|Building a foundation, overcoming challenges |
Founded in 1985, the Foundation for Pottstown Education – originally named the Pride of Pottstown Public Schools – has a long history that brought the foundation to where it is today. At the time of its establishment, the borough’s tax base was declining, causing a negative impact on the local and district budget. In 2009, the foundation was reorganized with its current name and a renewed focus and enthusiasm. The foundation expanded its mission to not only support the educational programs of Pottstown School District but also to acquire additional federal, state and local grants as well as corporate and community partnerships in order to address the deficit in the district’s budget. Based on Pennsylvania’s Fair Funding Formula, the district’s budget is $13.5 million below adequate funding. This deficit has caused a need to increase local taxes, causing frustration among the local community, which has a median income that is half that of the surrounding county. In addition to the challenge associated with fundraising, the foundation must help the community understand its role and the importance of donations and support in meeting its goals. To help raise awareness in the local community, the foundation joined the TriCounty Area Chamber of Commerce and has sponsored events for local businesses to connect with potential donors. The foundation also is part of the Community Leaders’ Meetings through Hobarts Run and a member of the TriCounty Community Network. This involvement allows the foundation’s staff to foster relationships with businesses, community leaders, other nonprofits and area residents.
A life changing educational journey
To fulfill the mission of supporting life-changing educational opportunities, the foundation established the Early College Program and works as a partner with the school district in funding the Pottstown Early Action for Kindergarten Readiness, or PEAK, to prepare students for the next step in their educational journey. The mission of the PEAK program is to increase the school readiness and success of children in Pottstown by cultivating a network of organizations that support young children and partner with families. This is achieved through a unique collaboration of early childhood educators in Pottstown who provide high-quality early learning programs and increased resources for families. The Early College Program is a dual enrollment initiative offered in collaboration with the Montgomery County Community College West Campus in Pottstown. This program was the vision of the foundation’s former Executive Director Dr. Myra Forrest to increase the percentage of Pottstown residents with a bachelor’s degree. When the program began, 17.7% of Pottstown residents held a bachelor’s degree, while 36% precent of individuals in the area surrounding Pottstown held the same degree. Since the program began, the percentage of residents has increased to 20%. The Early College Program provides Pottstown High School juniors and seniors with an opportunity to earn up to 30 credits toward their bachelor’s degree. Students who have earned a 90% grade point average or higher halfway through their sophomore year are invited to apply for this program. Each year, between 14-16 students are selected for the program. Most of the students have their tuition fully paid by the foundation, with a few receiving 50% reimbursements. The program began in 2014 with 68 students successfully completing the program. The Class of 2020 earned a combined 255 credits that transfer to their college of choice. The donors of the foundation provided the $48,705 in tuition for the courses. Had these same courses been taken at the individuals’ colleges of choice, the tuition would have cost $388,980. This program allows students to get ahead in their educational career while also easing the college debt they would acquire by taking the courses elsewhere. The foundation has also provided assistance in lowering tuition payments for families by helping to fund Advance Placement testing.
Supporting the entire community
The Foundation for Pottstown Education established a unique program to support teachers at Pottstown School District. The Residency Initiative Program offers a forgivable loan to teachers in the district who wish to purchase a home in the Borough of Pottstown. As a joint venture with the Pottstown School District, the idea was brought to the foundation from the Pottstown School Board of Education as an incentive to attract new teachers to the district as well as to offer assistance to teachers who wish to purchase a home in Pottstown. Individuals must meet specific criteria to be awarded the loan and continue to meet yearly requirements. The original grant was $100,000, and nine loans have been approved and awarded to date. Each year, 20% of each loan is forgiven, with the full amount being forgiven in five years. From the nine loans awarded, the district has received $97,000 in school taxes. Six of the nine applicants had rented prior to the purchase of their home through this program. Two recipients were new employees to the district. Besides the financial benefit to the district of the school taxes paid on these properties, this program has also increased the visibility of the teachers in the local community.
One out of every four students in Pottstown School District has no internet service and no electronic device to log into an online educational platform. Seeing the need to obtain devices quickly, the foundation began a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of 1,000 Chromebooks. The district put a plan together to distribute devices to complete the 2019-20 academic year. With the foundation’s help, new devices were ordered and distributed to students in grades K-8 for the new academic year. To date, the foundation has raised funds to pay for 885 of these devices. This effort was possible thanks to the Pottstown Area Health and Wellness Foundation. The organization made a pledge to match, dollar for dollar, every donation up to $100,000. The Hill School in Pottstown was the first donor to this campaign with a $50,000 donation. Another area of need due to the COVID-19 pandemic was the need for food for the families who rely on the district for breakfast and lunches throughout the year. Mrs. Danielle McCoy, principal of the Pottstown High School, organized a food drive as well as a collection of funds to purchase food items for district families. The school board immediately passed a motion to donate $1,000 to this drive, with a second donation of $1,000 made a later date. The first funding was delivered just one day after the school closure. Through the generosity of donors, more than $5,000 was donated to this drive, which provided food for more than 150 families for six weeks.
A piece of advice
The Foundation for Pottstown Education Executive Director Joe Rusiewicz would advise other education foundations to “Know and tell your story. Storytelling is a powerful tool to not only increase fundraising but to also increase friend raising. We all need to share how our mission can and does affect our work and community. It is one thing to share graphs, charts and numbers, but tell one story that shows how the funding that is raised has personally helped a student, teacher or family.” The foundation has been the most successful in communicating with the community by sharing press releases with a local reporter on a regular basis. It also has had success by sharing the foundation’s news on its website and social media platforms. Another piece of advice that Rusiewicz would give is to, “stop using ‘I’ or ‘we’ when talking with the public and especially potential donors and start using ‘you’. Through your donation you helped provide 885 Chromebooks to the students so that they could continue their academic year safely and online.”