Thursday, November 12, 2009

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Enriching Education

The Wellesley Education Foundation and the Weston Education Enrichment Fund Committee

WEF paid for the equipment and entry fee for Wellesley High School to enter the New England Botball tournament. Shown are two of the students with their robots that try to knock the cups off the table and sort the red and green balls into designated areas.

Twenty-five years ago, Massachusetts, along with the rest of the nation, was trying to regain its economic footing after being sucker punched by a severe recession that slammed every sector of the economy. The recession of 1981-2 left local economies reeling. Wellesley and Weston, in spite of their relative affluence, were no exception. In 1984, in an environment of broad budget cuts and with the reality of Proposition 2 ½ taking hold, a group of Wellesley citizens started an organization designed to countermand school budgets’ belt tightening with privately raised donations designed to enrich curriculum. They called themselves “Citizens for Wellesley Public Education.” Two short years later, Weston initiated a new committee with the same goal: they called themselves WEEFC (Weston Education Enrichment Fund Committee).

Susan Sider of Wellesley was a founding member of Citizens for Wellesley Public Education (now known as WEF, Wellesley Education Foundation). “Because of Proposition 2 ½, there was a decreased funding for schools,” she said. “In Wellesley, there was a tension among citizens between striving for better education versus enough.” Because of the uncertain economic times, it made sense to the committees in Wellesley and Weston to provide support for local teachers through privately funded grants. “We knew that we wanted to support teachers,” says Sider. “Knowing that the community was behind them would make them better teachers.”

WEF purchased musical instruments for PAWS (Public Schools Preschool Program)

Fast-forward twenty-five years. Again, the U.S. lumbers through a massive recession. Wellesley and Weston face similar draconian cuts to their town budgets as they did in the early 1980s. Happily for local schools, however, one important change is apparent. Both WEF and WEEFC are strongly established town entities with robust fundraising capabilities and energetic boards. “There is no doubt that the strong fundraising that has been sustained by this organization helps it buffer tough times,” says Amber Brock, assistant superintendent of the Weston Public Schools. “It helps us stay resilient.” Bella Wong, superintendent of the Wellesley Public Schools concurs, “We would not be able to offer the level of services that we do if it were not for WEF,” she says. “It is critical.”

As WEF celebrates its 25th anniversary, it finds itself in the enviable position of being supported by citizens, school administration, and teachers alike. The same is true for WEEFC. Both organizations boast consistently healthy balance sheets. Both raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for critical teacher and technology support. They are well managed; with nearly every dollar raised going back into local schools. “We want every dollar to hit as many grants as possible. Every year there is a review of priorities and strategies,” says Laura Hockett, current co-chair of WEF.

WEF funded a grant to purchase genetic sequencing equipment for the Wellesley High School biology department. This student is holding a gel electrophoresis device used to separate DNA segments by size.

The procedures for grant procurement on both committees are essentially the same. In both towns, teachers or administrators complete a grant form, which gets reviewed by their town’s particular director of curriculum and instruction. Once the grant gets the green light for the next phase, the grant committees assess each request on a case-by-case basis. Laura Hockett estimates that roughly 75 percent of grant requests get approved. The other 25 percent might get partially funded or redirected to another funding source. Both towns emphasize the importance of grants dovetailing with a school’s system wide goals. “We try to make sure that grants are in line with the school district’s priorities,” says Kelly Renner, chair of WEEFC, “but also try to distribute grants equally.”

There are a few distinct differences between WEF and WEEFC fundraising strategies. In Weston, WEEFC takes on the responsibility of all fundraising for every school, whereas in Wellesley, each school’s PTO is an alternate source of funds for certain enrichment areas. A Wellesley elementary school’s PTO typically funds the Creative Arts program, for example, which brings in artists, performers, and lecturers. In Weston, WEEFC would raise those funds and disburse them across the school district with an eye to reaching all students. But for Weston, this model works well. “It is a unique Weston design,” says Brock. “It is such a functional town, but it really runs like a family.” Wellesley also has established a Permanent Fund, which allows for multi-year grants. In Weston, almost always any monies raised within a school year are spent that same year.

Another important distinction between WEF and WEEFC is how they relate to town government. In Wellesley, WEF is an established 501(3)c, independent of the town, whereas in Weston, WEEFC is a sub-committee of the school committee. Both WEF and WEEFC are scrupulously mindful of their role as enhancers of curriculum only, no political initiatives are put forth, no agendas pursued. “We have a lot of confidence in the school administration to determine priority,” says Hockett. “We have a great relationship with them.”

WEEFC provided the funding to make GPS units available to Weston fourth graders and 60 kids at Weston's sister school in Uganda.

And the feeling is mutual. “WEF allows us to offer a much better program,” says Bella Wong. Teachers feel the same way. In Weston, teacher Pam Bator’s experience with WEEFC has allowed her creativity to find practical outlets through granted funds. “WEEFC allows us to entertain the ‘if only’ dreams,” she says. For instance, Bator, along with colleague Kate Brewer, came up with a proposal to make global positioning system (GPS) units available to all fourth grade students. “The GPS units cross all sorts of curricula: it’s geography, it’s science, it’s global, its 21st century,” says Bator. “It was a wonderful gift to give to our students and their excitement keeps growing.” In fact, WEEFC’s generosity has international implications. The GPS units were part of a program with Weston’s sister school in Uganda. “We used them with 60 kids in Uganda,” says Bator. “They couldn’t believe that the last people to touch them were kids from the Field School in Weston. It was just such a great personal connection.”

Giving teachers the license to think innovatively is one of the ongoing benefits of WEF and WEEFC. “To see that even small amounts of money can bring enrichment and realize a teacher’s inspiration is so gratifying,” says Laura Hockett. “Our teaching staff is amazing. They can do a lot with a little but sometimes you really need the materials and equipment.” In towns with lean budgets and competing needs, funding equipment usually means funding technology. “Through the regular budget, we are limited to ‘replacement only;’ it is hard to garner support for new technology,” say Wong. “Growth in technology is not a luxury – I think it is fundamental. We need to make sure we are prepared for the 21st century,” she adds.

Indeed many of WEF and WEEFC’s grant requests deal with enhancing the classroom with cutting-edge technology. To Kelly Renner, these technology requests directly impact students’ experience in the wider world. “[Technology] inspires our kids to be more innovative, more investigative, more questioning,” she says. “It will keep our students prepared for what they will encounter in college and beyond.” She also argues that fueling a teacher’s innovative ideas may reach students for whom more traditional pedagogy falls flat. “We are all such different learners. We want to be tripping different triggers. We can affect kids in so many different ways,” she says.

Brian Kelly, technology and engineering teacher at Wellesley Middle School, sees that every week in his class. Nine years ago, he wrote the curriculum for an elective in Robotics. Then he wrote a grant to WEF to see if he could bring his concept to life in the classroom. He received his grant money and the course has been offered ever since. “They basically got that class started,” he says. “The idea was to fill a gap; it seemed that there wasn’t a place for kids [who were] interested in that sort of thing.” Last year, some of the equipment originally funded by WEF was getting a little rough around the edges. Brian reapplied to WEF and now his robotics class clatters and hums with newer, more functional technology. His reflection on WEF’s impact seems to speak for many teachers in Wellesley and Weston: “They make possible otherwise what could not have been possible.”

© 2009 Elm Bank Media