For 20 years, the members of one local group have stood behind teachers, providing funds for educational programs that usually aren't covered by school budgets.
Comprising the Fort Smith Public Schools Foundation, these individuals are looking forward both to the next few months and another 20 years of support to help boost the education and interest levels of local students, said Cathy Williams, president of the foundation's board of directors. For the board members, the teachers and the students, the foundation's grants helps ensure "educational win-win" scenarios for all involved, she said.
"The purpose of the Fort Smith Public Schools Foundation is to provide support for the teachers of all grades in the district in ways that regular funding does not provide," Williams said. "That can be in the form of equipment, materials, professional development for the teachers, field trips to places like Crystal Bridges and all kinds of things that teachers need or would like to have in order to improve teaching and the students' education."
Each recipient receives a grant for as much as $1,000 after being approved by the foundation's board, she said. Teachers interested in receiving these grants apply on the foundation's page at www.fortsmithschools.org by mid-April; grant winners traditionally are announced in May, Williams said.
"The categories for the grants include field trips, technology, books and materials," she said. "The board selects the ones that we can afford to fund, and the ones we think are most helpful to improve students' learning."
Money from the foundation also helps send two Fort Smith teachers each year to the Space Camp event in Huntsville, Ala., which is an experience that benefits the teachers and their students, Williams said.
"That part of the foundation is named after Tom Cooley, who was a beloved vice president at First National Bank who passed away," she said.
Fort Smith Public School teachers also are allowed to apply for a $500 stipend from the foundation if they wish to "go back to school and advance their degrees," Williams said.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Fort Smith Public Schools Foundation is how it continues to expand each year, she said. Thanks to a student scholarship fund that was started by Dr. Benny Gooden, former Fort Smith Public Schools superintendent, Fort Smith students now can receive scholarships from the foundation, Williams said.
"Dr. Gooden was president for the National Superintendents Association, and he was paid money for that," she said. "Dr. Gooden gave the money to the foundation and established scholarships for students. That was about 10 years ago when it started."
Students from Northside High School and students from Southside High School are eligible to receive a $1,000 scholarship from the foundation, Williams said.
"These scholarship recipients have to want to go into education or be in some type of public service," she said. "There were about 10 students who received scholarships just recently."
Similar scholarships have been established in honor of Jim Rowland, the school district's former athletic director, and the late Randy Bridges, who was the director of student services for the district, she said. Sam T. Sicard, who is one of several board members for the foundation, also has awarded students scholarships, Williams said.
"All of our money with the foundation comes from donations from the community, and these donations have been large and small," she said. "Some teachers give to the foundation through their payroll deduction to help fund programs and projects."
Fairview Elementary School Principal Peggy Walter remembers when the foundation was formed back in 1997. She was confident the foundation would grow and help Fort Smith students of all ages.
"It's very competitive," Walter said of the grants and the applicants. "Our teachers work hard to submit their applications because they know it's very competitive.
"There have been lots and lots of different projects funded at Fairview Elementary School, and one that comes to mind involves the Take Home Literacy Bags," she added. "This program funds backpacks that are sent home to students, so the students' parents can read to and work with the students at home."
Fairview's field trips to places such as the Fort Smith Public Library, the Christmas Tree Farm and to Polar Express exhibits were made possible because of the foundation, Walter said.
"Kindergarten teachers and students love to order insects, so they will get ladybugs and butterflies, study them and then release them into the wild," she said.
One of the foundation's new programs is called the "Super Grant," which provides as much as $5,000 for "special, fantastic" school projects and programs that are approved by the foundation's board, she said.
"The career specialists for the school district are doing a huge career fair at the Fort Smith Convention Center in the fall for all ninth-graders, and we are giving them the Super Grant to help with their funding," Williams said. "They will be entitled to $5,000.
"And they may not use all of the grant in one year," she added. "In fact, I think $3,000 was designated for one year, and $2,000 was designated for another year."
Another Super Grant program involves a greenhouse that is located at the Belle Point Center, Williams said. This greenhouse is enabling students to learn more about plant biology and botany, she said.
"It's a great program because the students can really get their hands in the dirt to learn more," Williams said.
The board members plan on awarding one Super Grant per year, she said.
"We also have a banquet that is usually in May to honor the recipients of the grants," Williams said. "That is an event that is held at different venues in town, and it's usually attended by 200 people.
"I do have to thank the Regional Economic Council, which is an organization made up of business and industry representatives who have gotten together to help the foundation," she added. "That group sponsors the banquet, so we are able to have the banquet."
Stretching the dollars
For Jane Stewart, a counselor at Howard Elementary School, the Fort Smith Public Schools Foundation has been a "much-appreciated" organization over the years.
"We utilize that funding to supplement the classroom budget," she said. "The teachers get $500 to spend on the classroom, so the foundation is able to give them an extra $1,000.
"You can't buy an iPad or some of the other things needed in the classroom just with budget funds," added Stewart, who has received grant money from the foundation to pay for guidance lessons and other similar school materials in the past. "An ink cartridge takes up 20 percent of your budget right off the bat. That's why the foundation helps with the things the students and teachers need."
The foundation's grant money has helped Howard Elementary School teachers and staff meet the technology-based needs of students, she said.
"I've gone to the International Science Institute in Atlanta, and that was really fun," Stewart said. "I've also written grants for coding devices, which helps students with technology. Some of the students are even able to become involved with the higher-end apps because of the foundation's support."
There is one "sad" aspect of the foundation that is experienced each spring, Williams said.
"The most difficult part is you have to make the choices of which applicants to approve," she said. "You can only fund the top 10 applicants out of the 45 applicants who apply in a category. All of the applicants are worthy, so it's just down to the amount of funding we can afford each year."
On average, the foundation awards about $60,000 in grants and scholarships each year, Williams said.
"It's awfully hard to decide who gets the funding because all of the applicants are doing what they need to do — getting more professional development and/or seeking help for educational programs for the students," she said. "The funding does limit us, which is why we seek donations. Hopefully, people can help so our teachers can continue providing ways to improve the education of our students."