Support groups rise to the occasion during lean times

by Contributing Columnist

Published: July 5,2004

Tight budgets are a fact of life for most educators, who often struggle to fund basic programs yet alone the “extras” in areas such as the arts and technology. But several private-sector groups have taken a leadership role in funding innovations and initiatives that promote educational excellence.

One such group is Tupelo’s Association for Excellence in Education (AEE), which on average has contributed approximately $100,000 per year to the Tupelo Public School District (TPSD) since its inception in 1983. All work is conducted by volunteers so that AEE dollars may flow directly to educational programs. Monies are donated to the schools in the form of small grants and large grants, which are determined by AEE committees under the auspices of the AEE board of directors.

David Meadows, TPSD assistant superintendent, says that the continuing support of AEE helps teachers and administrators by providing “the oxygen and fuel” for sparks of curriculum innovation.

“The funds provided by AEE in the form of teacher grants provide continuing support for student success and excellence,” Meadows said. “These funds, however, are geometrically enhanced by the time, talent, interest and caring of the membership of the Association for Excellence in Education. Individually and collectively, the members of AEE help the Tupelo Public School District secure excellence for all.”

While all areas of the curriculum have been enhanced by the encouragement and effort of AEE, the areas of global languages, fine arts and reading have blossomed with AEE’s help, according to Meadows.

“Because of AEE, children in the Tupelo Public School District now have access to Spanish from kindergarten through grade twelve.”

The group raises money in the community via memberships from individuals, civic groups and businesses of all sizes. AEE has also taken the initiative to provide technical assistance in areas such as grant writing, according to AEE president Jonathan Davis, via periodic teacher workshops.

Ripley schools have also garnered support for educational initiatives through their Enrichment Group. Enrichment volunteer Kyle Smith, an executive vice president with The Peoples Bank, Ripley, said that the group originally came together in 1988 when concerned parents banded together to raise seed money to assist the school board in its efforts to provide air conditioning in the schools.

Smith said that as one of the original organizers of Enrichment, he was inspired at a CREATE Foundation meeting by the track record of educational support groups in Tupelo and Corinth.

Over the years, Enrichment has evolved and provides teacher support in a number of areas, according to Smith.

“We assist the school board and principals in achieving their goals for students, we recognize honor students with a nice reception, we support the high school musical each year and we’ve put our support behind special projects such as the middle school computer lab in the 1990s,” he said.

Enrichment was also instrumental in raising money for the Math and Science Complex, the field house and band hall.

“Enrichment has had a tremendous impact on education in our area,” Smith said. “It has been an important means of bringing the community together to support educational initiatives and in getting people involved in improving education.” Smith added that when community residents see the needs within the schools by visiting with students and teachers and by volunteering, they can better appreciate the challenges that school districts face in managing resources.

While many of the original organizers are still involved in some way with Enrichment, Smith said it is important for any educational support group to recruit new supporters and volunteers. “We want Enrichment to be around 25 to 50 years from now and in order to enjoy that type of longevity, you have to be committed to getting new people involved.”

Bobby Pepper, president of ExPECT, the educational support group for Lee County Schools, agrees. ExPECT, which has been in existence since 1989, also provides funding for classroom extras that are not in the existing budget. This past year, the group contributed around $22,000, according to Pepper.

While the group has individual memberships, ExPECT also hosts a golf tournament to raise money for its efforts. After projects are funded, Pepper said that the group follows up with teachers and administrators to determine how the projects are impacting classroom learning efforts. He added that as a volunteer, it is rewarding to receive feedback from parents or teachers about the value of the program.

“ExPECT has had a positive impact on our schools,” he said. “On various occasions, I’ve had teachers come up to me and tell me how much they’ve appreciated ExPECT’s support or that they couldn’t have done a particular classroom project without ExPECT’s help. It’s those types of comments that make it all worthwhile. We are grateful for the help that we’ve received as a United Way agency and looking ahead, we hope to increase our support from the broader business community in Lee County.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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