A $75 million gift announced by Nancy Roob is intended to boost the number of residents with college degrees and help close the achievement gap faced by students from low-income homes.
Spartanburg is one of five cities around the country to receive such a donation from Blue Meridian, a philanthropic organization that aggregates large investments through multiple donors to support social causes.
Blue Meridian is contributing $50 million and The Duke Endowment, which supports similar efforts throughout the Carolinas, is putting up $25 million.
The donation funds the Movement 2030 plan developed by Spartanburg Academic Movement, which is meant to improve education outcomes. To get the $75 million, SAM must raise $25 million on its own and deliver the plan to Blue Meridian in April. The total investment would be $100 million.
SAM was founded in 2008 as a support organization to provide resources to students from kindergarten through high school. It tracks their success through college completion. Blue Meridian has invested $6.3 million with SAM since 2021.
SAM used part of that money to develop the Movement 2030 plan with the help of consulting firm The Bridgespan Group. Booker said it aligns priorities of existing plans by local governments and organizations, funds groups that already work with children, and fosters collaboration between the county’s school districts, colleges and employers.
The plan has three main focuses: improving early learning, improving college degree attainment, and going countywide with strategies that work in Spartanburg’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
Only half of children in the county are prepared for kindergarten when they enter. The goal is to bring that rate up to 65 percent. By 2030, SAM hopes to increase college enrollment from the 2020 rate of 63 percent to 70 percent. It also seeks to reduce the dropout rate by 25 percent and bring back to school the 48,000 Spartanburg County residents with some college and no degree.
SAM is courting private sources to help raise its $25 million and working with Washington, D.C.-based Children’s Funding Project to find where federal dollars are already coming into the county. It hopes to identify new sources of public money.
Blue Meridian chose Spartanburg because of the plan’s vision, leadership and public sector involvement, said Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone and a Blue Meridian special advisor.
For the plan to work, the county’s governments, school districts and colleges will have to think about Movement 2030’s goals when making policy decisions.
“When you all achieve this plan, this is going to be a signal to the whole United States about the possibilities of what could happen in a community,” Canada told the group. “I’ve been to a lot of meetings around the country. I’ve never seen a meeting where we’ve had this level of leadership in a room all at the same time.”
A statement from The Duke Endowment emphasized it was impressed with SAM’s work over the past decade. It said the investment aligned with its focus on early childhood and its interest in place-based investments to spur community-wide change.
The county has seen billions of dollars in new investment and thousands of new jobs over the past several years, most of it in manufacturing. Yet Spartanburg ranks in the bottom 10 percent of counties nationally in economic mobility.
OneSpartanburg CEO Allen Smith, whose organization helps drive business development in the county, said 65 percent of jobs in Spartanburg still require only a high school degree. With lagging high school graduation rates among low-income residents, many aren’t qualified even for those jobs.
As recently as the 1970s, many in Spartanburg didn’t need more than a highschool degree to make a living. Kids would go to work in the textile mills as soon as they turned 16 years old, said Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt.
While 25 percent of residents have college degrees, Booker said degree attainment in some census tracts is as low as 2 percent.
“Those census tracts are places where there’s been disinvestment in the community,” Booker said, “and they’re typically African American communities where poverty has been concentrated.”
There is also an achievement gap. Spartanburg’s average high school graduation rate dipped last year, as did the graduation rates in 30 other states. Clemson education professor Noelle Paufler said the nationwide drop could have been caused by the end of relaxed pandemic-era grading and attendance policies.
In 2022, Spartanburg’s 86 percent graduation rate beat the state average of 83 percent. But only 80 percent of impoverished students graduated, 13 percent less than those not considered impoverished.
The pandemic gap may have been due to the disparity in internet access and the loss of other in-school services like psychological support and free and reduced-price lunch, said Clemson education Ph.D. candidate Parker Andreoli, who lives in Spartanburg.
“The most immediate glaring inequality during that time was access to virtual learning and in general, how students responded to that more virtualized approach,” Andreoli said.
While the statewide graduation rate increased slightly last year, so did the dropout rate, according to state data.
Since 2013, the number of Spartanburg students who enrolled in college within a year of high school has fallen by 8 percent, with disparities based on income. In 2020, 50 percent of economically disadvantaged students in the county enrolled after high school, while 71 percent of advantaged students did, according to SAM. The data shows just 37 percent of Spartanburg’s high school graduating class of 2013 earned a college degree within six years.
Spartanburg Community College has offered free tuition since May 2021 for those unable to obtain other financial assistance. It saw a 34 percent increase in enrollment from 2019 to 2022. That includes a 45 percent increase in Black students, a 64 percent rise in Latino students, and a 62 percent gain among those aged 24 and older.
“What that tells us is that if we can remove barriers to enrollment, they’re going to go back,” Booker said.
Spartanburg Mayor Jerome Rice said he was confident the rest of the county’s municipalities would support the plan after seeing Booker’s presentation.
“If we want to have an equitable city, it’s important that we close the gap,” Rice said. “We want everybody to have the same opportunities regardless of what side of town you live on.”
Nancy Roob is the CEO of Blue Meridian Partners and the President and CEO of The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.
Nancy played a major role in developing and implementing EMCF’s grantmaking strategy of making large, long-term investments in building the organizational capacity and evidence base of nonprofits whose programs have the potential to lift the life prospects of greater numbers of America’s most disadvantaged youth.
She also pioneered a form of coordinated, collaborative investment, called growth capital aggregation, which in eight years leveraged $155 million of EMCF’s own funds to help 16 grantees secure nearly $487 million in additional private and public funding.
The launch in 2016 of Blue Meridian Partners opened a new chapter in the evolution of this investment approach. (Nancy Roob and Chairman Stan Druckenmiller discussed Blue Meridian Partners in the Nonprofit Quarterly.) In 2017, Nancy spoke to TedX about her hope that Blue Meridian’s performance-based investments of up to $200 million will revolutionize giving and create “a new normal” for philanthropy. In 2021, Forbes included Nancy in its list of 50 women over the age of 50 who are forging a more innovative and inclusive financial future.
Before becoming president in 2005, Nancy was the Foundation’s vice president and chief operating officer. Prior to that, she developed EMCF’s Program for New York Neighborhoods, which launched community-building and neighborhood-stabilization projects in the South Bronx and Central Harlem. One of the projects this program supported evolved into the Harlem Children’s Zone, whose success has inspired legislation to create “Promise Neighborhoods” throughout the nation.
Before she joined the Foundation, Nancy worked for the Boston Persistent Poverty Project, a program of the Rockefeller and Boston foundations; the Fund for the Homeless, a project of the Boston Foundation; and the Child Care Resource and Referral Center, also in Boston.
Nancy is a graduate and trustee of Hamilton College and holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.