• Name: Corinne Allen
• Born: Charlotte, N.C.
• Age: 64
• Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with education degree
• Work: Headed the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation in North Carolina before becoming Benwood Foundation executive director in 1999
A national search for a new Benwood Foundation executive director will begin later this year. Allen will remain with the foundation during the transition period. The foundation also plans to complete a strategic plan at the end of the year.
The woman who championed a public education initiative that pumped about $18 million into Chattanooga's elementary schools and helped bring about a decade of reform is stepping down from the helm of the charitable foundation that made it possible.
At the end of this year, Corinne Allen said she will retire from the Benwood Foundation after 13 years.
Under her leadership, the foundation also has focused on community development and arts and culture.
But it's the Benwood Initiative, an effort that has benefited thousands of students, that has garnered the most attention.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said the initiative helped the city set high standards so progress could be achieved in the public schools.
He cited Benwood's "vision and foresight" for the initiative. Current grants are scheduled to run out this year.
What helped spur the initiative early last decade was the realization that of the 20 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state, nine were in Chattanooga, Allen said in an interview last week.
"Even more disconcerting than that was that there was no hue and cry from the public," Allen said. "That's how it got started."
The first Benwood grant for the initiative was $5 million for five years.
"It was the first time we made a grant of that size ... and for that long," she said.
The initiative, which has drawn national attention, later was funded to a total of about $18 million, Allen said.
Over the life of the initiative, which later expanded to include 16 schools, Chattanoogans have come to realize the link between public education and jobs, she said.
"It's not a social issue only. It's an economic development issue of the first order," Allen said.
In terms of community development, Benwood has put nearly $11 million into efforts such as improving the waterfront and neighborhoods since 1999.
"Downtown is the living room of the community," Allen said.
Benwood also has invested almost $8 million since 1999 in arts and culture, according to the foundation. Allen cited its support for the Hunter Museum of American Art, public art and the Hunter Lecture Series.
"One of the things that impressed Volkswagen was the quality of art and the accessibility of art," she said.
Paul Brock, the foundation's board chairman, said the community is stronger, healthier and more vibrant because of Allen's efforts.
"Corinne is a class act, and we are very grateful for her many contributions," he said in a statement.
Allen will leave Benwood knowing far more than when she arrived, she said.
She recalled that while living in Charlotte, N.C., and directing an education foundation, she was asked to interview for the Benwood position. It came to mind that Coca-Cola money had funded the philanthropic group, she said.
"I said, 'I'm so sorry, that's Atlanta,'" the North Carolina native recalled. "They said, 'No, it's Coca-Cola bottling.' Right then, I had to learn all I could about Chattanooga."
Set up in 1944 by George Thomas Hunter, the foundation was a tribute to his uncle, Ben Thomas, who owned the world's first franchised Coca-Cola bottling company in Chattanooga and which now boasts an endowment of about $100 million.