Baltimore Community Foundation announces historic education endowment

$8 million gift from real estate pioneer will fund education grants in Baltimore city and county school districts

October 07, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

School reforms in Baltimore City and Baltimore County stand to gain significant financial support under a historic $8 million endowment given the Baltimore Community Foundation that will double its resources to support education projects.

The organization plans to announce Friday the establishment of the Mary Ellen Ruff Brush Fund for Education, created by the donation from the female real estate pioneer whose company developed and operated the 465-unit Broadview Apartments at University Parkway and 39th Street near the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus, as well as apartment homes in Towson and Broadview.

Brush, one of the first female CEOs of a real estate management company in the area, died in April 2010 at age 87, leaving the Baltimore Community Foundation an $8 million gift for education — a permanent fund that will be invested and create a stream of money every year.

It's the largest legacy gift that the foundation, which manages more than 600 philanthropic funds, has ever received.

"People have long felt that education is the key to our future, but it's only been the last five years that our donors have really invested in education — and they've been doing a lot," said Tom Wilcox, president and the CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation. "But to have this permanent endowment is only affirmation for them that they're doing the right thing."

In the last decade, the foundation has spent more about $4.4 million on education. In Baltimore, the organization has supported programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, which have funneled hundreds of teachers and principals into city schools.

Through its civic grants, the foundation has also supported charter schools and a middle-school program aimed at preparing students for rigorous high schools. It also holds annual fundraisers, such as for school uniforms, to help communities in need.

"The community foundation has been a strategic partner," said Michael Sarbanes, spokesman for the city school system. "They understand the work in detail, they have an ability to make a connection between different kinds of work, and help us think creatively about how to move our schools forward."

The endowment would generate $400,000 a year for education-related grants, doubling the $399,000 annual allocation that the foundation grants every year in education and youth projects, said Danista Hunte, the foundation's vice president for community investment.

"This endowment really opens up a wide window in terms of what we can do," Hunte said.

The foundation is finalizing its strategic plan for the coming year, which will determine its funding priorities. But Hunte said the organization will focus its efforts on early childhood education "so that kids end up at the kindergarten doors ready to engage and ready to learn," and professional development for teachers.

The foundation is looking to have a stronger presence in Baltimore County, said Hunte, who added that it will look for projects that better integrate neighborhoods and education. She said the county is an "area where we've got to do some fieldwork, learning on our part" to pinpoint the areas that are ripe for support.

Wilcox said that Brush, described as a dogged businesswoman and a colorful character, consulted with the foundation over the years about the state of education in the region, watching with skepticism the reform efforts in Baltimore.

"She was sometimes very skeptical about government, always on the bottom line, tough by any measures, because she had heard a lot of theory over the years," Wilcox recalled of Brush.

In the last few years, as the city moved toward a system of choice, autonomy and accountability — trademarks of schools CEO Andrés Alonso's administration — she saw a possible investment.

"To be able to see this all in action made her really pleased," Wilcox added. "Anything that had to do with choice and opportunity she liked, because she thought that giving people the tools to help themselves, instead of handouts, made all the difference."

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