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School Foundations
Help Out in Hard Times

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From high unemployment to hurricanes, schools today are weathering all types of challenges that impact their ability to meet the needs of students. Some communities are coming to the aid of their schools with educational foundations that support either a specific building or an entire district. Channeling private donations, these organizations provide basics like clothing or food to field trips or innovative programs with a minimum of red tape. Included: A foundation director shares tips for new organizations that are getting off the ground.

For one elementary school in Magnolia, Mississippi, the creation of a foundation to benefit its students was an outcome of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the area in August 2005.

Two weeks after the storm, the enrollment of Gloster Elementary increased by 25 percent in just two days, Susan McGehee recalls. Many of the new students were from New Orleans or the Gulf Coast and had lost all of their possessions. Needless to say, there was a tremendous need for clothing, school supplies, and other things.

Gloster Elementarys school counselor placed the school on a national Web site so it might receive help for those students. In some cases, assistance was offered in the form of monetary donations from nonprofit organizations.

If those donations had been sent directly to the school district, it would have been very hard for us to legally help individual students, explained McGehee. Therefore, I decided to try and create a nonprofit organization that could receive money and dispense money directly to students and their families.

McGehee's husband, a CPA, donated his time to complete the necessary paperwork to establish the Gloster Elementary Foundation (GEF). The foundation operates as a separate entity from the district and parent-teacher organization. It has its own governing board and dispenses money received from donations to assist teachers and students of the school. McGehee, the former principal of the school, still serves on the GEF board although she currently works as an instructional strategist for South Pike High School.

The program has helped to purchase school uniforms, provided funds for field trips, and allotted money for many teacher projects that were not part of the district budget, says McGehee. Funding is requested by teachers through a teacher-request form, and the forms are then presented to the GEF board of directors for approval.

Gloster Elementary is a 100 percent free-lunch school, and the opportunity to travel outside of the area is rare for many students. Because of the GEF, they have been able to go on field trips and experience activities that could not have occurred without it.

AN OBVIOUS NEED

About 1,500 miles to the north, the school budget in Gloucester, Massachusetts, has fallen so far behind its needs that the district has had to lay off more than 60 staff in the past four years, reports Ed Shoucair, president of the Gloucester Education Foundation.

I started the foundation reluctantly, because public schools should be paid for by the public. And, while many will [not take the step of creating foundations], the reality is the money is not coming in the near future and the schools need partners, said Shoucair.

The need is so great among schools in Gloucester that it is clear to the community that a major new infusion of money into them is required. In essence, a foundation there operates as a district-wide PTO. In its first year, Shoucair's organization raised $100,000. Last year, it raised $500,000, and it may reach $700,000 this year. From the start, he was struck by the pent up desire that existed in the community to get involved and lend a hand to the schools.


“Start with your strengths,” advises Ed Shoucair. “Think of programs that excite, then build partnerships with respected organizations and show how, by participating with the schools, all benefit. And look for small successes that you can make happen to build confidence; then go from there.”

A key element of our strategy is what we call a community asset-based approach, Shoucair explained. It's a business model. In business, you always start with what you've got going and move forward from there. In our case, we are the oldest fishing port in the country, we have one of the nation's oldest art colonies here, and Clarence Birdseye and John Hammond -- who holds the second largest number of patents in the world next to Edison -- lived and worked here. So, working with school and city leaders, we created a vision of achieving excellence -- not just trying to stop the cuts -- to create a unique marine studies program, art magnet program, and technology innovations program.

To accomplish its goals, members of the Gloucester Education Foundation have reached out to partners and then set out to obtain funding. MIT works with the marine studies program, and the endeavor has received a three-year, $1.5 million grant as well as a 5-year NOAA Ocean Literacy grant. A robotics initiative at the high school has been extended to fifth grade, and a new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) lab is under construction in the middle school.

Children who never thought about going to college are doing so because of the many activities, he added. We are also seeing more and more donations from parents who were originally skeptical.

PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE

If there is an administrator who thinks he does not need a foundation of his own or a partnership with a community foundation, then he is an administrator who doesn't understand the value of a foundation, observes Jim Collogan, interim executive director of the National School Foundation Association (NSFA). People -- alumni, retired staff, corporations, businesses, community members, other foundations, current boards and staff, or former community members -- will give to support the education of the children of their communities. To not offer this opportunity is, in my opinion, myopic.

Laying a
Foundation

Kristine Vanden Heuvel has the rewarding but challenging task of maintaining an organization that supports schools in Wausau, Wisconsin. Based on her experience as volunteer acting director of the Wausau School Foundation, she offers a few tips for those who are just getting started.

  • Strong community and school leadership involvement is essential in spearheading such an organization. District staff support is a barometer as to the success of the school foundation.

  • Marketing and a Web site are crucial to spreading the word about activities, obtaining donations, and more. (Wausau School Foundation recently launched a new Web site that was developed over the course of a year.)

  • Accounting and donor tracking systems for internal operations are valuable and critical for credible records and efficient response to your donors. There are a number of good options.

  • Funding for operations is difficult money to raise, so a clear plan to sustain the work of the foundation must be established early on.

    “For more information, connect with the National School Foundation Association, which provides a wealth of information and support for newly organizing foundations as well as established foundations,” adds Vanden Heuvel. “Its annual conference in March is worth the investment.”

  • As a former school superintendent, Collogan understands firsthand the value of an educational foundation. It can be a strong source of encouragement and help to the local board of education, which often struggles to offer a good education to the children of its community. The NSFA is in the business of helping K-12 foundations get started and improving their performance.

    "Typically, a foundation is a more universal and far reaching fundraising source than a PTO. It operates in far more arenas of fundraising than a PTO does. Planned giving, endowment building, and major donor fundraising are just a few [of those arenas]," said Collgoan. "Colleges and universities have been our model, and we all know where those institutions of higher learning would be without their supporting foundations.

    As they set out to create a foundation for a school or district, coordinators must focus on their mission and vision for the organization. Too many would-be founders don't stick to their mission or have no idea where they are going, says Collogan.

    Additionally, many do not know or understand their fundraising potential, he added. People universally are interested in three key areas in their community: education, healthcare and economic development. If prompted properly, they will support those initiatives.

    In the early 1990s, legislation that imposed revenue caps for schools in Wisconsin resulted in a reduction of discretionary dollars for new and creative programs. There was strong support in the community of Wausau for a school foundation, particularly to maintain a popular science initiative called Dream Flight that required private funding to continue.

    As an independent nonprofit, the Wausau School Foundation became a vehicle for contributions for district programs that otherwise would not have been possible, Kristine Vanden Heuvel, the foundation's volunteer acting director, told Education World. Leary of school budget practices, certain donors were willing to support a district initiative only if their grant was channeled and managed by the school foundation.

    The foundation also appeals to the broader community and businesses for district-wide efforts. It provides annual education grants available only to district staff members for creative new programs. An area in which the foundation is growing is in its services to alumni who are organizing reunions and other events.

    Our foundation provides a district staff recognition program for excellence with yearly awards and celebration, Vanden Heuvel reports. It also has created a student assistance fund that provides grants for student needs identified within the schools and classrooms when there are no other resources available.

    In order for a foundation to move forward, she believes, the board of directors must clearly understand its role in fundraising as a continual activity and the importance of committee participation.

    People give to people, which provides for a very labor-intensive effort, but it is what works best, advises Vanden Heuvel.

    I have the privilege to work with staff that is making a difference every day because of opportunities possible through the work of the foundation. It's quite rewarding.

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