Billion family gives $1 million to education-related programs

Dec. 3, 2019

David H. Billion and his wife, Christine, have made a $1 million donation to programs aimed at educating students in the poorest schools in Sioux Falls.

The CEO of Billion Auto made the gift after a proposal by Steve Hildebrand, who established the nonprofit Promising Futures Fund earlier this year.

“I went to him on behalf of basically three entities, so it’s kind of a unique contribution,” said Hildebrand, the owner of Josiah’s Coffeehouse, Cafe & Bakery. “He’s been a longtime friend, and he’s been very generous at helping me when I have requests for nonprofit activity I’m involved in. I’ve never asked him for that much money before, but he was very quick to respond.”

Of the $1 million, $600,000 will be donated directly to the Sioux Falls School District to build on an intense reading intervention program for early elementary students that has shown promising early success at Hayward and Lowell elementary schools.

“And this will take it pretty much into all the other Title I schools,” Hildebrand said. “What they’re seeing are phenomenal results of getting kids up to grade level in a pretty fast period of time.”

The Sioux Falls Hope Coalition, which funds scholarships for children to attend preschool, will receive $250,000 from Billion’s donation. The remaining $150,000 will go to Hildebrand’s Promising Futures Fund, which is a donor-advised fund at the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation.

Since beginning the fund a few months ago, Hildebrand has connected donors to opportunities to fund books, winter clothing, field trips and classroom parties for kids at Lowell Elementary – needs often met by parent-driven organizations that don’t have a strong presence in some of the city’s schools. Now, the nonprofit is working directly with staff at a dozen middle schools and two elementary schools, as well as district leadership, to determine how to meet a variety of needs.

The additional funding will help with donations such as adaptive furniture for classrooms and a technology program at the middle school level.

“The idea behind all of this, our program trying to be the leading voice for early childhood education and reading, is that a kid in poverty has a great likelihood they never had a parent read to them. They might never have picked up a book,” Hildebrand said. “Our hope is we can get these kids off on the right foot in life to perform well in school and in life.”

Strong public schools can’t exist without community support, said Brian Maher, superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District.

“The work Steve Hildebrand is doing will be life-changing for our students who have so many more needs than tax dollars can fulfill,” he said.

“Steve’s connections to people like Dave Billion mean more children will benefit from reading interventions earlier. We’re having some great success with the SIPPS program, and we can’t wait to strengthen foundational reading skills to make a difference in the lives of more students. These donations will truly make an impact.”

The district’s pilot curriculum, Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness, Phonics and Sight Words, has shown strong early results.

SIPPS provides the following:

  • Identifying struggling readers starting in kindergarten.
  • Providing immediate and intensive additional instruction for struggling readers.
  • Offering students small-group intervention, 40 minutes a day.
  • Teaching phonics and phonological awareness in the early grades.
  • Connecting remediation and intervention seamlessly to each day’s core instruction.
  • Ensuring a highly skilled teacher of reading is teaching the SIPPS lessons.

During the 2018-19 school year, two buildings implemented the SIPPS curriculum, using a SIPPS specialist.

One building had 90 percent of the students who received SIPPS instruction make four or more quarters’ growth in one year’s time. The second building had 100 percent of the students served make four or more quarters’ growth in one year’s time.

Billion said the more he learned about the needs in the schools and the early success in meeting them, the more he was encouraged to support the effort.

Dave Billion

“All three of those entities are working toward a similar goal as far as helping children who might be economically or socially disadvantaged receive the opportunity and some hope and encouragement to discover and develop their talents,” he said.

“Being able to read is really necessary to perform at your best, and it gives you a chance to compete successfully in life. Without it, you’re at an extreme disadvantage. The more we talked, the more I thought this would be a meaningful way to help some young people break through a cycle of hopelessness and poverty.”

The early results are compelling, he added.

“That’s why Christine and I really feel blessed to be able to do something like that,” he said. “That was encouraging to know that it’s something new and something that they got a quick look at, and it certainly indicates it’s worth an expanded view.”

When children grow up in poverty, “it affects all of us,” Billion added. “If you can break that cycle or not even get started in it, it’s definitely an advantage than when you have situations that become generational that are unpleasant.”

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Billion family gives $1 million to education-related programs

What started as a grass-roots effort by Josiah’s Coffeehouse owner Steve Hildebrand has led to a $1 million donation from David H. Billion and his wife, Christine, aimed at educating students in the poorest schools in Sioux Falls.

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