Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System Executive Director Keila Stovall says one of the nonprofit’s top priorites for 2017 is to diversify its funding sources and create a strategic plan for future growth to continue supporting local public schools. Photography by Don Kadair
Nonprofit foundations have been raising money for private schools and universities for decades. A few years ago, supporters of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System decided it was time to get into the act.
“It kind of fills the gap between what’s available with tax funding, and what we want to try in our school system that may be new, innovative, or looks a little different,” says Keila Stovall, executive director of the Foundation for East Baton Rouge School System.
In 2011, a group of businesspeople, community leaders and other education stakeholders began meeting to craft a new strategic plan for the local school system. One of the committees proposed creating an independent foundation that would provide supplemental resources for programs that schools couldn’t afford on their own.
“They basically come to us and say, ‘What do you need?’ It has given opportunities for kids in our schools to do things that they would not have been able to do before.” —East Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Warren Drake
In preparing to launch the new organization, they relied on advice from the National School Foundation Association. NSFA Executive Director Robin Callahan says such foundations started springing up about 30 years ago and have become more prevalent during the past 15 years. Today, they’re one of the fastest-growing nonprofit sectors.
The most successful education foundations know what their students need and who in the community can best meet them, and then they serve as a conduit to fill the gap, Callahan says. That might include donating school supplies, providing internships or volunteering time in the classroom. Resources are limited and no organization can do everything, so savvy foundations are careful not to duplicate other group’s efforts.
“They basically come to us and say, ‘What do you need?’” says East Baton Rouge Schools Superintendent Warren Drake. “It has given opportunities for kids in our schools to do things that they would not have been able to do before.”
The foundation serves as a liaison between the school system and the business community, particularly in the areas of science and technology, Drake says. Through the foundation, businesspeople can donate not only their money, but also their time and expertise to enhance the classroom experience.
There is no “typical” K-12 school foundation, Callahan says, because there is so much variation in what school systems need. But she says a strong focus on STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is common.
“During the early days we sat around the table and started talking about, ‘What kinds of programs are we seeking for the district?’” recalls Ted Firnberg, co-owner of School Aids and a member of the local foundation’s board of directors. “It became apparent during that discussion that our district—and for that matter, our state—was not as far along in STEM education as other states and districts.”
Business and industry partners say STEM is important for the local workforce, Firnberg adds. Local kids may not have a “STEM identity” that allows them to see themselves as future engineers or computer programmers, Stovall says.
“The kids have to be able to say, ‘I can see myself doing that,’” Stovall says. “Just kind of opening up the world of possibilities.”
In October, ExxonMobil—the foundation’s biggest financial supporter—donated $100,000 to help establish the STEM Learning Network, Pathways to STEM Education, described as an effort to “create high-quality STEM learning opportunities for K-12 students and teachers.” That includes support for the STEMup middle school mentoring program, “maker spaces” in elementary school libraries, teacher and school grants, professional development opportunities, robotics, chess and STEM expos.
Also, “the network will establish and guide school community advisory boards in matching STEM career professionals with educators seeking to deepen the influence of STEM education,” according to the grant announcement. Two high schools—Scotlandville Magnet Pre-Engineering Academy and Lee High School—will get money to implement project-based learning initiatives.
As Ken Miller, Baton Rouge area engineering services manager at ExxonMobil and foundation board member, describes it, the foundation is a two-way street. It’s a way for the school system to ask local business leaders for help, and a conduit for business community feedback on where the system’s efforts should be focused, he says.
IBM is funding a $10,000 foundation grant proposal to enhance the computer science curriculum, which the foundation will put toward programs such as a summer institute for teachers.
“We were very excited to award that to them, and hopeful that it can bring a foundation of computer science learning to children in Baton Rouge,” says Beth O’Quinn, talent manager at IBM’s Louisiana Client Innovation Center and foundation board member.
Some of the foundation’s programs, such as supporting mentorship programs for students and teachers or buying robotics kits for middle schools, obviously are trying to help prepare local kids for the jobs of today and tomorrow. The point of other initiatives, such as establishing chess tournaments, might be less obvious. But Stephen Loy, executive director of the Louisiana Technology Park and foundation board member, says encouraging creative, nonlinear problem solving helps develop a better student and, eventually, a better worker.
The foundation is a 501(c)(3), and donations are tax-deductible. Stovall, the foundation director, says the organization tries to raise about $600,000 a year, although meeting that goal this year will be tough as flood recovery absorbs local resources.
In the aftermath of last summer’s floods, Superintendent Drake asked Stovall to be the point person for the donations that poured in for local schools, including cash, school supplies, and nine pallets of books collected by a 14-year-old in Houston. Stovall says about $600,000 for flood relief came through the foundation.
Now that the foundation has established itself and identified its priorities, one of the biggest priorities for 2017 will be to diversify its funding sources and create a strategic plan for future growth.
“We’re just really excited about the possibilities,” Stovall says. “There’s so much potential here, and there’s absolutely so much need.”