December 3, 2006

A Silver Gift to School Worth More in Change

By David Perlmutt, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Dec. 3--It's a gift that has inspired a whole school.

Last year, a graduate of East Mecklenburg High School pledged $500,000 to recruit and keep great teachers if the school raised a like amount -- and hid his identity.

Monday, East Meck is publicly launching a campaign to make good on its end of the deal.

Yet even before the kickoff, the gift -- believed to be the largest ever to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school -- has done wonders on a proud campus struggling to keep its good image.

Teachers feel more important. Parents are involved. And the principal is determined to use the gift to place talented teachers in every classroom.

"In 36 years of teaching in five states -- in public, private and parochial schools -- it's the most exciting opportunity I've ever seen for teachers," said Marybeth Hughes, East Meck's English chair. "It's made it possible for our teachers to dream of doing things with kids that we never thought were possible."

But to raise its half, East Meck reneged on one promise. It asked its benefactor to get involved in a very public way.

So meet Bob Silver, class of '73.

He was Bobby to his classmates, and hadn't been heard from at East Meck since he graduated as the senior class's scrawny, bushy-haired president.

That changed in October 2005.

By then Silver was a top-level boss at UBS Financial Services in New York. He'd just turned 50, and wanted to set his life on a new course -- one that included helping urban youth.

That's when he picked up his phone in his Manhattan office and cold-called East Meck principal Mark Nixon.

"I told him, 'You don't know me, but I graduated from East Meck in 1973. I'm a lucky guy and I want to help,' " Silver recalls. "He said, 'OK, we could use a new overhead projector.'

"I said, 'No, no, no. I want you to think bigger than that.' "

As it turns out, way bigger.

Silver's $500,000 and the school's match will be spread out over five years, $200,000 allocated a year to attract and keep the kinds of inspiring teachers who once taught Silver.

"Bob asked us to think big, but while he wasn't looking we thought gigantic," said Frank Reed, a member of East Meck's leadership board and father of a current student and two graduates. "His gift has been the catalyst for a culture change."

'All Star Teacher Initiative'

The gift allowed the school to create the "All Star Teacher Initiative." Using Silver's first installment and early donations, the program started months ago, sending teachers for training, retreats and sabbaticals, and giving them a little extra for supplies."It immediately energized the staff," Nixon said. "We have an amazing opportunity, exclusive to us, to recruit, reward and retain the highest quality teachers we can get.

"We can't look back and say we squandered that chance."

In July, Nixon used a $17,000 grant to take 60 teachers to Boone for the school's first development retreat.

In August, each of East Meck's 150 teachers were given $300 grants to buy supplies that CMS doesn't furnish.

English teacher Hughes and three colleagues just returned from an English teachers conference in Nashville, Tenn.

"We heard from English teachers from all over and came back with new ideas," she said.

Skeptical at first, she still gets chills talking about Silver's gift.

"Imagine a guy who calls one day and says, 'My public education at East Meck was so important that I want to come back and give to other kids. Here's some money to support teachers.'

"It makes tomorrow exciting."

Timing just right

The gift couldn't have come at a better time.

While test scores rose last year, the school was added to a list of "tipping point" schools with high poverty rates.

Since 2002, when court-ordered busing ended, the number of low-income students at East Meck has jumped 11 percentage points to 42 percent. White students have left -- dropping to 33 percent, down 16 points.

Placing a high-quality teacher in each classroom is a key to improving schools, made daunting with teachers in short supply.

"On Wall Street the key element is the person closest to the client; in education it's who is closest to the student," Silver said. "Great teachers are critical."

To raise its half million, East Meck is making appeals to parents of current students and hired a fundraiser to compile a database of graduates to form an alumni association.

To date, they've raised $180,000.

Silver's helping. He's flying in Monday for the kickoff.

"This kind of money can have a far greater impact on kids and teachers at one institution with the right ingredients, than it could if I'd given it to a university with a wealthy endowment," Silver said. "That's what motivated me. We can see direct results."

Silver's story

To think Bobby Silver spent only six years in Charlotte.His family moved here from Greensboro when Bobby was in the 7th grade. His father was a company office manager. When he graduated from East Meck, Silver's parents moved back to Greensboro. He had "zero connection to Charlotte" for 33 years -- except for attending his 20th high school reunion in 1993.

Yet lessons learned there stuck. Bobby found an inclusive society at East Meck.

Teachers like Barbara Ledford and Gene Morgan taught students to respect all types of people, to communicate ideas clearly -- and to give back.

At 5 feet, 1 inch, Silver was too small to play sports, and was no good as an actor. But he roamed between jocks and thespians.

"Everyone mixed well at East -- there weren't lines drawn racially or economically or by talent," Silver said.

His teachers urged him to lead: Bobby was president of his sophomore and senior classes.

"It didn't matter if they were brainy, nerdy or goofy, Bobby connected with everyone," said friend and East Meck classmate, Moira Quinn, spokesman for Charlotte Center City Partners.

CMS desegregated his senior year.

When "NO FORCED BUSING" signs appeared on lawns, Silver and a neighborhood friend spray-painted over the "No."

"I was fairly liberal," he said. "I think my classmates would be surprised that I ended up in a conservative Wall Street position serving wealthy clients."

Giving back

The day after Silver graduated from UNC Chapel Hill in 1977, he took off for New York City. He spent six years as an accountant and the next 22 years on Wall Street -- climbing the ranks.

By 50, he was president of UBS Wealth Management USA, contemplating a new chapter.

Silver left UBS and went home to Montclair, N.J., to start The Bravitas Group. The company invests in new businesses and supports charitable work centering on urban youth and education.

He already was giving back, using the Silver Family Foundation that he, wife Rhonda and their two sons started to fund his philanthropy.

He was vice chair of the YMCA of Greater New York, which recently gave him the Dodge Award, its highest public honor. For years, he raised money for juvenile diabetes.

And he built a multimedia library for an East Harlem elementary school with a substantial poverty rate.

After principal Nixon got Silver's call in 2005, he and Reed, the East Meck parent, flew to New York to pitch their idea to help teachers.

Silver was smitten.

He didn't flinch when the two Charlotteans asked for $1 million, but agreed to go halvsies.

"I was the luckiest guy in the world; a middle-class, blue-collar guy who goes to New York and finds some success," Silver said. "When I reflected on the things that helped shape me, East Meck was always at the top." REASON TO BELIEVE Special stories for the holidays

NYC School Receives Gift of a Library

East Meck isn't the only philanthropic foray Bob Silver has taken into a public school.Six years ago, he was "principal for a day" at PS 57, an East Harlem elementary school in New York where 99 percent of the students qualify for reduced or free lunches.

"He spent the day visiting classrooms and reading to the students," said principal Israel Soto. "At the end Bob said to me, 'Israel I like what you're doing here. What are your needs?'

"I told him we need a library."

In no time, PS 57 got one -- Silver built the school a state-of-the-art multimedia center complete with a new addition, new computers and projectors, new books and shelves and a new 60-inch plasma TV.

Silver didn't just write the checks. After the library was built, there he was with sleeves rolled up -- shelving books, and cleaning and dusting.

"Selling the dream of excellence is a hard sell at a school like this," Soto said. "Bob helped by talking about a dream and making it a reality. You should have seen the faces of these children when they walked into that brand-new library. They knew something extraordinary had happened."

Want to Help?

If you want to contribute to the All Star Teacher Initiative, make tax-deductible checks to "East Mecklenburg High School Foundation" and send to East Meck High, 6800 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC 28212. Or call Joan O'Brien at 980-343-6430, ext. 312.

David Perlmutt

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

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