Public schools foundations making a difference in students’ education

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By Robert Pore
robert.pore@theindependent.com | Posted: Thursday, October 13, 2016 10:00 pm

With public funding for education facing challenges, public school foundations will look to fill the gaps and make sure students don’t fall behind as society demands better educated and technically skilled workers.

That was one of the themes on Thursday as the Grand Island Public Schools Foundation hosted a Regional School Foundation Association workshop at the Career Pathways Institute. About 70 people attended.

The event was organized by Traci Skalberg, Grand Island Public Schools Foundation executive director, with a host of other school foundation officials from across the state.

Skalberg said the workshop’s goal was to “raise the bar for public school foundations,” give more training and opportunities to network and “help school districts and their foundations to create those public and private partnerships that we know are so important to success in the classroom nowadays.”

Skalberg said organizers are putting together a Nebraska Association of Public School Foundations, which will be a full affiliate of the National School Foundation Association.

“It is a network of individuals who are out there doing the same work that we do,” she said. “Everybody is alone in their own community, and we feel like we need to come together to share expertise and values just to help kids.”

The new Nebraska Association of Public School Foundations is administered by the Grand Island Public Schools Foundation. The state affiliation gives Nebraska national recognition as a leader in the education foundation movement.

Among those attending the meeting was Wendy Van, president of the Foundation for Lincoln Public Schools and president of the Nebraska Association of Public School Foundations.

Van said some the greatest strengths of public schools are the partnerships they form with the community.

“There is so much that our tax dollars do for the baseline of public education,” she said. “A school district’s job is to make sure that students who are in the community have equal access to high-quality education.”

Skalberg said the Grand Island Public Schools Foundation is a “fantastic partner for the school district to be able to invest in kids.”

She said taxpayers’ dollars are an important source of revenue that keeps schools running.

“They spend it wisely, but there are always more needs than there are dollars, so, in our case, the Grand Island Public Schools Foundation adds about a little more than $1 million per year into kids that the school district cannot do by itself,” Skalberg said. “You can imagine that kind of influence it has in rounding out that influence for your kids at Grand Island Public Schools.

“It takes a lot of people and volunteer hours and a lot of donors,” Skalberg said. “We have been fortunate to invest in our kids at a pretty significant rate. We are talking about $100 per kid per year.”

Career Pathways Institute, where the workshop took place, has benefited from that public/private partnership to become a showcase for Grand Island Public Schools.

“It is something we are proud of,” Skalberg said.

Van said each community’s public schools have different needs, along with their school foundation. The state association was formed because of those differences.

She said a small group of public school foundation members have been getting together informally each year to share knowledge.

“We are the only entity in our communities like us,” Van said. “So we have to reach out to other communities to find peer networking. ... With what is happening with tax funding and what is happening with our students, public school foundations are more important than ever.”

On Thursday, school foundations from across the state came together to develop strategies for helping communities better understand how their foundations can impact public education in positive ways, she said.

“Most of us provide funding that fills in the gaps that parents and schools can’t provide on their own,” Van said. “Most of us do things that level the playing field.”

She said the foundation in Lincoln helps children with disabilities to make sure they have full access to the public education system.

“What happens before and after school is a real critical time in a child’s life,” Van said, “and that is where the public school foundation can come in and help support some of those extra needs that schools have.”

Thursday’s event also featured National School Foundation Association Executive Director Robin Callahan from Seattle and GIPS Superintendent Tawana Grover, who kicked off the workshop with a welcome address.

Grover said school districts face the challenge of doing more with less while providing students an innovative and quality education. Public school foundations help to provide funding to make sure all students get equal access to public education.

She provided the example of the Career Pathways Institute as a public/private partnership that helps educate students to meet today’s challenges. Much of the money for CPI came from the foundation and the private sector.

“When the Grand Island Public Schools and the community come together, it will make a difference for our students,” Grover said.