Special report, part 4: Not even outside help can fix schools

At Grover Heights Elementary School, Jeremy Rollins paints over a watercolor pencil drawing with a wet brush. The art lesson was taught by Peggy Valko, whose weekly classroom visits are funded entirely by the Grover Beach school’s parent-teacher association.
At Grover Heights Elementary School, Jeremy Rollins paints over a watercolor pencil drawing with a wet brush. The art lesson was taught by Peggy Valko, whose weekly classroom visits are funded entirely by the Grover Beach school’s parent-teacher association.

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 » | Part 4

For about six years, art instructor Peggy Valko has helped the students of Grover Heights Elementary School get some perspective.

She’s also taught them about colors, lines, shading and other tricks of the trade.

“I really wasn’t interested in art before,” 12-year-old Allison Yrigollen said. “Then (Valko) started coming to my class, and I started getting really into it.”

Valko might be a fixture on the Grover Beach campus, but she doesn’t work for the Lucia Mar Unified School District. Her weekly classroom visits are paid for entirely by the school’s parent-teacher association.

“Those are the types of experiences we want to be able to provide students,” Grover Heights Principal Jeff Martin explained, because they help engage young people.

But, he added, “in this tough budget time, we have to prioritize’’ and focus on core subjects.

As a result, Lucia Mar and other districts are looking to San Luis Obispo County’s countless booster clubs, community service groups, education foundations and parent-teacher organizations for help.

Although school administrators agree that those nonprofit groups provide invaluable support — in the form of funds, supplies, volunteer hours and other resources — they say fundraising efforts are ultimately just “a drop in the bucket.”

“My experience with ... fundraising is the real benefit is the communication and advocacy you can build with the people you’re working with,” county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said. “It’s not the money. It is impossible to fill the gap.”

Not core, but critical

Although many of the activities being funded by outside groups — including athletics, music and the arts — aren’t considered part of the core curriculum, supporters say they’re essential to a well-rounded education.

“Sometimes students have a difficult time being motivated or engaged by an ordinary classroom,” Martin said. “We want to be able to do that on a day-to-day basis in a classroom.”

Piper Adelman, president of the Arroyo Grande High School Eagle Boosters, said she’s witnessed firsthand how extracurricular programs can turn kids’ attitudes on school around.

“A lot of them get really ambivalent about academics, but sports will get them to school,” said Adelman, a librarian at Grover Beach Elementary School. “They know that if they’re not in the classroom during the day, they won’t be on the field that afternoon or evening.”

The Eagle Boosters covers equipment, uniform and transportation expenses for 22 varsity sports, including football. Parent volunteers ferry student athletes in the group’s six vans.

When the Arroyo Grande High girls basketball team headed to the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AAA championship in Anaheim in March, the Eagle Boosters paid for everything from gas to hotel rooms.

“Every bit of it costs money,” said Adelman, whose organization brings in about $100,000 “on a good year.” “They (the district) wouldn’t be able to run the program without us.”

Nipomo High School’s drama department depends entirely on fundraising and ticket sales, said Tammi Matta, whose youngest son is a junior there.

The Rotary Club of Nipomo’s annual Taste of Italy fundraiser garners about $10,000, roughly one-tenth of the program’s budget. “That’s basically our start-up money for the year,” Matta said, paying for costumes, sets and guest directors and choreographers.

“Teaming up with Rotary has made a tremendous difference,” she said, noting that the group has also boosted ticket sales, moved set pieces and helped finance a student trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. “If not for Rotary, I don’t think we’d be able to maintain the level of quality that we do.”

At Cayucos Elementary School, music teacher Emery Gall applauded the support she’s received from the beach community.

Three years ago, the Cayukulele Ladies purchased six ukuleles for the school, which bought 22 more instruments using money donated by the Cayucos Senior Citizens Club. Then, in May, the SLO Strummers — the Ukulele Society of the Central Coast — arranged for professional ukulele player Herb Ohta Jr. to perform for the students.

“Self-made music is self-made happiness,” Gall said, as well as a great way to build self-esteem.

Creative fundraising

As parent-run groups work to enhance students’ experiences in and out of the classroom, education foundations are considering broader, more ambitious goals.

Founded just over a decade ago, the TEACh Foundation — The Endowment for the Advancement of Children — provides individual grants ranging from $125 to $1,000 to teachers in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District.

This spring, grants went to teachers seeking to fund a math festival at Baywood Elementary School in Los Osos, physical fitness equipment at C.L. Smith Elementary School in San Luis Obispo and a self-defense karate instructor at San Luis Obispo High School.

“Some of these teachers go through extraordinary lengths on their own time to create opportunities outside the classroom,” foundation President Terri Main said.

In addition to teacher grants and scholarships, the Paso Robles Education Alliance is focusing on larger efforts such as the Classroom of Tomorrow project, a joint effort with the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District aimed at outfitting classrooms with digital projectors, sound systems and cameras. (The 4-year-old foundation chipped in about $20,000, on top of $35,000 in other donations.)

The Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation, meanwhile, is working with the South County district to develop a technology-based high school on the campus of Nipomo High and transform Grover Beach Elementary into a magnet school known for academic achievement.

Board President Beth Curran likened the foundation to a venture capital fund that provides seed money to school districts.

“We’re looking to support innovative programs that can advance our students’ skills,” she said, such as communication, critical thinking and technological savvy.

Since its establishment in December 2010, the foundation has raised $370,000 with the help of big-name donors such as PG&E, Wells Fargo and Rabobank.

“I think there’s always going to be a role for private philanthropy in public education,” Curran said.

“Obviously, people who have kids ... or grandkids in school are the most personally connected to the needs of the school,” she said. “Right now, we’re trying to ferret out the individuals and business that haven’t necessarily been engaged.”

Jeff Railsback, business liaison for the Paso Robles Education Alliance, agreed.

“My goal is that, five years from now, when someone comes in to do business in Paso Robles, their first step is to join the Chamber of Commerce — then turn around and write a check to PREA,” he said.

So many needs

Although education foundations stress that they’re not competing with parent-run groups for donations, it’s clear that organizations on every level are facing fundraiser fatigue.

“People are pulling away from the thought process that it takes a village to raise a child,” said May Nunes, whose three children attend Santa Rosa Academic Academy in Atascadero. “Everybody’s working on a bare-bones budget. We all have to chip in.”

As fundraising chairwoman of her school’s PTA, she’s seen big drops in donations and volunteers due to the economic downturn — coinciding with budget cuts at the district level.

“There’s so much that parents are having to do to make up for (the cuts),” said Christin Brittingham, vice president of Grover Heights Elementary’s PTA, noting that many families can’t afford after-school programs or private lessons. “They get asked so many times ... for so many things.”

Sandy Throop, treasurer of the Paso Robles High School Band Backers, agreed that times have gotten tougher for parents and students.

Her organization, which raises money for music instructors, uniforms and other expenses, saw its budget goals grow from about $50,000 in 2008 to $75,000 last year when the district announced it was no longer covering transportation costs. Now students can’t participate in regional events such as the Western Band Association Competition in Fresno.

“It’s just really disappointing for the kids,” said Throop, adding that cuts to elementary and middle school music programs make her concerned about the future of band.

Nonetheless, Coast Union Bronco Booster Club President Karen McManus gets the sense that county residents still care about schools. Her group raises money for everything from art classes to dance, drama and sporting events.

“People realize that a healthy school system means a healthy community,” she said.

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 » | Part 4