A Billionaire’s Gift Expands Reach of ‘Unapologetic’ Oakland Parent’s Group

With a surprise $3 million from Mackenzie Scott, The Oakland Reach plans to train community members to become tutors and work alongside teachers

Oakland REACH parent Shawnnie Bennett reads a book with her daughter Xaviar. A surprise $3 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, will help The Oakland REACH expand its work training parents to be in-school math and literacy tutors. (Courtesy of The Oakland Reach)

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In the two years since COVID-19 sent thousands of Oakland children to learn online at home, a parent-led group known as The Oakland REACH has made a name for itself by quickly building and expanding an innovative online resource known as the Virtual Family Hub, or simply the Hub.

Now that effort has drawn the attention of one of the world’s wealthiest people, who happens to be giving her money away at a rapid clip. 

In March, just over five years after the group’s founding, MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, offered it an unrestricted gift of $3 million. The donation is its biggest gift to date and nearly doubles the group’s revenue, according to recent tax filings.

The money, said founder Lakisha Young, will allow the group to “take our work to the next level” and plan for the long-term, which includes pushing to bring more parents and community members into schools in support roles.

The plan for the group is to map out a three-year growth strategy, expanding trainings that allow community members to become literacy tutors and work alongside teachers in the Oakland Unified School District.

“Our work needs to go where most of the students are,” Young said in an interview. 

California regulations restrict who can work as tutors, but she said the group is poised to lobby to tweak those regulations. 

Scott’s gift will also give the group a measure of stability as it pushes to bring in more funders. Having reliable funding, Young said, “allows the work to move just that much faster.” 

The donation was a surprise. Young said she got a call last October letting her know that an anonymous donor wanted to find out more about the organization. Then in March came the email with Scott’s announcement. Even now, Young hasn’t met or talked with Scott, who is known for handing out cash in multi-billion-dollar flurries with little fanfare and posting notices to her Medium page, where she’s known simply as “Mom, writer, advocate.”

The $3 million donation represents a watershed moment for The Oakland REACH, which Young created in 2016, after an eye-opening experience trying to get her eldest daughter into a good public kindergarten. 

Many neighborhood schools at the time were in “school improvement” under No Child Left Behind, which meant they might well close within a few years. Young didn’t want that sort of disruption, so she placed her daughter’s name in a charter school lottery that offered just 11 slots. The lottery drew 93 applicants. 

Luckily, her daughter’s name popped up seventh, but Young said the victory “really sparked something in me” — a realization of how deeply unfair the system was to families of color. If thousands of families are forced to place their children’s futures in a hat and hope for the best, she recalled, “What do you think that kind of message is sending to them about what they have access to?”

Young created The Oakland REACH in December 2016 as a self-described network of “passionate and fearless parents” pushing to improve education in a city where more than 90 percent of students are non-white and nearly 60 percent receive free or reduced-price meals.

The group formed with 50 “unapologetic” parents across about 30 district and charter schools, “moms and grandmamas and daddies and uncles who were raised in Oakland, went to Oakland schools, were served poorly by those schools,” Young said in an interview last fall. As parents and grandparents, now they’re “basically saying, ‘This won’t be my child’s story. This won’t be my grandchild’s story.’”

She recalled how she chose her first members: “I don’t want the PTA parent. I want the parent that, when they come in, pencils move because they’re just coming in totally focused on, ‘What’s happening with my baby, what’s going on?’ They’re just solely focused on their kids.”

Since then, the group has pushed to shine a bright light on achievement in the city: Young told supporters last March that just 8.7 percent of Oakland eighth-graders scored proficient in math in fall 2021 — this in a city, according to the group’s December survey, where parents “showed a HUGE demand for math skills.” She noted that 81 percent of parents want “more high-dosage math tutoring. Parents want their kids to read and do math … well!”

‘Our families were already losing’

The group’s first big victory came in March 2019, when the city school board unanimously approved a policy change that gave families impacted by school closures and consolidations priority admission to schools they wanted their children to attend.

When COVID-19 hit exactly one year later, Young, with the help of the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), quickly built the digital Hub. 

Remembering back to the summer of 2020, Young said the group “didn’t have much to lose” by trying something new for online learning. “Our families were already losing. This was, actually, for us, an opportunity because kids were at home with their parents. It was an opportunity to do something really different and move from a ‘struggle’ model to a model of more privilege and abundance.”

