big enough or glamorous enough. . . . Some of these folks, they kind of like the bright lights, big city appeal.’’

Brockton’s predicament sheds light on the challenges small Massachusetts cities face in establishing partnerships with educational nonprofits or philanthropists. Such ties can play a critical role in overhauling ailing schools, providing for tutoring, teacher training, technology upgrades, afterschool activities, dental care services, and a host of other initiatives.

Many major nonprofits consider large cities as having the greatest need - and a big name that can impress donors. But increasingly in Massachusetts, it appears the cities outside Boston could benefit from additional help in overhauling their schools. Nearly three-quarters of the 40 schools the state has declared underperforming since 2010 are in the outlying cities.

In a historic move, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education fully seized control of the long-troubled Lawrence school system in November, and state education leaders have expressed grave concerns about the quality of schools in at least three other cities, Fall River, Holyoke, and New Bedford.

Overwhelmingly, students who are struggling to overcome low achievement in Massachusetts are largely concentrated in 24 smaller cities, from Revere to Pittsfield. Collectively, these cities educate nearly 230,000 students - more than four times the number enrolled in Boston - and two-thirds of them live in low-income households.

But the fragmentation of these students can deter funders.

The Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropic organization based in New York City that focuses on education, tends to partner with large urban systems on initiatives the foundation is pursuing and will then do research that can be shared with other districts, both big and small. “It’s not that we don’t think the small cities have struggles and they don’t need help,’’ said Jessica Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the foundation, which works with Boston schools on summer learning programs and with New York City on developing effective principals. “The lessons will be more rich in a complex district.’’

At times, it appears outside partners are practically tripping over one another to work with the Boston public schools. A list of partners printed from the school system’s website consumes nearly four pages and includes several major universities and big-name philanthropic organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In June 2010 in one of the most high-profile alliances, the Boston Foundation, the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley launched the Boston Opportunity Agenda, a $27 million investment in the Boston school system that came in addition to other financial commitments they were already making.

Yet in neighboring Revere, Superintendent Paul Dakin said he has not been able to entice a single college to work with his system of 6,000 students and 11 schools. In recent years he has attracted a few nonprofits, including Teach for America, which recruits top-notch college graduates into the teaching profession. But Dakin said he needs more support. “It’s always frustrating when you can’t bring in the resources,’’ Dakin said. “We are here with similar problems and demographics as the Boston public schools.’’

In recognition of those challenges, Governor Deval Patrick unveiled a budget proposal for next year that includes $10 million specifically for the two dozen smaller cities under a new initiative, the Gateway Cities Education Agenda.

Meanwhile, state Education Secretary Paul Reville has been trying to persuade more nonprofits to partner with the cities outside of Boston. Among them is Teach for America, which initially targeted Boston and has a presence there.

“I think spreading the wealth is an important thing to do,’’ Reville said. “Boston is blessed with a variety of foundations, universities and nonprofit groups, as well as national school improvement organizations that come there to work, and [all those partnerships] are needed there. I don’t take anything away from those partnerships that exist. I just want them to exist more broadly across the state.’’

A number of factors work in Boston’s favor in the philanthropy world. The city has earned a reputation for being one of the nation’s better-performing large urban systems and also has stable leadership, giving nonprofits confidence that their investments will probably achieve results and won’t fall victim to ever-changing educational priorities.

Many institutions and businesses based in Boston feel a civic duty to help improve the city’s school system as well as many neighborhood and faith-based organizations. By contrast, many of the state’s other cities are often plagued with turnover in leadership and political infighting among school committees and city halls. The smaller cities tend to have smaller or ailing economic bases, limiting the number of potential home-grown partners.

“Boston has had a long history of building partnerships, and we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of nonprofit support,’’ said Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, noting that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has enlisted a number of organizations. “I meet once a month with other urban superintendents, and I hear a lot about needs they have and they are similar to those in Boston.’’

Michael Durkin, president and chief executive officer for the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and the Merrimack Valley, said the governor’s focus on the Gateway Cities should spur some nonprofits and philanthropists to look outside of Boston, but they will have to adjust some of their programs or initiatives.

Already, a movement is taking root among some nonprofits to look beyond Boston. ACCESS, which provides college financial aid advice to middle and high school students, has expanded to Springfield. So has City Connects, an organization at Boston College that puts counselors in local schools to help connect students and their families to a variety of programs. And nearly two-thirds of Teach for America’s 160 corps members in Massachusetts work in cities and charter schools outside of Boston.

“Our corps members feel very welcomed and valued in those communities,’’ said Joshua Biber, executive director for Teach for America Greater Boston. “These are districts that can show the world what’s possible in a short period of time.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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