by Elizabeth Christopher
When I think about the 10 great ideas that got funded [through the Innovation Grants,] I’m excited that in a few years, instead of just 10 great ideas, we’ll have 30 and then 50 great ideas, and we will be able to see what impact that has had on the schools,” LaFontana said.
Even for those of us long past graduation, the back-to-school season is a chance to return home and reconnect with the community.
This sense of connection is a theme that several Melrosians echoed as we talked about their experiences as volunteers at four local organizations: the Melrose Education Foundation, The Bridge, Melrose Alliance Against Violence, and Bread of Life, which I write about in a series of three Sitting In columns for the Melrose Free Press.
The volunteers I spoke with had different stories and interests. Their ages ranged from a teen entering her senior year at Melrose High School to a retired computer programmer entering his 60s. Some have been in Melrose all their lives; others only a few years. But what resonated, what seems to bind them together is their instinct — their drive — to be part of a community in a way that was meaningful to them.
For Kim LaFontana, a health care executive who moved to Melrose with her husband six years ago, the decision to deepen her involvement in the community came when her youngest daughter turned 3.
“Being a working mom, it is hard to connect — you’re not at the playgroups, not at pickups. Volunteering is one way to meet other parents with similar interests,” she said. “But to have the motivation to go to that meeting at the end of your day, it is important to choose something you care about.”
When LaFontana learned that the Melrose Education Foundation was forming, she jumped at the chance to be part of its board.
The Melrose Education Foundation launched this spring. Its mission is to raise private funds to grant money to Melrose Public School staff to pay for educational initiatives that are beyond the reach of the district’s budget.
“Education is highly valued in our household,” said LaFontana, who often discusses with her husband, a high school teacher, the barriers many teachers experience.
“Some good ideas don’t get done because the budget isn’t there to fund certain programs,” she said, adding that she is excited about the opportunity that the foundation has to create a pool of money that will enable educators to run with some of those good ideas.
The work of the foundation aims to build on the success of the city of Melrose’s 2012 Innovation Grants, according to LaFontana, who is the chairwoman of the foundation’s Grants Committee.
“When I think about the 10 great ideas that got funded [through the Innovation Grants,] I’m excited that in a few years, instead of just 10 great ideas, we’ll have 30 and then 50 great ideas, and we will be able to see what impact that has had on the schools,” LaFontana said.
Karen Grant Blackburn, also a foundation board member, shared the same sense of enthusiasm: “I want my kids to come home excited about school,” she told me.
Like LaFontana, Grant Blackburn works full time, as vice president of development and communications at a non-profit organization headquartered in Boston. As chairwoman of the foundation’s fundraising committee, Grant Blackburn said volunteering for the foundation enables her to use her fundraising skills for maximum impact while being more present in her children’s educational lives.
“So often when I talk to other parents — outside of our parent-teacher conferences — we are not sure where to go with questions and ideas.” The foundation hopes to help expand the dialogue among everyone involved in educating a child.
Another benefit of education foundations is that they enable school systems to pilot new initiatives on a small scale and work out the kinks without a large investment, according to Social Studies Department Chairman Bryan Corrigan.
Before coming to Melrose, Corrigan taught in Belmont. With a grant from the Belmont Education Foundation, Corrigan purchased devices that allowed him to easily integrate “formative assessments” into his classroom teaching. The devices worked with smart board technology, enabling Corrigan to periodically break from the lesson to quickly assess student learning and modify his teaching as required.
When the project was deemed a success, he participated in district-wide training on the tool, which led to other teachers across departments integrating use of the assessment tool into their classes.
Through another grant, Corrigan introduced five netbooks (which are smaller, less-powerful, and less-expensive laptops) into his U.S. history classes. This enabled students to gain more time practicing research methods and digital literacy skills (two skills required by the state’s Common Core standards).
The success of his netbook experiment was instrumental in the department choosing to pilot the use of iPads in US history classes last year.
While technology is at the top of some departments’ list of needs, across departments, needs are different. “There are small purchases that can go a long way,” Corrigan acknowledged, adding that using “grants and creating partnerships is all about what it is like to run a school in the 21st century.”
There are many ways parents and community members can get involved in the Melrose Education Foundation, including helping with events and promotions or simply making a donation on its website.
“One of the best things parents, grandparents, and caregivers can do,” Grant Blackburn said, is being an ambassador for the foundation and raising awareness among other parents and educators. “Ask your child’s teacher, what would you do in your classroom with $500 or $1,000? And then say to them: Check out the Melrose Education Foundation,” she said.
The Melrose Education Foundation invites everyone to help the foundation start the year off strong by participating in two fundraising events on Sept. 21. Work Out / Night Out is a morning workout with Melrose Boot Camp and an evening kick-off party at the Beebe Estate, where attendees will have a chance to meet foundation volunteers and other Melrosians committed to education.
To find out more about Work Out / Night Out and other ways you can support the Melrose Education Foundation, visit MelroseEdFoundation.org.
Elizabeth Christopher is a Melrose Education Foundation board member.