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Humbled by huge MacKenzie Scott gift, KIPP Colorado has big plans

The generic-sounding email that landed this fall in KIPP Colorado charter school network Executive Director Tomi Amos’s inbox, presaging a $6 million gift from philanthropist MacKenize Scott, could easily have been passed off as some kind of unwanted solicitation.

It said only that the sender worked for a philanthropist who was interested in the work that KIPP Colorado was doing in the Denver community. Amos asked her development director, Jenny Fleischman, and External Affairs Officer Taamiti Bankole, to reply.

That resulted in a phone call during which members of Scott’s team relayed the gob-smacking news that Scott was an admirer of KIPP Colorado and was providing a no-strings-attached gift of $6 million. Colorado was one of four KIPP regions to receive a multi-million gift from Scott this year.

By a wide margin, it’s the largest gift KIPP Colorado has ever received.

“We felt very fortunate and humbled by the gift, and what it says about our impact,” Bankole said recently. “And obviously a gift with absolutely no conditions attached is the best kind of gift.”

KIPP Colorado runs a network of six public charter schools serving 2,600 students – an ECE-4 elementary school, a middle school serving grades 5-8, and a high school feeder pattern in both northeast and southwest Denver. The network has an annual budget of about $40 million, so $6 million is no drop in the bucket.

Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has pledged to give away most of her multi-billion-dollar fortune, and has done so in a streamlined, opaque manner. She has not built up any significant philanthropic infrastructure, relying instead on a small team to carry out her wishes, usually in out-sized gifts like the one KIPP Colorado received.

Bankole said Scott’s team said nothing about why they had received the gift, or made even the hint of a suggestion about how it might be used. But, he said, having done some research onto other of Scott’s recent gifts, the KIPP Colorado team surmised that a few factors probably led to the largesse.

First, Scott has shown a propensity for making gifts to organizations working “on the ground” in low-income communities populated predominantly by people of color, and that have leadership teams that reflect those communities. Bankole said two-third of KIPP Colorado’s executive team is Black or Latino, and at least two identify as LGBTQ.

“Our teaching staff and the rest of our leadership team is diverse as well, and we think that had an impact,” Bankole said.

Second, KIPP Colorado, like KIPP schools across the country, have evolved significantly over the years, from what used to be called “no excuses” charter schools, with strict behavior rules and high academic rigor, to schools that create what Bankole called “joyful spaces” while maintaining high academic standards.

“The work that we’re doing coming back from the pandemic and addressing learning loss and all the things that families have had to deal with over the last several years, our academic excellence, and our commitment to diversity are what we think attracted MacKenzie Scott to us,” Bankole said.

How does KIPP Colorado plan to use the windfall? Bankole said that is still under discussion. But the gift arrived at an opportune time, because the organization is in the early stages of developing a strategic plan to carry it through 2025.

“The big piece that we’re focusing on is ensuring that we’re creating an exceptional experience for every student every day,” Bankole said. “That means having in place the data systems and infrastructure necessary to ensure that we’re getting the highest quality instruction to students every day.”

KIPP Colorado is also planning to develop health centers and mental health centers at their schools. “We want to provide additional wraparound services to our students and their families,” Bankole said.

A third area the Scott gift could help strengthen is in enhancing what Bankole called alumni-to-staff pathways. There are now almost 1,200 KIPP Colorado alumni, many of them still living in the Denver area. “Sometimes they want to come back and work for us and we want to create pathways for them to do that,” Bankole said. “Either in the classroom or working in support roles at the home office. But wouldn’t it be awesome to have someone become a principal of the KIPP Colorado school they attended?”

One challenge that comes with a big gift is avoiding the trap of launching new programs that can’t be sustained once the money is spent. That’s why, Bankole said, KIPP Colorado will not rest on its laurels with the MacKenzie Scott gift in the bank. Ongoing fundraising will be essential to the network’s ongoing success.

“We’re really humbled by the support not only from MacKenzie Scott but from all the other champions that have made it possible for KIPP Colorado to exist for 20 years,” Bankole said, “We’re excited to use these funds and any other funds that come our way to bring our strategic plan to life and ensure that our schools are supportive of all of our students.”