Rising to the Challenge

In an extraordinary year requiring unprecedented commitment, Annual Fund donors delivered.

After students said goodbye in their final Zoom session of the 2019/20 academic year and faculty wished farewell to the Class of 2020 in a virtual graduation ceremony, one question remained.

What’s next for Sidwell Friends?

As it turned out, it was a defining question for the 2020/21 academic year. It was a year that saw the School transform while holding true to its core Quaker values. And because it was a period in which uncertainty became the only certainty, it was also one in which Annual Fund donors—who equip the School to respond to unexpected challenges and opportunities with flexibility and agility—became key partners in reimagining the Sidwell Friends educational experience.

In the summer of 2020, faculty and staff were able to step back and consider what it would take to intentionally design and maintain a healthy, vibrant learning community during the pandemic. In many ways, it was like simultaneously preparing for three different academic years, as variable infection rates meant that faculty, staff, and families had to be ready to shift between remote, hybrid, and in-person learning models.

Faculty attended summer professional development sessions to explore how to reconfigure their entire curricula for a digital or hybrid world. They practiced how to deliver classroom content and feedback through new learning platforms designed to facilitate distance learning.

Weekly COVID testing and the use of a new daily health screening app became routine. Each student was issued a laptop so that remote learning could happen equitably. The School invested in licenses for Zoom and Canvas, enabling faculty, students, staff, and alumni to connect nearly 200,000 virtual sessions that spanned classroom meetings to Reunions. Cameras were installed in classrooms so that on-campus learning could happen whether teachers or students were remote.

Meanwhile, the campus went through extensive changes: The Facilities team retrofitted every single classroom with plexiglass dividers; erected tents for outdoor classrooms; installed hand-washing and sanitizing stations around campus; and updated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems with a needlepoint bipolar ionization system; and replaced air filters and rebalanced filtration systems. The campus would receive weekly electrostatic and chemical cleanings in addition to standard cleanings.

When faculty and staff faced the same problem as millions of parents nationwide— balancing working from home with caring for children or helping them attend virtual classes—the Auxiliary Team created a childcare and learning space for employee’s children. With their kids in supervised, safe learning sessions four days a week in small, socially distanced cohorts, faculty and staff could focus on Sidwell Friends students’ needs with minimal distractions. Additional support staff was also hired to proctor classrooms, assist with morning check-ins and outdoor play, and deliver lunches to classrooms.

All told, the School projected actual and estimated new expenses for health, safety, and facilities modifications and maintenance of up to $3 million.

For families still struggling with the financial ramifications of the economic crisis, the Board of Trustees authorized an additional allocation of financial aid funds. This gave Director of Admissions Frankie Brown resources to meet families’ needs, from grocery cards to tuition. “The rapid response of the Sidwell Friends Board and community to ensure those funds were there if needed meant that I could, with confidence and immediacy, address families’ additional financial aid needs that extended from the first days of the pandemic into the 2020/21 academic year,” Brown said.

The rapid response of the Sidwell Friends Board and community to ensure those funds were there if needed meant that I could, with confidence and immediacy, address families’ additional financial aid needs that extended from the first days of the pandemic into the 2020/21 academic year.”

Considering the magnitude of cost and effort that would be required to create safe, healthy learning environments in which students could thrive, Annual Fund donors would be integral to getting students back to campus. And it seemed that the challenge of this extraordinary year galvanized the School’s philanthropic community.

Donors responded with an unprecedented show of generosity—from the 669 members of the Second Century Society who have been Annual Fund donors for 10 or more years, to the 167 Sidwell Friends households who made their first Annual Fund gifts. Over 60 Annual Fund donors not only made gifts but volunteered to call, text, and email their peers to generate support. Others increased their giving, or like former trustee Steve Bralove ’60 (P ’89, ’92; GP ’26, ’29), made gifts in honor of meaningful individuals and events.

Bralove explained what inspired him to make a significant gift this year in honor of his 60th Reunion. “I am sure that many people recently reevaluated their personal goals and priorities,” Bralove said. “One of the two gifts I gave to Sidwell Friends this year was to help Sidwell Friends at a time when the School, like other institutions, needed unusual support— and many people in this community responded by providing additional support to organizations across the country. Sidwell Friends certainly had special needs because of COVID- 19. When I learned what was needed to balance the budget this year versus other years, I decided to make an additional gift to help meet that extraordinary budgetary need.”

Bralove’s dedication to Sidwell Friends inspired current and former trustees to join him in increasing their own philanthropic commitments to the School. Every single current trustee increased their Annual Fund gift. Recognizing that communal strength in all forms would be needed to help Sidwell Friends navigate the uncertain road ahead, the Board hoped to motivate the full community with an Annual Fund challenge. During the fall, they matched increases to prior Annual Fund gifts, up to $375,000.

The trustees’ challenge was a success: 195 donors increased their giving over the prior year, while 190 new donors made their first Annual Fund contribution. This outsized showing of generosity dovetailed with the first on-campus learning opportunities in the fall, and the joy and comfort that students and faculty derived from their in-person interactions only underscored the importance of this fundraising effort.

In the spring, former A Night for Scholars (ANFS) co-chairs borrowed the trustees’ playbook
when creating their challenge during 48 Hours for Scholars. The co-chairs pledged to match the first 150 donors who gave in support of student financial aid with over $45,000 of their own. Janie and David Song
(P ’21, ’24, ’26) hoped to motivate others to give through this challenge for the same reasons they once co-chaired ANFS. “David and I have always been committed to helping students develop their intellectual curiosity in a diverse and inclusive community like Sidwell Friends,” Janie Song said. “Scholarships only strengthen our community, giving our students a deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen of the world while striving for academic success.” All told, various challenges issued during 48 Hours for Scholars helped to generate $410,941 from over 500 donors.

Altogether, Annual Fund donors contributed $4.05 million— the highest single-year Annual Fund total in Sidwell Friends history. When a historic year demanded extraordinary generosity, the School’s philanthropic community responded resoundingly.

And in the end, the difference they made is not quantifiable in gallons of hand sanitizer (435), COVID tests administered (over 22,000), or units of PPE for faculty, staff, and students (countless!), although these and all the other campus transformations made a “new normal” possible.

Instead, Annual Fund donors can proudly measure their impact in the touching bonds formed between Lower and Upper School buddy pairs, socially distanced lunches shared by resilient students on sunny spring days, and reimagined traditions like prom and graduation that enabled students to mark important milestones.

Long after the plexiglass comes down, Sidwell Friends students will continue to cherish those experiences, which carried them through a year unlike any other.

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