A $3 million donation from MacKenzie Scott will help The Oakland REACH train parents as tutors and substitute teachers in a district that badly needs both. (Courtesy of The Oakland Reach)

In the program’s first five weeks, Young noted, assessments showed that 60 percent of K-2 students rose two or more levels on the district’s reading assessment and 30 percent rose three or more levels. 

“We did that,” she said triumphantly. “And we did that by bringing … teachers and a group of folks to the table that were doggedly focused on serving families. No politics, no adult politics, no drama. …I’m telling you: If we were doing that all the time, our kids would be able to read. Our kids would be good at math.”

Families on their own

In addition to training literacy tutors, the Scott donation will also jumpstart a planned math fellowship this fall that will help caregivers become tutors.

Family members taking control of learning is key in a district awash in news of school closures, and teacher shortages. One need the group hopes to help with: Oakland’s insatiable demand for substitute teachers. Young envisions training “community educators” who don’t simply show up to a new school each day, but who have “an investment in that community” and remain there through multiple assignments.

Nationwide, districts will also soon be figuring out what to do when federal COVID relief runs out in 2024. 

Through it all, Young said, most parents must continue trusting their children to a public education system that’s full of uncertainty. 

“Superintendents leave,” she said. “Principals leave. Teachers leave. Families don’t leave. So they have to have what they need.”

In essence, families must create the solutions the district needs. “We can scream and holler as much as we want about what the system needs to do,” Young said, but “we need to be creating the talent.”

Christina Barnes, a mother of two who works as a family liaison for the organization, recalled helping a grandfather who was taking care of a child but didn’t know how to use email or send text messages. As a result, he missed alerts about school closures and other important information. “He would call and say, ‘I didn’t know school was closed today.’” 

Christina Barnes and her two children, Naila (left) and Khasan (right). Barnes, who works as a family liaison for The Oakland REACH, has helped parents and, in a few cases, grandparents, attain technical skills needed to stay informed about children’s school progress. (Courtesy of Christina Barnes)

Barnes helped arrange a tech fellowship for the grandfather that gave him the skills he needed to stay informed and to help his grandchild keep up with school.

Guadalupe Canchola, a mother of three young children and a so-called “parent liberator,” works with many Spanish-speaking families who feel unsafe speaking up, mostly because of language barriers or fears about their immigration status. “I love to bridge these gaps between families and the school system, just so they know that no matter their situation, they have rights. Their kids have rights.”

In one recent case, a parent asked Canchola to sit in on her child’s IEP meeting for special education services. But the parent handled it well.

“Honestly, the way I saw her advocate for herself and her son was the biggest surprise and takeaway for me,” she said. In so many cases like these, parents get intimidated “or cornered into a decision that’s not ours.” The more parents know about their rights, she said, the better. “They have to listen to you. They have to meet your needs. That’s just very powerful.” 

Bree Dusseault, a principal with CRPE, said Young’s work to elevate the voices of parents is “getting very clear results” in student achievement, with literacy rates climbing “at a pretty significant pace” for the kids they serve. “She has this very, very deep belief that parents need to be in the driver’s seat — and deserve to be in the driver’s seat — and need to be a part of the larger narrative of what their children are achieving.”

A lot of Young’s success and impact, Dusseault said, is the product of years of work in Oakland — much of that “well underway before the pandemic.”

Giving away money ‘quickly and without much hoopla’

Scott, 52, is one of the richest people in the world — as of May 16, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index placed her at No. 35, just above Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman. Her net worth stands at $32.9 billion, though Scott has vowed to give away half the fortune in Amazon stock she got in a divorce settlement with Bezos. 

MacKenzie Scott (right), ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (left), has committed to giving away a portion of her nearly $33 billion fortune, often choosing community-based education groups as beneficiaries. (Jörg Carstensen/Getty Images)

Since 2020, the one-time novelist has given away at least $8 billion, with a heavy emphasis on education, public health, climate change, gender and racial equality, food security, and LGBTQ rights 

In early 2021, she married Dan Jewett, a Seattle science teacher.

The New York Times noted last year that Scott hands out money “quickly and without much hoopla,” moving the focus away from herself and onto the beneficiary organizations, which have included historically Black colleges and universities, Habitat for Humanity chapters, community-based education foundations, and many others. Many of these organizations “fly beneath the radar of major foundations,” The Times noted.

Young said the donation will help strengthen families and move people’s focus away from the “the inputs of drama and the inputs of chaos” roiling the Oakland district. “It’s a lot, but the question is: What can we still be doing in this moment to make sure our kids can read and do math? And we believe it’s what we’ve created. Our kids do not miss a beat, regardless of the political hoopla. But how many other kids did miss a beat because of it?”

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