The Foundation concluded operations on December 31, 2020. Learn more.

Investing in the Promise of All Youth

Stephen D. Bechtel’s belief in young people took many expressions across the Foundation’s history. Some of the very first grants, in 1957, supported education. Over the decades, funds were directed to worthwhile purposes such as environmental education, civics, school-based health programs, science museums, and engineering scholarships for university students.

Setting strategic focus for the spend down led to elevating STEM education and character development as Foundation priorities. The choice to pursue major initiatives with the potential for large-scale change brought the difficult process of issuing final grants and wrapping up relationships with many long-term grantees. It also required restructuring and retooling a staff team that was built to manage grants to organizations providing direct services. The spend down called for staff to design and implement dynamic, multi-year investments to improve systems.

The Education Program team did tremendous work, moving thoughtfully to develop then guide initiatives – supporting grantees as they learned and encountered obstacles, and staying alert for opportunities to reinforce or extend success.

STEM education

Our flagship STEM initiatives – Math in Common®, NGSS Early Implementers, and California New Generation of Educators – were painstakingly planned across several years. Each generated relevant, replicable practices that now benefit schools, school districts, and university teacher preparation programs well beyond their respective cadres of grantees. Each also surfaced evidence and insights regarding what it takes to transform education systems and advance equity, informing California policy. We are especially encouraged by the state’s actions to invest in the future of California through teacher workforce development, including significant new funding for the residency model that adds depth to the preparation of aspiring teachers.

Productive partnerships with leaders at the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the California Teachers Association were vital to the Foundation approach. Mr. Bechtel emphasized the importance of working closely with the state’s teachers; his encouragement and guidance were at the heart of what became a trusted, instrumental relationship that underpinned Foundation investments in California educational innovation. This work nested in a fundamental conviction: Our board and staff were committed to working with public institutions, in particular public school districts and the California State University, to achieve large-scale change. At the time we launched our major investments, many funders viewed shortcomings in these systems as intractable, and opted to support alternative structures and programs. The Foundation saw these systems as essential to creating impact for all youth, especially for students from marginalized population groups. We believed that change must and could happen in these major public systems.

Public education is rife with champions for equity and excellence in learning, and the Foundation’s support across multiple years enabled these actors to study, demonstrate, enhance, and scale better practice, with a focus on professional learning for teachers.

We invite you to read more about the Foundation’s STEM education grantmaking:

Character development 

By contrast to the relatively lengthy formation of STEM initiatives, the National Character Initiative was not on the Foundation’s drawing board at the outset of the spend down. Our team rose to the challenge, conducting an exhilarating research and planning process, and illustrating that sound strategic design can be done well in a compressed timeframe. This Initiative’s implementation also showed that working carefully and cooperatively with grantees mitigates the likelihood of missteps.

Character grantees did a remarkable job embedding research on social-emotional learning as well as the science of learning and development into programs that help adult volunteers and staff do more for the self-esteem, confidence, and integrity of young people. Their embrace of data and evaluation to improve practices, hunger for shared learning and collaboration, and actions to infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of their organizations have the potential to strengthen their decision-making, resilience, and social value well into the future.

You can learn more about the Foundation’s character grantmaking:

The Foundation’s approach to evaluation in the Education Program is described in this essay.  

Outlook and opportunities

In the Foundation’s final era, the Education Program focused on helping young people develop the knowledge, skills, and character to explore and understand the world around them, growing into caring, informed, and productive adults.

We leave behind youth-serving organizations whose approaches are well aligned with a growing body of research as well as national interest in whole-child development and learning – and whose leaders are working in a range of new collaborations and with added vigor to help enhance networks, visibility, and knowledge sharing in their fields.

We leave behind state leaders who have declared STEM education a priority for California, along with math, science, and teacher preparation fields that have greater capacity to learn, improve practice, tap into the power of modern professional development for teachers, and champion policy solutions that scale equitable outcomes for all students.

We leave in a year of tumult, hardship, and uncertainty – for young people and their families, and for the education and character-building fields that serve them. Despite the immense challenges caused by the pandemic, and the disruption to programming in and out of school, we are optimistic that the improved practices and knowledge, as well as networks, developed through Foundation initiatives will support recovery and spell future opportunity. Foundation partners can lead with enhanced practices, including approaches that have been demonstrated to reduce patterns of racial injustice. This includes opportunities for districts and nonprofit youth-serving organizations to join together to address whole-child needs by connecting in-school with out-of-school programs. 

Finally, we leave behind cherished relationships with public and nonprofit grantees, colleague funders, state agency and association leaders, and many others who bring great passion and talent to the crucial work of investing in young people and their future. We have benefited immensely from your trust in this Foundation, and hope that our concluded work contributes to your continued success.

Susan Harvey
Director, Education Program