By Laura McAlister
In some Over the Mountain schools, they’re funding training for teachers. In others, they’re supplying iPads and needed technology.
Whatever the case may be, the education foundations in Homewood, Hoover, Vestavia Hills and Mountain Brook are making a difference in the classroom and helping lessen the pinch of proration, or state budget cuts.
For the past several years, the sluggish economy has forced the state to cut its education budget. In Vestavia Hills schools alone, the cuts have cost the system more than $5 million since 2008. That’s why the work of the education foundation is so important, said Ashley Thompson, executive director of the Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation.
“There are certain things that the state has eliminated, like funding for professional development,” she said. “That’s how we can step in and help. A big chunk of our money this year will go to professional development.”
While all of the systems’ education foundations operate a little differently, each has one goal in mind – improving education.
In Vestavia and Mountain Brook, the foundations mainly fund technology and professional development. In Hoover and Homewood, the foundations review grants from teachers to select the projects that will have the greatest impact in the classroom.
“We really see our role as enhancing an already amazing school district by providing things that would help us continue to be successful,” said Jane-Marie Marlin, president of the Homewood Foundation. “We have put some money in for professional development, but we also fund a lot of special projects throughout the school district.”
The foundations operate independently from the school systems and are not related to school Parent Teacher Organizations.
Though equally important, the PTOs and the foundations are very different, Ashley said.
“One board member had a good point and said we all have a checking and savings account,” she said. “When you look at the difference, the PTO is like the checking account. It’s for day-to-day expenses. It helps pay for ink cartridges and newsletters. They play a very important role.
“The Foundation is like the savings account. We pay for the big stuff. We save our money so we can focus on the long term. We’re investing. Everything we buy, we look at and see if it’s something we’ll want the next year and the next.”
Though some of the foundations host fundraisers, the majority of funding for the foundations comes from community pledges and donations.
The foundations are made up of board members from throughout the school districts who work closely with the school systems to determine how foundation dollars will be distributed each year. All are volunteers. Mountain Brook and Vestavia both have a paid executive director.
Here’s a look at how the four Over the Mountain foundations operate and how they’re impacting education in the area.
Homewood City Schools Foundation
What started in the mid-1990s as a grassroots effort by some Homewood band parents evolved into what is now the Homewood City Schools Foundation.
Each year, Jane-Marie said, the foundation distributes about $50,000 for special projects in the school system.
She said the foundation board, which is made up of about 30 people representing all the schools in the district, takes grant applications from teachers. Those applications are then reviewed by a committee and discussed with school officials to determine which will have the greatest impact.
In the past, the foundation has funded iPads for special education students, ACT and PSAT preparation classes, stipends for new teachers and other needs.
Jane-Marie said after the grants have been given out, the foundation receives updates from teachers to see the impact the dollars have made.
“We really want to be absolutely hands on,” she said. “We have teachers come to every one of our meetings to present to us and show us how the grants are impacting the classroom.
“We had a math teacher come in once with all these tools he’d bought. He had us doing math problems. When we bought iPads for special ed students at Shades Cahaba, the teacher came in and showed us a video they made.
“The teachers really are so appreciative.”
In addition to providing classroom support, the foundation also has made professional development a priority.
For the first time, Jane-Marie said, the foundation would be paying teachers for work during the summer.
“We’re taking applications for summer learning teams,” she said. “We’re going to pay teachers for their time, whether it’s working on lesson plans and projects or just collaborating with others.
“We’re going to pay them stipends because the school system just doesn’t have the money for it. It’s not much, but even if it could cover the cost for the teacher to get a sitter, it’s something.”
The Homewood Foundation relies mainly on pledges to fund the grants, though they do have raffles and fundraisers occasionally. Jane-Marie said they send out mass mailings to all Homewood zip codes.
For $25 or more, a donation can also be made in a teacher’s name. The foundation also has a partnership with Zoe’s in Homewood that gives 15 percent of the restaurant’s profit from the first Thursday evening of every month to the foundation.
“That’s amazing,” Janie-Marie said. “That’s free money for us. We’re always looking for creative ways to raise money. We’re a small community, and the same people are being tapped over and over. We’re just fortunate that this is a giving community.”
For more information on the Homewood City Schools Foundation, visit www.homewoodcityschoolsfoundation.com.
Hoover City Schools Foundation
While the Hoover City Schools Foundation’s focus is the classroom, its impact doesn’t end there.
Like the Homewood Foundation, Hoover’s gives out teacher grants each year. Starting this year, it’s broadening its scope to add student scholarships
The Hoover Foundation will fund two $1,500 scholarships – one for a Hoover High student and the other for a Spain Park student – to attend a two-year college or technical school.
Diana Knight, the foundation’s president, said it’s something the foundation wanted to do to help students even after they’ve graduated from the system.
