Promising Futures works with Sioux Falls schools to help elevate disadvantaged students
As Steve Hildebrand watched the overall poverty rate of public schools in Sioux Falls rise year after year, he remembered his own experience growing up in Mitchell.
Some pretty tough times, they were, economically speaking, at least.
“I was the youngest of nine kids, and my dad died when I was five. And we had nothing,” says Hildebrand, a 60-year-old former political consultant and Sioux Falls restaurant owner. “And it was really the community and the church in Mitchell that helped our family do OK and get what we needed and, if not quite equal, to give us a pretty equal chance in life.”
Hildebrand believes that children from economically disadvantaged families in Sioux Falls deserve to have a pretty equal chance at life, too. Education is essential to offering them that chance. And with the overall poverty rate in the Sioux Falls School District growing from 38 percent to more than 47 percent over a decade or so, he was alarmed enough to do more than just watch and worry.
He decided it was time for the Sioux Falls community to reach out with help just as the community of Mitchell had reached out to his family many years earlier.
Hildebrand sat down with former Sioux Falls educator and state legislator Jan Nicolay, Sioux Falls School District board member Cynthia Mickelson and Cathy Piersol, a retired Sioux Falls lawyer who served on numerous civic and philanthropic boards and helped shape growth in the city on the Sioux Falls planning commission.
Once they had the plan, they needed the money
They came up with a plan and some fund-raising goals. Then Hildebrand contacted Principal Diane Kennedy at Lowell Elementary School, one of the schools in the Sioux Falls district with a 100 percent poverty rate among the families of its students.
“I said we could raise some money and asked her to work with teachers and staff and see what things they needed that the district doesn’t provide,” Hildebrand said. “She spent about two weeks working with staff to come up with some things.”
But before she did that, Kennedy made a request that came not just out of need but out of experience.
“She said, ‘Don’t do this if you’re not going to find a way to make it sustainable. Don’t come do a bunch of good things this year if you’re not going to be here next year,’” Hildebrand said. “And it was really good advice. And as we create programs and raise money, we look for ways to make them sustainable.”
The “we” in that is first and foremost “he.” Hildebrand is CEO of the Promising Futures Fund, which raises money for schools in Sioux Falls to offer children from families struggling with poverty the help they might not otherwise get. As so many things are today, the fund was begun through a social media post.
It was 2019. Hildebrand still owned and operated Josiah’s, a downtown coffee shop and cafe. And he used the Josiah’s Facebook page to make his pitch to possible donors.
“Our Facebook page had about 15,000 people, and we wrote a long post about growing up poor, what community meant to us, talked about poverty in the Sioux Falls schools and noted that while it was about 47 percent across the district, some schools were at 100 percent, with Lowell being one of them,” Hildebrand said.
Books, field trips and winter coats top list of priorities
On Facebook, Hildebrand presented the three top priorities that came from discussions at Lowell Elementary, the first being reading, the highest priority. The idea was for a Book-a-Month Club, which would purchase a book a month for the nine months of the school year for each student included in the program.
It wasn’t a library loan. It was a book the student got to pick, read and keep. Hildebrand said research indicates that
when students can choose and own a book, they are more invested in it and more likely to read it. To keep it. To have it matter to them.
It opens doors to reading and language and knowledge that are hard to open in other ways.
The initial Facebook request, which was sort of a pilot effort, asked for 10 people to donate $350 each to buy books for selected K-2 students at Lowell and nine people to donate $650 to buy books for students in 3rd to 5th grades.
“It was a pretty inexpensive entry point for helping a bunch of kids, right?” Hildebrand said.
After reading and the books, Principal Kennedy had listed financial help for student field trips as a second priority. Field trips cost money. And families are often asked to help cover the costs. Many poor families can’t afford it. Sometimes neither can the schools.
Also, those schools with the highest poverty rates typically don’t have the most active parent-teacher organizations, which otherwise might help with field trips.
So Hildebrand added field trips and an initial goal of $8,000 overall to the Facebook post.
A third priority from Kennedy was winter coats. “She said, ‘I need a hundred winter coats for my kids.’”
And then the checks started coming in
So that was the third priority for Hildebrand, too. But the structure of the nonprofit was just beginning to take shape. They didn’t have a 501 (c) (3) designation, so people were asked to donate directly to the school for the books and for the field trips.
For the coats, Hildebrand turned to the owners of The Barrel House pub and restaurant in Sioux Falls, which had a foundation named Hungry Hearts that helped replenish funds for school-lunch debts.
“We asked them if we could raise directly into their foundation and then they would purchase the coats,” Hildebrand said.
The Barrel House owners agreed, and the first fund drive was on.
