Monday May 21, 2007

Homework With Heart
WEF and WEEFC Parents Give a Helping Hand to Local Schools

By Rachel M. Levitt

WEEFC grants help enrich the music curriculum as Weston’s music program continues to grow and expand in both participation and quality. It is considered one of the top music programs in the State.

Seismic activity is pretty much just a theory here on the East Coast; probably the greatest risk Grandma’s china will encounter is reckless handling on Thanksgiving. But after the devastating earthquake and resulting tsunami around the Indian Ocean, Wellesley high school teacher and Science and Technology Department Head, Stephen Rumsey, saw an opportunity to connect his students to the larger world. He wanted to buy a seismograph and the necessary hardware to store and distribute its recordings. He knew that Boston College had an educational program set up to support seismic study at the high school level, but the schools had to purchase their own equipment. This was February, the school budget was set, and there was no allowance for a seismograph in it. Rumsey knew where to go to acquire the equipment, and he did what hundreds of other educators in the Town have done to get what they need, when they need it.
Rumsey applied for money from a private source—a source that since its inception over two decades ago, has become the first and last stop for teachers who identify projects to help their kids learn. WEF, the Wellesley Education Foundation, and WEEFC, the Weston Education Enrichment Fund Committee, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the Towns’ schools. In the past year alone, WEEFC gave to Weston High everything from a $40,000 weight room and courtyard garden to digital-video-making equipment, food mixers for culinary classes, and tutoring sessions for the MCAS exams. WEF has given over $140,000 in the past three years to Wellesley programs.

Rumsey’s seismic station needed seed money to get started, but going through the school budgeting process was hardly an option. “This is a very large project,” he said, “which would cost around $14,000 to get up and running. It could have taken three to four years before the school budgeting committee even had a chance to consider it, and they have the responsibility to purchase and upgrade the existing school technology. It is quite a bit easier to ask WEF.” In a few months, his grant proposal was approved and the new seismograph found a place in the classroom.
WEF was the first private funding program of its kind. It was initiated in response to Proposition 21⁄2, a law that limited the amount of property tax raised in each town, and repealed school committee fiscal autonomy. The impact of this decision could have devastated the pubic school systems because they rely primarily on local money for funding. In real numbers, Wellesley’s school budget is currently $40 million, $3 million of which comes from the State. The remaining $37 million (92.5% of the budget) comes directly from local revenues raised through property and excise taxes. Wealthier school districts, such as Wellesley and Weston, receive very little Federal money, if any. Limiting the amount of money towns are able collect, therefore, has a direct impact on how much money with which the schools have to work.

Meanwhile, more people with school age children are moving to Wellesley and Weston to take advantage of the excellent public schools. In 1980, when Proposition 21⁄2 was adopted in Massachusetts, a quarter of Wellesley’s children were enrolled in private schools. Now, 84 percent are in the public school system, totaling 4,312 children this year, not including those in preschool. When Rumsey was teaching in the early nineties, there were 760 students in Wellesley High School. In just over a decade, enrolment has increased 60 percent. “We always find a way to get the things we need, though every year it gets a little harder,” Rumsey added. Wellesley spends $8,890 per student, thousands of dollars above the national average. This is money well-spent, judging from the astounding percentage of Wellesley and Weston high schoolers going on to four-year colleges: 87 percent and 89 percent respectively, as compared to a State average of 54 percent. So why the need for private money?
WEF and WEEFC funding allows the public schools to be that much better. Both organizations give out their money in the form of grants. This gets educators to dream, read about, and pursue creative ways to enrich the learning experience. As Janet Larson, the WEF Board president puts it, “We’re the tail of the dog. We have excellent teachers, and we take care of them. Providing grants and helping fund professional development programs is a great way to let our educators know how important their work is—and that the community is here to support them.”

It is a responsibility that Wellesley and Weston parents are willing to take on, and donations to WEF and WEEFC have increased dramatically over recent years to keep the schools on top of their game. Alice Peisch, the Wellesley/Weston representative to the State House, who serves on the Joint Committee on Higher Education, and who is also a WEF board member, believes that private funding sources have a positive overall impact on the quality of the schools. “While the amount of money they give each year is small compared to the schools’ budgets, they make pilot programs and enrichment programs possible, programs that then have a chance to become part of the core curriculum,” she said.

One such program involves the introduction of laptops in the classroom in order to study the impact of technology on the learning process. This three-year pilot program gives laptops to 100 students to use at home and in the classroom throughout their three years at Wellesley Middle School. Educators believe that getting laptops into kids’ hands will allow them to research topics in greater depth. More importantly, students will learn how to evaluate the quality and quantity of the information available on the web, an increasingly necessary skill. Programs of this type in other states have resulted in improved student engagement, motivation, and achievement, and increased participation in class.

Representative Peisch warns, however, that private funding should have clear boundaries. A one-time capital project gift is easy to use, but schools should be careful to avoid dependency on ongoing gifts that could dry up. That is why the Spanish language program in the Wellesley elementary schools was lost in the latest budgetary shuffle. This spring, the Town was asked to vote on how and where to spend money, or not, and the elementary Spanish course was a big-ticket item identified by the schools as possibly expendable. Voters had to weigh the value of elementary school Spanish against possible police and fire department cuts. Ultimately, Spanish was lost, along with a Wellesley High School humanities class, several writing labs, the orchestra conductor, and a librarian. A group of concerned parents raised more than $300,000 in ten days to pay for Spanish teachers. Ultimately, the Wellesley school committee ruled that private money should never pay for teachers’ salaries. This has been the decision all over the country: private money is a terrific way to finance things for our public schools, but it should never be used to compensate people.

For educators like Rumsey, this is how it should be. Recently, he reminded us, there was a big earthquake off the Oregon coast and the local seismographs picked up the disturbance. California may seem far away, but with a little seed money and some great teachers, Wellesley ninth graders will see, if not feel, the earth’s endless grumblings. And if that captures their imagination, there are more projects brewing in the Science and Technology Department; summer is grant-writing time. Wellesley teachers know that great ideas are potent in this school district. In Rumsey’s words, “We will always find a way to get the things we need.”



© 2006 Elm Bank Media