It's not uncommon for public school administrators and teachers to run up against budget constraints when they dream up projects, even relatively small ones, that would enhance the student learning experience and environment. That's where outside gifts can come in, and they are often the products of organizations frequently called "education foundations."
A handful of districts in our region have these nonprofit organizations, including Colorado Springs School District 11, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, Falcon District 49, Lewis Palmer District 38, Manitou Springs School District 14 and Academy District 20. They function slightly differently in terms of how money is raised, as well as in the kind of projects they fund, but their goals are similar: to provide opportunities for student learning that would otherwise be unavailable.
Falcon 49 is one district whose foundation, the Falcon Education Foundation, focuses on localized projects by allowing teachers to submit grant proposals for their respective classrooms. These are "things they can't do with a normal state-funded education budget," says Stephanie Wurtz, the D-49 spokesperson who also happens to be vice president of the citizen-run volunteer group. "They should be outside the box and inspire students in the classroom."
On Nov. 14, the foundation issued 22 grants amounting to $17,000, including one that provided a small-scale aquarium for a classroom to study marine biology; paid for the creation of a Latin Dance Club to empower and improve the self-esteem of middle-school girls; and many more.
Erin McGovern, who teaches preschool at D-49's Stetson Elementary School and is an advocate of play-based learning, received two grants: one to purchase costumes and dramatic play items, and another to purchase math-related toys. Her ideas relate to a growing body of research demonstrating the significant impact play has on child development, including language skills, conflict resolution and social-emotional expression.
"Sometimes things come out during their play, things going on at home, things they've seen or heard," says McGovern. "It gives them a lot of different ways to express emotions and develop skills interacting with their peers they wouldn't get any other way."
McGovern says the play items provided by the grants have also made it possible for autistic students to participate more fully. In one activity, students read a book several times and then act it out, in costume; for students with special needs, it's a big help.
"They go from not being able to interact with their peers at all to being able to interact and use their imagination, which is a skill so hard for these children," says McGovern. "If we were always doing academic things like working on worksheets, students wouldn't have those [skills]. They absolutely thrive in a play-based environment."
Cheyenne Mountain School District 12's Tradition of Excellence Foundation differs from Falcon's in a few respects. For one thing, it typically generates around $50,000 a year for the district, and allocates money according to priorities identified by the district superintendent and school board recommendations. Additionally, individuals can donate "designated gifts" of $500 or more, which go toward a specific purpose, but must be approved by the administration first as something for which there is a need. (Donations of less than $500 can't be designated.)
The Tradition of Excellence Foundation is also different in terms of how wide it casts its net. "We typically take a much broader view," says foundation president Sally Hybl, "and work to identify priorities that will affect the most students and have a broader, longer reach."
Some of these larger-scale priorities have included an upgrade to the wireless technology in all D-12 schools and the replacement of a playground. "Year to year, it's different," says Hybl. "Other projects have included teacher trainings, purchased curriculum and technology."
Consider this: Had Amendment 66 passed in November, the average Colorado family would have paid another $133 per year in state taxes for education. One of the biggest arguments against the amendment, and probably one of the biggest reasons for its failure, was that tracing the money might have been challenging. Give $133, or even less, directly to a foundation and you just might find that it leads to something tangible, even a little transformative, right in your own backyard.