By Stefanie Jackson – Smart Beginnings Eastern Shore, an organization advocating for the well-being of children, hosted the second virtual event of its 2021 Kids Count forum April 14, on promoting school and community partnerships.
The forum highlighted the work of the Northampton County Education Foundation (NCEF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to foster relationships between Northampton’s public schools and the community, helping residents and businesses show their support for teachers and students by funding class projects, field trips, and more.
“We all share one thing in common, and that is a passionate belief in the power and importance of public education,” Chair Linda Schulz said of her fellow NCEF board members.
NCEF is one of more than 6,500 school foundations in the U.S., one of the fastest-growing categories of nonprofits, she said.
About two-thirds of Virginia school divisions had public school foundations as of 2014.
Eastern Shore K-12 public schools are challenged by the rural and isolated nature of the area and high poverty rates, Schulz said.
About 90% to 95% of the Shore’s public school students qualify for the federal free and reduced school meal program.
Out of 133 Virginia counties, Northampton County’s rank for child well-being was higher than only nine other counties; Accomack County ranked higher than only 11 other counties, Schulz said.
A nationwide study showed that teachers each spend an average of $500 of their own money every year on classroom supplies and needs.
That’s where education foundations like NCEF come in. Schulz acknowledged that one of the reasons it’s difficult for Northampton and Accomack public schools to retain teachers is the low pay received compared to what teachers get in nearby cities and counties.
When a nonprofit like NCEF and the community work together to support classroom needs and spare teachers from taking the money from their own pockets, it provides a morale boost that helps the cause of teacher retention, Schulz said.
NCEF member Helene Doughty was on hand to review all the ways in which community members can donate money and other resources to Northampton schools through NCEF.
NCEF’s Community-School Partnership Program is comprised of three components: Adopt-A-Class, Fund-A-Project, and Bulletin Board.
Adopt-A-Class allows donors to choose a specific class or classroom that they wish to support, and Fund-A-Project allows donors to choose specific projects to fund.
Fund-A-Project permits individuals or businesses to contribute any amount for a class project, up to its full cost. A special feature of Fund-A-Project is the ability for anyone to check the NCEF website and track the progress, by percentage, toward the fundraising goal for each project, Doughty noted.
Bulletin Board is different because it involves physical items, not money. Teachers can post requests on Bulletin Board for specific items needed in the classroom, and community members can post offers of supplies that may be useful to teachers.
For funding needs requiring a “quick turnaround time,” such as a field trip, teachers can apply for school grants on the NCEF website and the requests will be reviewed by the program committee, Doughty said.
Other initiatives NCEF supports include pre-K camps, programs held annually near the end of summer to help prepare new pre-K students and their families for the school year.
NCEF gives $1,500 scholarships to up to three seniors annually, supports a tutoring program for student athletes, and started a Kids Closet program that provides everyday clothing, formal attire, and hygiene products to students in need.
NCEF’s fundraising efforts have experienced 333% growth in the last five years, said Vice Chair Liz Jones.
NCEF received approximately $11,000 in donations in 2016 and again in 2017, nearly $20,000 in 2018, more than $32,000 in 2019, and almost $50,000 in 2020.
The first major shift in giving happened after NCEF held its first State of the Schools forum in 2017, an event suggested by NCEF board member Wayne Bell Jr., who had attended a similar forum in Northern Virginia.
The purpose of the forum was to get input on the strengths and challenges of Northampton’s public schools from key stakeholders: community leaders, business leaders, elected officials, faith leaders, and parents.
“We have never turned anyone away” who wanted to participate, Jones said.
NCEF board members were apprehensive at first about opening up the school district to public criticism, but they were “amazed” at the level of interactive participation that resulted and the “positive” and “solutions-focused” input received, Jones said.
NCEF members were “wowed” over and over as needs were identified in Northampton schools and “the community, right then and there, jumped in to help,” she said.
The giving did not slow down during the COVID-19 pandemic. NCEF established a COVID-19 contingency fund that can cover Northampton schools’ COVID-19-related needs that aren’t covered by government programs like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The community also stepped in to show support to seniors who missed out on special events due to the pandemic.
One NCEF donor paid for every Northampton senior to receive a free yearbook, and a local photographer took senior portraits for free.
Jones said, “I feel so lucky to be in this community where we have people that believe in public education and … want to help our kids, and I’m so excited to see what the future entails.”
For more information on the Northampton County Education Foundation, visit www.ncedufoundation.com
For more information on Smart Beginnings Eastern Shore, contact Roberta Newman at 757-330-0777 or [email protected]