03/28/2012 01:16 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

Caught in the Middle

Every year, foundations and corporations are pouring millions of dollars into public schools. Typically, the school districts receiving these funds sit at either the high or low extreme of the needs scale.

While these districts are both deserving and in need of these dollars, this funding model overlooks the critical and tenuous middle: Those school districts in which a small boost up could sustain and grow the district or a small push down could cause a freefall.

Dearborn Public Schools in Michigan is an in-the-middle school district. Dearborn and its school district, like most other districts and cities across the country, have had to cut deep. Yet, the district continues to produce graduates who garner millions of dollars in college scholarships and who attend Yale, Harvard, MIT and other top schools. At the same time, Michigan's Center for Education Performance and Information (CEPI) released data showing that more than 25 percent of Dearborn's Class of 2011 had limited English skills and more than 50 percent was low-income.

For donors, the message is about return on investment, preventive care and help for all districts -- at every point on the needs scale. If donors could redirect a small portion of dollars from the extremes to the middle, those dollars would have immediate, measurable and sustainable impact.

A small boost for a district that finds itself caught in the middle means protecting it from falling to the high-need end of the scale where investment will be more costly and return on investment will take more time. The goal is to give every student and community the resources to thrive -- to meet the needs of every district and sustain those already thriving.

No matter where a school district rests on the needs scale, engaging its community and stakeholders has become increasingly more important. Many school districts, like the one in Dearborn, have education foundations that operate independently of the school district and work to seek funds that can directly impact the classrooms of the school system they serve. These organizations offer a great way to establish the private/public partnership that districts need. Since its founding in 1992, the Dearborn Education Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization, has raised $1,400,000 for Dearborn Public Schools' classrooms.

For both donors and school districts, education foundations are valuable partners. For donors, education foundations have existing relationships with districts' administration, communities, parents and students. These relationships make education foundations ideal for navigating these systems while being independent from them. For districts burdened with a growing list of competing priorities, including curriculum, salaries, infrastructure, government regulations and funding gaps, education foundations are a source of support with only one priority: raising funds to provide an array of learning opportunities for students.

As private entities continue to invest in public schools and as public schools continue to seek alternative funding streams, education foundations are well-positioned to help them get the most out of their investment, time and work.

Eddie N. Fakhoury is the executive director of the Dearborn Education Foundation. Teresa Duhl is a parent volunteer with the organization.