From laptop grants to bake sales and personal cash, administrators, teachers, and the greater Madison community are all pitching in to help make up budget shortfalls and economic hardships at the city's public middle schools.
"Our responsibility is to provide our students with a strong academic base and access to experiences and information that will give them the skills and abilities to have productive futures," said Wright Middle School Principal Nancy Evans.
The schools are scrambling to deal with a 15.2-percent cut in state aid to the distrcit, resulting in a $151,033 reduction at the middle-school level alone, in addition to what will most likely be other financial deficits. But, they are also recognizing that an increasing number of students are coming from households hard hit by the economic hurricane of the past year. So, middle school faculty and staff throughout the district have made it their mission to ensure these students still have the best learning environment possible - and they are having to be increasingly creative to accomplish the task they've set for themselves.
Connecting with community members amidst financial constraints
Sherman Middle School Principal Michael Hernandez credits partnerships with the Brentwood Neighborhood Association, Sonic Foundry, Briarpatch, and local restuarants such as L'Etoile for stepping in to support school events which he feels strengthen the school's ties with the community.
Though Oscar Meyer donated food for an end-of-the-year science fair-where local chefs helped prepare the food-the school refused monetary donations for such events.
"We don't want it to be seen [as a handout]," said Hernandez.
Grants filling some of the gap
At the same time, it isn't lost on middle school administrators that money generated through donations and grants could significantly enhance the students' learning experiences.
"Every school should have a wish list," said Hernandez in regards to bringing technology such as interactive digital white boards (called SMART Boards) into more schools.
He predicts schools will seek additional outside funding more often, specifically through grants. These funds will be used to increase the number of computers in classrooms so students can do more "true research," using sources other than just Wikipedia.
Blackhawk Middle School special education teacher Peg Coyne said she is considering applying for a grant for laptops and a special docking cart that can be transported from class to class. While still in the planning phase, she estimates that the grant will be at least $15,000, and could be as much as $50,000.
One of several groups stepping up to provide grants for the district is The Foundation for Madison's Public Schools (FMPS), which is supported by contributions from citizens, local businesses, and private foundations.
"Our intent is to be able to provide funding for creative and innovative initiatives that are outside of the core school budget," said FMPS President Martha Vukelich-Austin. "We provide funding for things that really are not the responsibility of the district, but enhance educational opportunities in the district."
Some of the grants recently given to schools by FMPS include $2,369 for "The General Music Expansion" at Spring Harbor Middle School in 2008-2009 as well as $1,037 for "Spanish for Spanish Speakers" at Wright Middle School in 2007-2008.
"The General Music Expansion grant expanded the general music offering by purchasing keyboards and equipment so that students may all work at the same time at their individual pace," said Vukelich-Austin. "This gives students another option from the normal offering of band, orchestra and general/choral music classes."
Wright's "Spanish for Spanish Speakers" grant funded a class where students study issues of language, immigration, family, race and gender. The grant was also used to purchase Spanish literature to develop language literacy skills.
"I ask that the public not look at the Wright school community through a deficit lens,"Evans said. "While a large percentage of our students and their families live in stressed financial situations, the Wright staff doesn't see this so much as a problem. We do, however, see this as a challenge."
Schools pitch in, too
While grants help fill some of the monetary void, principals and teachers are making big strides to accommodate and reach out to busy parents and give students an extra hand.
Hernandez said that when they scheduled their last parent-teacher night they asked eighth-graders to come babysit in the hopes that more parents would attend by giving them an evening childcare option.
When parent-teacher conferences were scheduled at Blackhawk Middle School on Thursday and Friday, some teachers volunteered to stay late the Wednesday evening before. This enabled parents who work during the day to visit with teachers outside of the normal conference hours.
"It was in the best interest of the parents to extend our day voluntarily so we can see [them]," said Coyne.
In addition to making more time for parents, Coyne says she sees teachers going the extra mile; whether it's bringing in extra clothes for a student, giving a hug, or even doing laundry.
"I think we move mountains considering what we have to do day in and day out," said Coyne. "Granted, we're moving those mountains one little middle school boulder at a time."
"Some parents are working two or more jobs and sometimes resources are "stretched so thin that we don't fit on their dance card," said Coyne. "I can't tell you how many times [I've tried to call] and phones are disconnected. Now a social worker will go out and knock on doors."
One teacher's creative solution
Other teachers are coming up with smaller, more creative ideas to cover classroom expenses.
"I sell snacks to make money to buy things for class," said Blackhawk seventh-grade math teacher Erin Anderson. Anderson sells items like Pop-Tarts, cheese and crackers, granola bars and fruit snacks in class and to after-school study groups.
Anderson also spent $400 of her own money last year on mittens, hats, and scarves for students. She also used this money to purchase supplies for an after-school knitting club and provided field trip scholarships.
She uses the funds from snack sales for a variety of items like pencils and erasers for students; or batteries for calculators. So far this year Anderson has raised about $80.