“I posted on Facebook at 6 in the morning and at 6:30 people started bringing in checks,” Hildebrand said. “And within three weeks we had those funds for Lowell.”
They also had a real beginning. Soon after Lowell, they added Hawthorne Elementary School and McGovern Middle School and the donor list was growing, occasionally in extraordinarily big ways.
“We kept hitting people up and doing meetings and raising awareness. And two months in I went to (Sioux Falls businessman) David Billion Sr. and asked for a million dollars,” Hildebrand said. “And he did it. And I knew that we had something real.”
It was “real” in the way Diane Kennedy hoped for in that initial conversation. And it was real in the way that has attracted churches and other partners. And lots of new and sustaining donors. And the schools? “They didn’t feel as lonely as they did,” Hildebrand said.
The Book-a-Month program has grown to cover 244 classrooms in kindergarten through fifth grade in 13 elementary schools, or about 5,700 students receiving 51,000 books.
Providing essentials that some take for granted
Ryan DeGraff, principal of Terry Redlin Elementary School, said opportunities for students through the work and funding of Promising Futures is “leveling the playing field and providing equal access to enriching activities and to literacy, to basic needs, some of the things that some people take for granted.”
Redlin Elementary Librarian Lindsey Rohde has “spearheaded the effort to make books available for students so they can choose books that are of interest to them,” DeGraff said. “The Book-a-Month Club is allowing students to build their own libraries.”
DeGraff also praised the work by Promising Futures to encourage reading during the summer months.
“We know there’s a learning gap for students during the summertime, especially if they don’t have access to the public library,” he said.
To address the gap, Promising Futures has begun a program to encourage reading during the summer months.
And to help with the youngest students who struggle with reading, funding from David Billion and his wife Christine allowed additional reading-intervention teachers to be hired for 1st and 2nd graders who need the help.
DeGraff agreed with Kennedy’s initial request for sustainability. It is crucial, he said, to the success of the efforts.
“It allows our grade-level teachers an opportunity to plan big enrichment experiences for students on a year-to-year basis,” he said.
Enrichment experiences have included the trips to the Washington Pavilion to see a musical production of Winnie the Pooh, trips to the Sioux Falls YMCA Leif Ericson day camp and a visit to the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium in Omaha, Neb.
“It’s about building their background knowledge, and also just having some fun as well,” Degraff said.
Helping students believe in future possibilities
The field-trip effort has grown and expanded to include a “last great experience” for fifth graders before they move on to middle school. And it includes university and technical school visits for 8th-graders, so they can get to know institutions of post-secondary learning and envision themselves going to school there some day.
Achieving that positive mindset can be especially difficult with kids living in poverty, particularly the children of immigrants who also face challenges with language and cultural differences.
“Poverty and immigration, they make it more challenging. You have families where a kid could be the first college attendee and you have parents who have never been to college and really don’t know where to start,” Hildebrand said. “You’ve got immigrants and there are a lot of forms, testing, college visits, just a lot of things to do. And expenses. And maybe the parents don’t speak English very well, so it’s tough.”
The college-visit program, underwritten by John and Jeanelle Lust, is working to make it a little easier, for low-income parents and their children.
Hildebrand said about 60 percent of high school graduates in Sioux Falls continue their educations at colleges or technical schools, compared to a statewide average of 70 percent. He wants the Sioux Falls average to increase and believes the college visits and other Promising Futures program work can help do that.
All of this is just part of what’s being done. There are scholarships for summer camps and for youth orchestra, opportunities to learn martial arts from city police or county sheriff’s officers and a partnership between Promising Futures and the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Sioux Empire for after-school and summer programs.
There is also a mentorship program to attract reading buddies and coaches, a partnership with state prison inmates to provide refurbished bikes to kids in need, a working relationship with Leadership Sioux Falls to help raise funds to revitalize Hayward Park and, well, a bunch of other stuff.
Lots of others stuff. Stuff that matters, especially to kids who otherwise try to move forward in the education process with the odds stacked against them.
Promising Futures works to even the odds.
If you’re inclined to step in and step up as a volunteer or make a donation, go to https://promisingfuturesfund.org . Or, for the old-fashioned communicators, send a letter to Promising Futures Fund, 834 Philips Ave., Sioux Falls, SD 57104.
You don’t have to kick in a million bucks. Any amount will make a difference.
And that question about sustainability that Principal Kennedy wisely asked a few years back? It’s being answered every day, with donations and action.
“We just keep addressing the needs as we see them,” Hildebrand said. “I don’t see us slowing down or stopping anywhere.
At least, not anywhere short of giving kids the chance in life they deserve.