After WorldCom, educators struggle to save MarcoPolo

In the wake of telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc.’s July 21 bankruptcy filing, officials from the WorldCom Foundation are attempting to raise an estimated $7 million to save a popular, standards-based educational web site and teacher training intiative, called MarcoPolo, that spans all fifty states. Educators and others from coast to coast are rallying to keep the program going.

Should the fund-raising drive fall short, the foundation’s president, Caleb M. Schutz, told eSchool News he has a back-up plan whereby teachers still could access MarcoPolo’s content, but the training no longer would exist.

MarcoPolo provides teachers with free, high-quality online content in science, arts, economics, humanities, geography, and mathematics. The content is developed by well-known, respected organizations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the National Geographic Society. The site is visited by as many as 950,000 educators each month, Schutz said.

WorldCom Foundation officials also work with representatives from each state to train teachers how to integrate MarcoPolo’s content into their lesson plans. But the foundation notified participants in mid-July that its grant making has been put on hold, and trainers’ stipends and travel expenses no longer will be paid after July 31.

WorldCom’s bankruptcy has put the future of MarcoPolo in jeopardy, but organizers hope to save the initiative by securing new funding sources and launching a new foundation to run the program.

If the plan proves successful, MarcoPolo would be owned and operated by a newly created public charity called the MarcoPolo Education Foundation instead of the WorldCom Foundation, which has invested $50 million in the program since it began five years ago.

“We are going for a diverse board and a diverse funding source,” Schutz said. “We took the WorldCom logo off the site to allow for this increased funding.”

The new foundation would welcome funding from federal or state government agencies, private corporations, and individuals of wealth. To date, no funding has been committed, but “there’s quite a bit of interest,” Schutz said.

The MarcoPolo program and its 46-person staff would be moved to the new foundation by the end of 2002. “We are seeking immediate funding to make sure that transition can take place,” Schutz said.

Although the MarcoPolo web site is still up and running, the WorldCom Foundation has no money to pay $2.4 million in state grants it already had promised this year.

“We are trying to find money for the grants that we’ve committed to pay but can’t under the Chapter 11 [filing],” Schutz said.

The foundation had promised to fund 96 grants worth $25,000 each. Fifty of the grants were to pay for an administrator in each state to train teachers how to use MarcoPolo in the classroom. The foundation has trained 180,000 teachers to date but had committed to train all 3 million teachers in the United States by 2005.

The remaining 46 grants were to be used to align the MarcoPolo content with each state’s standards. So far, only 46 states had initiated this process.

“We have something in the order of $2 million that we need to fund to continue to develop the content,” Schutz said. The foundation pays MarcoPolo’s content providers, which include the American Association for the Advancement of Science, National Council on Economic Education, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, National Endowment for the Humanities, Kennedy Center, and National Geographic Society.

“What we had was extremely bad luck, because when all of this happened we were just in the beginning of handing out grants,” Schutz said. If WorldCom had declared bankruptcy just a few months later, he said, the foundation could have funded all of these grants and paid its content partners for one more year.

“Now, not only do I have to find funding for them, I have to find funding to establish the new MarcoPolo Education Foundation at the same time,” Schutz said. “That’s why MarcoPolo is at risk of becoming extinct, if we can’t do all of this.”

Schutz estimates the total cost to keep MarcoPolo running for one year—including all administrative costs—is approximately $7 million.

“Seven million dollars in some markets is considered to be very little, but right now that might be a tough haul,” said Loren Renz, vice president for research at the Foundation Center, which is a leading authority on philanthropic programs.

Renz said the quality of MarcoPolo’s content and its equitable distribution—combined with Schutz’s reputation—will make it easier to find funding in these tight economic times.

“[Schutz] has a good reputation. He’s extremely well-known in philanthropy,” Renz said. “If he’s going to put the pressure on people to raise some money, he’s definitely the one to do it.”

Schutz, who helped establish the WorldCom Foundation, also began the IBM Foundation 15 years ago.

Back-up plan

If he can’t raise the necessary funds, Schutz said he has arranged a way for teachers to continue to be able to access MarcoPolo’s existing content.

“If … the training, the development of technology, and these grants to the states [disappear], the back-up plan is that [content partners would] take back their content and keep it up and running on their individual sites,” Schutz said.

In this worst-case scenario, all that would be lost is the MarcoPolo search engine, the involvement of administrators who provide professional development to each state’s teachers, and the alignment of content to state standards, Schutz said. Educators still could access the content for free.

“We are working extremely hard to keep MarcoPolo up and running just as it is now but move it under the MarcoPolo Education Foundation,” Schutz said. “We are going through a massive fundraising effort to make this work—and even if it doesn’t, we have a back-up plan.”

Faced with uncertainty about the program’s future, some staff members have begun volunteering their time even though they are no longer getting paid. And some trainers are forgoing their stipend and paying their own travel expenses.

“All of the states are just trying to make it work in the transition without their grant funding,” Schutz said.

Chris Bastian, MarcoPolo state administrator for North Dakota, said his state has developed its own back-up plan to continue MarcoPolo, despite the program’s uncertain future.

“We have gotten confirmation that the web site isn’t going anywhere,” Bastian said. That makes the MarcoPolo program “stable enough for us to continue on,” he said.

North Dakota was lucky enough to be one of the few states that actually received its grant money before WorldCom declared bankruptcy. “We did receive our funding for next year. We were one of two states to get our funding before the WorldCom crash,” Bastian said.

The money North Dakota received will pay a portion of Bastian’s salary and will cover training-related expenses, including computer fees, meeting place fees, and advertising the training.

However, this money does not cover the trainer’s stipend or travel costs. As a solution, Bastian said he will do the majority of the training himself, and the state also will provide some supplemental funding.

Kent Steen, a MarcoPolo trainer in Nebraska, said he intends to continue training teachers without getting paid.

“I intend to volunteer to do training sessions for MarcoPolo to help out as needed. MarcoPolo is too valuable of a resource for teachers and students to let it just fade away,” Steen said. “I will do what I can to help promote the positive work done by MarcoPolo and sincerely hope that alternative funding is obtained.”

Washington state also has made arrangements to continue training its teachers even though funding has been cut.

“Although the MarcoPolo Foundation will no longer be able to conduct face-to-face, train-the-trainer sessions during the transition, I will continue to schedule these sessions led by the field trainers we already have and training materials are still available,” said Anne Allen, Washington’s state administrator for the program.


WorldCom Inc.


Foundation Center

eSchool News Staff

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