Telecommunications giant WorldCom Inc. has committed $6 million to save MarcoPoloits popular, standards-based educational web site and teacher training initiativedespite filing for bankruptcy protection, laying off thousands of employees, and facing possible charges for fraudulent accounting.
Fearing the worst, MarcoPolo organizers have scrambled since July to find an estimated $7 million needed to save the program.
Earlier this year, “I thought we only had weeks and months left,” said Caleb M. Schutz, vice president at WorldCom Inc. “Then, we were saying we need the money or we’re going under. Now, there is no threat that we are going out of business.”
Schutz called it a “miracle” that WorldCom’s creditors, board of directors, and executives would approve funding for a program that isn’t mission-critical.
“In the midst of bankruptcy, I think it is historic that the banks would look at a function like MarcoPolo and decide that it’s to remain a function of the main business,” he said.
MarcoPolo provides teachers nationwide 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. Its web site receives 450,000 unique visitors each month, Schutz said.
Despite the program’s financial uncertainty and the company’s Chapter 11 filing, determined educators have trained an additional 23,000 teachers since July, Schutz said, mostly by volunteering. To date, 160,000 teachers have received training through the MarcoPolo program. Officials hope to train 2.4 million educators by 2005.
Officials had planned to save MarcoPolo by launching a new foundation to run the program and securing new funding sources. Although the new MarcoPolo Education Foundation was, indeed, created, the search for financers has been largely unsuccessful. No one wanted to support a program that might go under, Schutz said.
“We were looking for a one-time big giver to save us, but that is hard to get,” he said. Before WorldCom’s $6 million pledge, only Washington Mutual had committed $100,000.
Schutz believes MarcoPolo will attract funding more easily now that its future is more secure.
In the meantime, WorldCom is providing the core funding to keep MarcoPolo afloat, and the program and its employees will operate under the auspices of WorldCom.
Schutz still intends to run MarcoPolo under the MarcoPolo Education Foundation as its own entity, but first he needs more funding and to establish a board of directors. The WorldCom Foundation is now defunct.
“Now with the MarcoPolo Education Foundation established, independent from WorldCom, we aim to exceed the company’s commitment with funding from business, government, and other foundations focused on education,” he said.
Educators across the country said they were pleased to hear that MarcoPolo has secured funding.
“Knowing that there is substantive funding to revive the momentum of this effective education resource is excellent news,” said Ted Stilwill, director of education for the Iowa Department of Education.
“MarcoPolo is such a valuable tool for teachers that I hated the thought of losing it; you can be sure I’ll be encouraging teachers to use it as much as possible,” said Carol Sherer, a media specialist for Jetmore High School in Jetmore, Kansas.
“I am thrilled that MarcoPolo has been saved,” said Catherine L. Metzger, technology specialist at Whitaker Elementary School in Cincinnati.