It Takes a Village

California’s education foundations connect communities to their schools

Back Article Oct 25, 2016 By Cherise Henry

Lisa Liss has taught in high-poverty schools for the entirety of her 28-year teaching career, including her current fifth-grade classroom within Twin Rivers Unified School District. She has witnessed the benefits of her local education foundation, the latest in educational finance, offering her students the monetary support to attend field trips that would otherwise be unrealistic for them to join.

“Attending a museum where the kids get to actually see and experience things that they’ve studied is just phenomenal,” says Liss, who is also the current president of Project DREAM a North Highlands-based education foundation that raises money to benefit students of the Twin Rivers Unified School District. “As a teacher, it’s one of the most rewarding times — because after I’ve taught the lesson, to be able to go out and show them what we’ve been learning and see how excited they are about it … they learn so much. It’s life-changing experiences that these kids couldn’t have been able to have if the foundation hadn’t kicked in and helped us.”

With California’s public school finance system undergoing dramatic changes in recent years, some public school districts now rely more on education foundations to supplement the districts’ budgets for traditionally school-funded resources and enrichment programs. About 600 local education foundations across California support public schools, according to the California Consortium of Education Foundations, a nonprofit organization that facilitates the creation, growth and effectiveness of local education foundations.

“Education foundations have become a part of the educational landscape with a dual mission of supporting their public schools financially and engaging the community around them,” says CCEF Executive Director Susan Sweeney. “We are seeing a growth in the education foundation movement, and we believe that every community is stronger with an education foundation.”

Education foundations fundamentally link communities with their schools under a common goal: to improve education for all of California’s students.

In the Capital Region

Education foundations are nonprofits and generally comprise a volunteer board of directors, including parents, teachers, district staff and community members. Foundations raise money through auctions, golf tournaments and galas, alongside business sponsorships and individual donations from parents and community members. Depending on the group’s mission, funds then support grants that teachers apply for, classroom technology, field trips and enrichment programs like art, music and athletics. Beyond the dollars, education foundations offer school districts many other bottom-line benefits: They connect people and businesses with their local schools, increase teacher and faculty morale and broaden support for public education. It’s a win-win for all.

Some highly successful and dominant foundations in the Capital Region fundraise upward of $300,000 or more per year, like the 24-year-old Eureka Schools Foundation that supports the Eureka Union School District in Granite Bay and east Roseville. “Without that money, the district would not be able to offer the types of programs that they offer,” says Matt McGarty, the foundation’s immediate past president. The money raised, he says, supports programs like athletics, band and libraries not funded by state or county tax dollars. “Studies have proven that enrichment programs lead to higher test scores and happier children, and that is certainly our goal as parents to try and provide that for our children,” he says.

Parent and community involvement is critical to improving student achievement and school performance, McGarty says, and the Eureka Schools Foundation is “blessed” to have an abundance of support. “I think that’s the reason why we have not only people who give generously of their money, but also of their time. We do a number of events throughout the year that take a tremendous number of man-hours to pull off,” he says. The Auction Gala and Foundation Cup Golf Tournament is one of the foundation’s most popular annual events. But the foundation’s big funding challenge is derived from declining enrollment within the district: “Do we either replace those students and the funding they bring in, or do we have to close schools?” McGarty says, “Which obviously nobody wants to do.”

In addition to the Eureka Schools Foundation, the San Juan Education Foundation and Roseville City School District Foundation also raise significant funds for their schools  — often well over $100,000 per year.

McGarty says he hopes that through the foundation’s continuous fundraising efforts, they will be able to bridge the gap in funding. “We are contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to the school district to pay for these critical programs, and it’s a stream of revenue that the district can rely on in a challenging budget environment,” he says.

Doing More With Less

While some school districts greatly benefit from these foundation-funding models, other education foundations in the region simply don’t have the affluent pocketbooks from parents or local businesses to donate money or time. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, wealthier schools and districts are more likely to have support from fundraising organizations like education foundations, generating more dollars on a per-pupil basis than poorer schools.

“The students within Twin Rivers School District are largely low income, about 80 to 82 percent of the population qualifies for free or reduced lunch,” says Chris Abare, treasurer for Project DREAM. The organization covers parts of Rio Linda, Foothill Farms and North Highlands. In the 2013-14 school year, Twin Rivers served 1,994 homeless students and 309 students in foster care. “This is not a wealthy district that the students are coming from,” Abare says. “A lot of the time, the students who are going off to college are the first of their families to do that.”

To help support its students’ college aspirations, Project DREAM established a scholarship to help the college-bound students shop for college dorm amenities, or by providing each student with a laptop through a program called College Bound. This is all on top of the $75,000 to $80,000 in annual funds provided to teachers that help support the primary goal of Project DREAM, which is to fund academic enrichment field trips and experiences that the district could otherwise not afford. Abare says about 50 percent of the funds spent each year go to overnight science camps for students, while the other 50 percent pays for field trips to museums or theaters, competitions, music programs and science centers.  

As demonstrated by Project DREAM, the education foundations for low-income school districts continue to work against unique challenges, in comparison to its more affluent counterparts in wealthier districts. “We’ve spent $650,000 over the last eight years on our students, plus another $100,000 on the College Bound program. I think that’s pretty remarkable, considering what we’re working with,” Abare says. “We get feedback from the students, and they write these sweet letters thanking us … like the College Bound kids saying, ‘You have no idea how much help, support and confidence you gave me.’ So that’s what it’s about. That’s why we’re still doing what we’re doing.”

The Big Picture

California’s education foundations raise more than $250 million to benefit public school districts, and more than 36,000 community leaders serve on the boards of education foundations as volunteers, according to 2009 statistics from the CCEF. Keeping the foundation-funding movement alive and thriving through community support will continue to improve educational opportunities for students across the state.

Sofia Barandas was one of the first groups of fifth grade students that teacher Liss brought to Sacramento SPLASH — a local program that helps children understand and value nature through science education and outdoor exploration — as an enrichment activity through the district. Barandas has now graduated from high school and is enrolled at Humboldt State University beginning this fall semester  to study oceanography, a passion she developed as a young student. “Opportunities like SPLASH are what really made my dreams come true,” Barandas says. “It was in fifth grade that participating in out-of-the-classroom experiences shaped my career. Attending SPLASH opened the door for my future at Humboldt.” 


Robin Callahan (not verified)October 26, 2016 - 5:42am

What is happening in California taking place in almost every state in the country. Schools foundations are growing in both number and impact across the country as they work with their community and school district to ensure students have the resources they need to succeed. Kudos to the California Consortium of Education Foundations and all education foundations in California for their commitment to students and their futures.