By Casey Hans
With uncertainty over public school funding at the state level, The Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation will play an even more important role now, say the nonprofit’s director and top Ann Arbor school officials.
The foundation will continue to explore ways to best use donors’ money, putting new initiatives in front of students and keeping the district cutting edge, said Executive Director Wendy Correll.
“We’ve had great support from people in our community,” said Correll, who was hired to lead the nonprofit in 2006. “This is a time when we are going to need to do more for the schools. I feel confident in the work we’ve done in the last three years.”
Although the group cannot take on large areas such as staff funding, Correll said, the 501(c)(3) foundation can continue to help by contributing to the “margin of excellence” in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. She said that of the district’s approximately 16,500 students, 11,000 were impacted in some way by grants given out by the foundation last year. Grants were given both districtwide and individually to teachers, she said.
May fund more existing programs
Correll said the foundation often pilots programs out and, if they are successful, can make the programs a regular feature in classrooms.
“Going forward, we may need to consider funding existing programs that work well and benefit our students,” she added.
The foundation funds a number of “Initiatives for Excellence” each year, which are programs from a wish list that Ann Arbor school officials bring to the foundation board.
One such program is My Access. The web-based program provides feedback on grammar, punctuation and offers other writing help. It was piloted first at Scarlett Middle School and is now used districtwide. While emphasis has been placed on every fifth-grader having access to the program, students in grades four through 10 use it across the district. Last year, the foundation gave $25,000 toward the program, adding to the $50,000 given the prior year.
There are a number of funds set up for specific programs including a Disability Awareness Workshop Fund to raise awareness and sensitivity to disabilities. The workshop is presented to fourth-graders across the district. The Madeline Thompson Fund for Humanities was established to bring guest lecturers and arts and humanities programs to high schools.
Other grants are smaller, but still have a big impact. A program at Pittsfield Elementary School is being handled through the Karen Thomas Memorial Fund, an endowed fund named after parent Karen Thomas to improve literacy. Pittsfield Principal Carol Shekarian said a $3,000 grant request was written by three teachers in the second, third and fourth grades.
“This fund was set up so students could gain access to books and a love for reading,” Shekarian said, adding that students now have access to high-quality literature purchased with the grant. Each grade level used the money slightly differently. For example, second-graders have books that encourage them to “think deeply and ask questions” and some are being used to talk about real-life challenges, she said. Fourth-graders have some of the classics that have deeper plot levels.
Foundation funds more critical now
Grants such as these become even more important to classroom needs as the Ann Arbor Public Schools face a $21 million deficit going into the new fiscal year that begins on July 1. Superintendent Todd Roberts said during recent budget information meetings, that the AAPSEF is one of the few vehicles that can be used locally to help support the public school system. Under current law, local school districts cannot approach voters directly for operational money; that can only be done via a county’s intermediate school district.
The Washtenaw County Intermediate School District did just that, approaching voters last fall for an operating millage, which failed. The foundation took a proactive tack following the failure: It challenged residents of the Ann Arbor district to donate the amount of money they would have spent for the millage to the foundation. “The Millage did not pass. But you can still be part of the solution,” stated an advertisement put out by the foundation.
Correll said $10,000 in matching grant money was donated by resident Andy Thomas and the community met the challenge. “We raised just shy of $30,000” from the effort, Correll said.
And fundraising for the foundation continues in other ways. Correll said payroll deduction for Ann Arbor Public Schools employees started two years ago. The foundation also gets allocations from the Washtenaw County United Way, collects online contributions, raises money from Celebration of Innovation and Excellence and golf outing fundraisers and receives contribution to their endowment fund at the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.
Correll noted that even “small amounts of funding can create big impacts.”
As fundraising efforts continue into the spring and early summer, the foundation’s board of directors will begin considering a list of projects that AAPSEF will fund for the 2010-11 school year. Correll said the foundation must have dollars in hand by June 30, when the fiscal year ends, in order to fund selected projects.
The Ann Arbor Public Schools Educational Foundation is among about 5,000 such foundations across the country, put in place when funding was changed and centralized at the state level. Ann Arbor’s was established in 1991, building a program of teacher mini-grants and, since its inception, has distributed more than half a million dollars in grants to the district. Correll came on board in a part-time capacity three years ago to ramp up donations and grants. In 2007-08, the foundation gave out $70,000 in grants and program dollars, in 2008-09 it gave $95,000 and during the current school year is expected to give out between $120,000 and $140,000.
Solid schools, strong community
Robin Wax is a retired Ann Arbor teacher who served as a foundation board member for nine years and still serves on two committees of the board. She was on the board when it shifted to the organization it is today which goes after more substantial funding and invites key business and finance leaders to serve on its board.
“Everything has changed very, very dramatically in the last four to five years,” she said. “We want to enhance education and make sure we do programs that serve all students. We’re careful to be sure it’s spread out over schools and grade levels.”
Foundation board members include school officials (as ex-officio board members,) local attorneys, business professionals and other community leaders. Also sitting as ex-officio board members are two students from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and the foundation is considering bringing on two Ann Arbor high school students this spring.
Wax said she is pleased to see many new people, including both parents and those without children in the district, taking an interest in serving on the board. She said the foundation and its mission remain critical, especially in this time of need.
“One of the things that makes Ann Arbor a special community is that we have very good schools, the University and great businesses with offices based in Ann Arbor,” she said. “In my view, the biggest thing that affects the health of a community is the public school system.”
Correll said the foundation works to keep a clean line between what it does and what is handled and funded through school PTOs. But looking forward, she would like to search out ways to work with other community groups such as service clubs, to coordinate even more programs and activities in the Ann Arbor schools. “I’d like us to all take a look at what we’re doing so that we can do more for the students,” she added.