MI Schools Foundation keeps focus in classroom

Established in 1981, the Mercer Island Schools Foundation has raised millions of dollars for Island schools. It helps schools purchase new equipment and books, and funds enrichment activities for students. Yet now funds donated by Islander parents and corporate sponsors also goes toward making up for what has been lost due to state spending cuts.

Over the past couple of years, its mission has expanded to blunt the effect of cuts in state funding for public schools.

“Today, because of budget cuts, schools foundations exist across our state to provide critical resources for curriculum, textbooks, materials and staff development. The funding goes beyond what the state provides,” said Penny Yantis, executive director.

Last year, the foundation set out to raise money to make up for the loss of state funding, along with its usual goal to raise money to support both students and teachers.

Last year, the foundation had set out to raise a total of $1.2 million to “Bridge the Gap” to keep a dozen teachers whose positions were to be cut. And they did. Along with the funds donated for enrichment grants, the foundation raised a total of $1,752,000.

With cuts to school funding expected to continue or even grow, there has been even fewer resources for teachers to try innovative ways to teach and motivate students.

To that end, the Mercer Island Schools Foundation awarded a total of $70,000 of enrichment grants to all five schools and Crest in 2011-2012. It plans to distribute the same amount in the coming school term.

The 2011-2012  awards included money for everything from field trips into the woods in Redmond, to new computer software, to life skills cooking classes. Grants were made to hire artists in residence for drama technique, band and orchestra, and even technical illustrators. Foundation funds also helped pay for a trip to the opera, a spelling handbook and many kinds of books, new curriculum and cultural experiences.

PTA organizations also offer enrichment grant funding to teachers as well.

The foundation and PTA work together with the school district administration to make sure that as many requests as possible can be collectively funded, Yantis explained.

At the same time, the foundation has made it easier for busy teachers to apply for the extra resources.

Last year, the foundation began accepting the Universal Grant  form from those applying for grants. Teachers only need to write a request once. In the past, they applied to both the foundation and PTA for funding using different applications.

The school district, PTA and the foundation work together to match funding for each project or proposal.

Grants that are for technology are moved to the district and are funded out of Tech Levy dollars approved by voters. Basic education requests are moved to school district budgets, assuring that the foundation and PTA grant budgets truly fund enrichment for students throughout the district.

The foundation also sets aside a portion of the $70,000 for Special Services to support requests from Special Education classrooms across the district. Grants this past year paid for a social skills curriculum, a sensory calming room and walkie-talkies for the staff.

The 2012-2013 grant process begins in September with a presentation to the staff at each school. Teachers then apply and are notified in November about grant funding. They must spend the money for its approved use before the end of the school year.

Every spring, the foundation puts on its annual Breakfast of Champions event to help support Mercer Island schools. Last year, the breakfast — with matching grants — raised over $660,000.

The event, held at the high school this past April, brought together over 500 supporters.

Superintendent Gary Plano thanked those at the event.

“Our students today will grow up and may one day find cures to diseases, find new sources of energy, and have the strong ethics and character to lead financial institutions, teach children and run companies. But they and we can’t do it without you,” he said.

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