Over the past spring break, in the Vassar Alumnae/i House, the Arlington Education Foundation (AEF) hosted its fifth annual Spring Benefit.
Held in one of campus’ most iconic buildings, and organized by a non-profit focused on raising money for public schools, the event represented the ties stretching between Vassar College and its next-door neighbor, the community of Arlington.
Vassar Associate Professor of Cognitive Sciences Janet Andrews enrolled her children in the Arlington public school system from first to twelfth grade. She also currently serves as a member of the AEF’s Board of Trustees.
“Many Vassar faculty, administration and staff are Arlington district residents,” she said. “Many of our children have gone to or currently go to or will go to Arlington schools.”
Through a mix of individual donations and sponsorships with local businesses, the AEF raises funds that directly support projects in Arlington Central School District public schools .
Executive Director of the Arlington Education Foundation, Mary Beth Kaminsky explained how public school districts’ budgets rarely match all the projects or improvements that the school would like to complete. Public schools across the country then depend on non-profits like the AEF to cover the difference.
Said Kaminsky, “For many years now, education foundations have been filling that void at various levels.”
Three years ago, members of the AEF sat down with the Arlington School District superintendent and asked where the district needed the funds. His reply: technology.
The AEF has raised $33,000 this year, bringing them within a year of successfully completing their goal of raising a total $100,000. All this money is for the 21st Century Classroom initiative, which is installing interactive projection systems in dozens of district classrooms.
Previously, the AEF concentrated mainly on so-called mini-grants, projects proposed by teachers or staff members and typically requiring no more than $1,000.
Some successful proposals listed on the Foundation’s website that secured grants include an aquarium lab at Arlington High School and a weather station at Lagrange Middle School. The AEF also awards college scholarships to seniors at Arlington High School who are pursuing advanced education. The size of these scholarships range from $500 to $2,000.
Three years ago, the AEF decided to temporarily suspend the small grant program and work more closely with the school district. Members of the Foundation discovered that while the small grants did a good job addressing the needs of individual classrooms, there were still large-scale district-wide projects going underfunded with which the schools wanted to pursue.
“You have various projects which are absolutely all good,” said Kaminsky, “but again, we were looking at what would have an even greater impact and what would all students ultimately get a piece of?”
Kaminsky continued that the implementation of projection systems, which are similar in design to Smart Boards, is exactly the type of project the Foundation had been looking for. According to Kaminsky, each annual donation of $33,000 can buy roughly 14 interactive projection screens.
Kaminsky described raising all that money in three years as the Foundation’s most ambitious in its 15-year history.
“It was a definite challenge for us,” said Kaminsky. “We hadn’t done anything like that before, and [the schools] were very dependent on us. They had built their plans around the foundation supporting a piece of their work.”
Andrews considered the AEF’s work as necessary to combat the financial shortfall public schools routinely face.
She said, “Why do public school districts need a foundation? And the answer is that taxes and state aid don’t support enough funding for public schools, and so the Foundation is a way for people who are willing to provide additional financial support to do so.”
The funds raised by the state don’t often go all the way to cover the full costs of new technology and classroom improvements.
Said Andrews, “There isn’t really enough funding unless a wealthy school district is willing to pay even more taxes. But instead, the push has been in the other direction. There have been rules put in place to limit the amount of taxes that can be raised.”
Kaminsky shared that this year’s Spring Benefit raised $36,000. Contributing $5,000 to that sum was the main attraction of the evening, the silent auction. Items available for bid ranged from a three-course meal at the Culinary Institute of America to season passes to the Powerhouse Theater, courtesy of Vassar College.
Sponsorships from various local businesses provided the rest of the money. Rose and Kiernan insurance firm donated $7,500 and the law office of Shaw, Perelson, May & Lambert combined with WSP, a civil engineering firm, both donated $5,000.
The event’s proceeds thrilled Kaminsky. Further, she expressed how she was also glad that of all locations, the benefit took place at the Alumnae House.
She said, “This year, we changed it up and moved it to the Vassar alumnae/i house, which we feel is really the heart of Arlington school district, right by Vassar, kind of where Arlington all started.”