Santa Fe Community Foundation Invests in Math Education
When the bell rings for class, you might find the middle school students at Carlsbad Academy in New Mexico on the high seas, calculating the number of cannons needed to repel a pirate attack. Or they may be scrambling to determine the number of potential Black Plague patients, the number of medicine vials they will need and the potency of the remedy. The scenarios they receive continue to expand.
The one thing these students won’t be given is a mathematical formula.
In a reversal of the traditional middle school mathematics tutorial, students in over two dozen New Mexico schools are joining their peers in 13 states in an immersive, multimedia approach to mathematics, through MidSchoolMath, an innovative start-up company based in Taos. The goal is to address the “middle school math cliff,” a drop in math proficiency from fourth to tenth grade, according to research sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
Scott Laidlaw, Ed.D., a former middle school math teacher in Taos, New Mexico, and Jennifer Lightwood, CPA, CMA launched the company in 2009 with a goal to weave storytelling directly into the teaching process through computer animation, but they didn’t have funding for the advanced, interactive digital toolset or working capital until receiving a $250,000 investment (a loan which was later converted to equity) from the Santa Fe Community Foundation in April 2016.
“The Santa Fe Community Foundation allowed us to continue investing in the product when we absolutely needed to,” Laidlaw says. “Now, our goal is to be the top curriculum provider across the US for fifth through eighth grades. No doubt, without the Foundation’s support, we would not be in this position.”
Now, thanks to that helping hand, students are free to think creatively about math, first immersed in a whole group setting and then working with a simulator individually, helping each other in the program.
“We saw a critical need with the potential for high impact and the leverage that our impact investment dollars could have through an innovation in a local social enterprise start-up,” Joohee Rand, Vice President for Community Investment & Strategy, Santa Fe Community Foundation, said.
The MidSchoolMath approach was found to be 2.3 times more effective than other curriculum providers in a randomized study supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Subsequently, MidSchoolMath won a $750,000 NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant to commercialize the innovative technology by conducting research and development work on the firm’s virtual reality software program.
“With the National Science Foundation grant, we leveraged our capital by three times,” the Community Foundation’s Rand said. Recently, the Foundation was approached by a local school whose contract with the company was threatened by budget cuts. With the support of donors, the Foundation provided a grant to the school to help continue the contract and benefit approximately 400 students.
Multiplying the Impact
The combination of the investment with the grant illustrates the Foundation’s ability to achieve a greater impact using multiple types of funding. It is a model Santa Fe Community Foundation aims to replicate as it welcomes additional investors in bringing MidSchoolMath to more schools and students within the state and all 50 states across the country. The Foundation also seeks to make other impact investments within New Mexico and work with national partners to bring additional capital into the state.
The return on the initial investment into MidSchoolMath has multiplied. The company now has a 50 percent matching grant opportunity up to $500,000 (with a $1 million investment) from the National Science Foundation for any new third-party investment.
To date, MidSchoolMath has received over $2.5 million in grants and investments from federal agencies and local organizations to fund the expansion of its comprehensive curriculum with math simulations, games, live-action video, and a 12-employee roster.
Rand sees the value of Santa Fe Community Foundation (and other small community foundations) as place-based investors with on the ground presence to support investments and partner with national foundations who have a relevant mission but lack local knowledge. Community foundations can also play an important role as an anchor institution that can catalyze and mobilize impact investing in the region.
Since the 2013 launch of its impact investment initiative, the Foundation’s board has committed up to $4.5 million to impact investing in local companies, organization and funds in a state that is known for its rich culture, history, and diversity. New Mexico’s rugged natural beauty is a double-edged blessing, as the state is somewhat isolated with limited access to capital, making the foundation work harder to engage national partners and raise awareness of opportunities. New Mexico struggles with educational achievement, poverty and lack of economic opportunities, as do many low-income states.
The Foundation takes its responsibility as a model for other smaller foundations seriously and looks to have long-term catalytic impact. Initially, the Foundation focused primarily on intermediaries and building capacity together to strengthen local ecosystem for impact investing. Santa Fe Community Foundation has also made direct investments with nearly $2 million invested for impact in 11 local projects and intermediaries.
The results of Santa Fe Community Foundation’s impact investments range from investments to provide homes to low-income and immigrant families to a 20,000-square-foot art complex that brought over 100 local artists in creative collaboration for economic development. The students participating in MidSchoolMath immersive curriculum may one day calculate the future benefits in New Mexico and across the country.