Wishbone was born in Elizabeth Schmidt’s 10th-grade classroom at Locke High School in South Central, Los Angeles. Beth was a new teacher with Teach for America attempting to find a way for her students to complete a research paper. “I couldn’t get more than 5 percent of the class to turn the paper in,” says Beth, “and I knew it was because the topic lacked relevance to the students’ lives.” Beth changed the research topic and told her students to research any afterschool or summer program within the greater Los Angeles community, and to write a compelling argument as to why they should attend. Then, she went a step further: She told her students that the top seven essays would win attendance to the program. This time, over 75 percent of her students turned the essay in—and on time. Meanwhile, Beth ran a marathon to raise the money to send seven students on programs. All seven students graduated from high school, matriculated to college, and claimed that the experience made them realize why succeeding in high school was relevant to their lives. Here, Beth shares more and shows how it’s not that hard to make students’ wishes come true—if you have the right partnerships.
Victor: What’s the name mean?
Beth: The name Wishbone comes from the act of breaking a wishbone to make a wish come true. The name is meaningful because it takes two people to pull on each side of a wishbone to make it break, and therefore, to make the wish come true. This is really symbolic of what Wishbone does in pairing the student with a donor community to make a wish come true.
Victor: What is it, exactly?
Beth: Wishbone connects at-risk high school students to donors online to fund after school and summer programs. I am the founder and am a former Teach for America Corps Member, who taught 10th Grade English at Lock High School in South Central Los Angeles. I graduated from Middlebury College and hold a Masters in Secondary Education from Loyola Marymount University. The main principle behind Wishbone is in teaching students to help themselves, empowering them through the discovery of authentic and independent passions.
Victor: What does it do and what are some of the benefits?
Beth: Wishbone works like this: A student finds and applies for a qualified after school or summer program. Wishbone then vets the student application, selects and publishes the most compelling wishes. Donors then log on to www.wishbone.org to view and support published wishes. The donor can search for student wishes by location or by a common interest. Finally, once the program wish is fully funded by the Wishbone donor community, the student attends the program and keeps donors updated on his or her experience.
Wishbone is invested in two main goals, which we plan on measuring: 1. Students are exposed to a new, diverse community and think about their future goals and how to best pursue them 2. Students graduate high school and matriculate to college or a professional experience.
Beth: DonorsChoose.org is an organization that has the most similar platform to ours, as it is a donor-centric online fundraising platform for teachers to raise money for classroom supplies. Wishbone is different because we fund program experiences for students only. Our donor feedback also includes specificity and communicates long-term impact results from students.
Summer Search is an organization that has a similar mission. Similar to Wishbone, Summer Search provides the at risk high school population with meaningful summer opportunities and measures student success based on high school retention and college or professional matriculation. We differ from Summer Search in that we provide a guided introspection model and search engine for students to discover their passions. Summer Search is also not an online platform for aggregate donor funding.
The great thing about both DonorsChoose.org and Summer Search is that they are organizations we respect greatly and have researched in terms of best practices.
Beth: Wishbone’s test model was completed during my first year of teaching, and Wishbone was officially incorporated in August 2010. Our online platform is currently being developed, and we have raised seed money to launch the site by fall 2011. We will send 150 students on after school or summer programs in our first year of launch. Our students will come from schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Beth: I knew that students needed to be exposed to after school and summer programs that build confidence, a skill set, and the realization that succeeding in high school is relevant to pursuing their passions. However, I didn’t realize that the donor community would be so compelled by the up-close philanthropy model I piloted. While fundraising to send my first seven students on programs, the donors I contacted followed through with me for updates on each individual student. The donors wanted to know how to fund the same student again and track his or her progress. Donors were eager to give when they could put a face and name to their aid.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Beth: Donors are able to fund a student wish either partially or fully. The minimum donation is $25 and donors are able to fund any student in any interest area or region. All donors are able to watch a student’s one minute video pitch, explaining why the student has a passion to attend the selected program. Once the donor has funded the student, the student will follow through by posting a thank you note, a program update, and a future update on his/her success.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Beth: Kiara was a student at Locke took her first biology class in 10th grade where she was captivated by human health. To help her pursue this passion, Wishbone sent Kiara to a Stem Cell Science summer program at UCLA. She met a professor from UCLA on her program experience who wrote her recommendation and mentored her throughout the program. Kiara is now finishing her Freshman year at UCLA.
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?
Beth: We have two main target students: the student who has demonstrated great potential, yet is at risk of dropping out of high school and needs an out of school experience to ignite passion. Our second target student shows a distinct interest that is not being filled by his or her school or local community.
Beth: Joel Klein just wrote a brilliant article entitled The Failure of American Schools. His opinion in that article pretty much sums it up for me. America is at its greatest risk for national economic failure if we don’t start with reform in education. An American car goes through a factory line, where it must pass extensive tests. If the car fails a test, it is cut from the line. Yet, the American student fails “inspections” over and over again and gets passed along with ease to the next stage. It is baffling to me. We are failing kids in mass volume every single day.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Wishbone.org?
Beth: I had a very privileged education and attended the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., for high school and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., for college. My high school experience, more than anything, was the most reformative time in my life. I learned what it meant to work hard and backwards plan to reach a goal. I came out of Hotchkiss prepared for any academic challenge, and more importantly, very eager to apply my skill set to meet real world needs. Hotchkiss gave me a great gift of understanding how systems work and succeeding within a system. I think that lesson was the only reason I made progress with students in such a difficult system as the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Victor: How does Wishbone.org address some of your concerns about education?
Beth: Wishbone is incredibly powerful to me because it represents the next generation of mobility—the self service model for a student. When students can’t rely on underperforming schools and teachers to pull them out of their circumstances, they can pull themselves out of their own circumstances by logging on to Wishbone and posting a program to be funded by a donor community. The student can self-start: identify a passion, research a program to pursue it, and post the wish online.
Beth: Education has to start with better teaching. Better teachers, better politics that aren’t self-serving, and better opportunities for kids who don’t want to put up with a dysfunctional system anymore. Without these, we will have real trouble in educating America.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Wishbone.org?
Beth: Wishbone is a trajectory changer for a student. It is an opportunity for students to pursue a passion outside of their immediate communities and see past the gates of their high schools. It is also a way to bridge the gap within a community by encouraging donors to discover students with needs who exist only miles away.
Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com