Barbara Dalio takes holistic approach to educational philanthropy
Linda Conner Lambeck
Jan. 18, 2019
Updated: Jan. 20, 2019 4:37 p.m.
John Lamparski / WireImage
In a classroom filled with flashier dignitaries, it was easy to overlook Barbara Dalio.
The Greenwich resident, in a casual white blouse, dark slacks and sweater, was quiet, preferring private conversations to the microphone.
She likes to listen, find out what the needs are, and then help.
“I look for the best way to make an impact,” said Dalio after a crowd that included Gov. Ned Lamont had filtered out from a program at Tracey School in Norwalk. Findings of a new study on the importance of social and emotional learning had just been discussed.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, Dalio admitted.
“There are not enough resources to do everything,” she said.
This from a woman whose foundation has contributed about $65 million to public education programs in Connecticut since 2008. Of that, more than $50 million was donated in the past four years alone.
That does not include separate grants made to higher education.
In October, at Bridgeport’s Harding High School, Barbara Dalio came with Charles Best, the creator of DonorsChoose — a popular online fundraising site for educators. They announced a new partnership to help jump-start promising teacher projects, including two in Bridgeport, with $10,000 grants.
“She is awesome to work with,” Best said.
Connecticut Teacher of the Year Sheena Graham, the Harding teacher Dalio visited, called her one of the most humble people she’s ever met.
“My students fell in love with her,” Graham said. “They felt she was a good listener.”
In Norwalk this week, Schools Superintendent Steven Adamowski told visitors that Dalio’s presence at a round-table to discuss the report on social and emotional learning was not unusual.
“She is a frequent visitor,” Adamowski said.
Dalio started volunteering in the Norwalk school district a decade ago, after the last of her four sons left home. It is where she learned where her family’s wealth could make the biggest impact, she said.
Dalio is married to Ray Dalio, the state’s richest man. The couple’s wealth is said to exceed $18 billion. They lived in Wilton and now Greenwich, raising their sons. Now in her early 70s, Barbara Dalio was born in Spain and immigrated to America in her early 20s. She worked for a time at the Whitney Museum, but eventually settled down to became a full-time mom, focusing on her own children’s education.
It was a full-time job, filled with plenty of visits to her sons’ schools.
When the last child left home, she turned more deliberately to running the family’s growing foundation. Among its eclectic mix of causes is strengthening public education across Connecticut.
She started in Norwalk, contributing to the Carver Foundation, a city provider of after-school, summer and youth development programs. From there, Dalio was introduced to Briggs High School, an alternative school.
It resonated with her. She started visiting twice a month. It soon became once a week, then two or more times a week. Not to tutor, but to ask questions.
“I was just trying to understand what their needs were,” Dalio said. “I would bring different resources — whatever the teachers needed.”
It was not lost on Dalio that she was doing the opposite of what foundations often do, which is come in with a ready-made solution to a problem a school may or may not have.
“Teachers know what they need,” Dalio said. “I listen to what the teacher and school leaders need — and just help them.”
Dalio has always supported public education, but about three years ago her focus shifted from education reform and public charter schools to more traditional Connecticut public schools.
Her investment in charter schools had begun at a dinner party. As Dalio recalls, the person next to her started telling her what a great job Achievement First — a charter school network that runs schools in New Haven, Hartford and Bridgeport — was doing.
“I said, ‘wow, this is incredible,’” Dalio recalls.
It was the same with Teach for America, an organization that recruits bright college graduates with no teaching experience to spend two years in high-needs classrooms. Another introduction. More foundation support.
At the same time, Dalio started spending more time in Norwalk public school classrooms. The lack of resources and supplies — not to mention teachers, social workers or librarians — bothered her.
And it got her thinking.
“I realized charter schools have their place and are doing great work, but it really doesn’t solve the problem,” Dalio said.
Charter school admission is by lottery. The children who apply tend to have parents who are involved, Dalio reasoned. Other children, whose parents are working three jobs, or who just never see the flyer come home about the lottery, miss out.
“That is how I started to pull out of the charter school movement, because my heart was not there,” Dalio said.
Considering all angles
She is presented with many compelling cases.
“It is very very hard to have to say ‘no’ sometimes. Well, many times,” Dalio said.
She said she employs the same holistic approach to philanthropy as she does to the rest of her life. Her aim is to make a difference.
She will seek advice and ideas from everyone, even her husband. Ultimately, Dalio makes the decisions on how best to accomplish her philanthropic goals.
Most of the time she goes with her gut.
Beyond her current efforts to boost the teaching of social and emotional learning through the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, Dalio supports the Connecticut Opportunity Project, which works with disconnected youth, and the Connecticut RISE Network, which works to empower and get resources to public school teachers.
Recently, she also stepped up efforts to help Best’s DonorsChoose.
Her efforts in the area of social and emotional learning came after being introduced to the work of Marc Brackett at Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence.
Dalio learned about his work through a teacher at a birthday party, as Brackett recalls.
“She called me and invited me to have lunch,” he said. “We connected immediately, and she asked me, ‘What is your dream?’”
It was to make Connecticut the first emotionally intelligent state.
“She said, ‘Let’s do it,’” Brackett said.
Her support, he said, helped broaden the lens of his work beyond a school or district approach.
“We’ve actually built a task force at the state level,” Brackett said. “It has helped us think of larger, more systemic change.”
Dalio is also fueling programs on restorative justice. It ties into her work with disconnected and disengaged students who attend Briggs.
“Do you know there are 39,000 disengaged and disconnected youth in Connecticut?” said Dalio, who helped commission a study that recommended more wrap-around services and mentors.
“When I hear about something I don’t know too much about, I start talking to expert people,” she said.
By that, she often means classroom teachers.
Dalio said she sees a bright future that includes the new governor, although she said she really does not know Lamont well.
“I am an optimist at my core,” she said. “I always feel that there is a new beginning.”
[email protected]; twitter/lclambeck
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Linda Conner Lambeck
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Linda is a Bridgeport, Conn., native and University of Bridgeport graduate with a degree in journalism. She got her start covering education and other town news in Easton and Fairfield for the Fairfield Citizen News before coming to the Connecticut Post in 1985. (At the time it was still the Bridgeport Post and there was also a Bridgeport Telegram). She has covered Milford and Fairfield and, since 1996, education on a local, statewide and higher education level.