“This is not geared to the student with the 4.5 GPA or the athletes who are already getting scholarships,” she said. “We feel there is a population that also needs help. It might be the B-C student who might be better served at a two-year college or vocational school. There is a need for those individuals working in the skilled-trade industry.”
The Hoover Foundation is taking applications for the scholarship now. It will continue to offer teacher grants, as it has since its formation 20 years ago.
Knight said when the board looks at the teacher grant applications, they are looking for new, innovative programs that the system just doesn’t have the funds to support. The grants are typically capped at $2,000 each, she said.
“We really have a big heart for the teacher grants,” she said. “Teachers put so much time and effort into what they do in the classroom, and there is no big pocketbook to test those ideas. We try to offer them the ability to do that. We like to be a place of support for them.”
Some grants given this school year include funds for a community garden at Trace Crossings Elementary, e-readers for South Shades Crest Elementary and a virtual hospital lab at Hoover High School.
Knight said the foundation also provides some funding for traveling for academic teams.
“They sometimes have more trouble raising money, so we like to help them with that,” she said.
The Hoover Foundation is primarily funded through its annual fundraiser, a clay shoot. This year’s event is set for April 24 at Selwood Farms. Knight said the shoot usually raises about $20,000 for the foundation.
The foundation is hosting another fundraiser in the fall and also receives financial support from Tameron Automotive through its Partnership in Education Program. Donations are always welcomed and needed, Knight added.
The foundation recently signed on with sharingspree.com. It’s similar to Groupon, but a percentage of the proceeds from purchases go participating charities.
For more information on the Hoover City Schools Foundation, visit www.hooverfoundation.org.
Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation
When the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation formed in the early 1990s, the goal was to build an endowment to perpetually assist the system financially.
The foundation quickly achieved that goal and has been giving to Mountain Brook schools since 1995, said Carmine Jordan. To date, the foundation has given almost $4.5 million to the system.
Carmine is the executive director of the foundation. She works out of office space donated to the foundation.
When it comes to assisting Mountain Brook Schools, Carmine said the foundation focuses primarily on three areas – technology, professional development and library enhancement.
The Mountain Brook Foundation does not give out teacher grants. Instead it annually meets with department heads who have collaborated with teachers and staff to determine the greatest needs.
The amount given each year is based on the balance of the endowment, which is now at about $7 million.
“What we do is we give 5 percent of whatever the balance is after 12 quarters,” Carmine said. “That way, the system always gets something, but it protects the endowment. The foundation is affected like any market; that’s why we’re always looking for pledges.”
Pledge cards are given to all new students. Carmine said the foundation is also working to get more Mountain Brook alumni involved.
Though Mountain Brook residents pay more local taxes for education than any other district in the state, Carmine said that doesn’t make the school system immune to proration.
That’s where the foundation steps in, she said.
“We really look at three things: is it innovative, can it be continued and then desperation,” she said. “Desperation is when we’re trying to replace what’s wearing out.”
When it comes to technology, the foundation has done anything from replacing outdated laptops to purchasing state-of-the-art Promethean boards, interactive white boards that connect with a computer, for the elementary school classrooms.
The foundation also offers professional development opportunities during the summer for training in some of the latest technologies and teaching trends.
“Every summer we have an academy for five days,” Carmine said. “Teachers have every opportunity to learn, and we have a very high participation rate. They really have an enthusiasm to learn and get very excited about it.”
For more information on the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation, visit www.mtnbrookschoolsfoundation.com
Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation
When the Vestavia Hills City School Foundation formed, it looked to Mountain Brook’s as a model.
Ashley, the Vestavia Foundation’s executive director, said they wanted to have an endowment, as Mountain Brook did, to perpetually fund it.
The foundation formed in 1996, and by 1999 it was giving to the system. Since then, close to $500,000 has been granted to Vestavia’s eight schools.
Currently, said Ashley, the endowment is right at $2 million. The goal, she said, is to give about $64,000 to the schools each year.
Ashley said the foundation focuses on three areas: professional development, technology and classroom enhancement.
While the foundation is mainly funded through pledges, it does have an annual fundraiser, Dinners, Diamonds and Destinations. This year’s event is set for Feb. 25 at Ted’s Garage.
Ashley said they’ve also gotten students involved in raising money through Foundation February, where students are encouraged to donate their change to the foundation.
“This is a way kids can invest in their school,” she said. “Last year we made about $38,000 from the kids. That money is invested in the endowment.
“We want them to understand that they’re giving back and investing in their schools.”
Since the state has cut funding for professional development, Ashley said, teacher training has been a big focus for the foundation.
She said the foundation has funded a trip to New York for training as well as in-house training in the latest math, science and reading curriculums.
“Technology of course is big, too,” she said. “Right now we are funding iPads for the schools. The high school really wants to go paperless and use the iPads to take notes. We’re trying to contribute in those efforts. We just really want to be able to bring the latest and greatest technology.”
For more information on the Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation, visit www.vestaviafoundation.org.