A top-tier education system can often mean the difference between a community that is flourishing and one that is dying on the vine.
Local nonprofit The Schools Foundation is working to ensure that the 54,000 students in Madison County have access to the best education offerings, not just in the state, but nationwide. The foundation is a 501c3 organization in support of Huntsville City Schools, Madison County Schools and Madison City Schools. Established in 2000 with the merging of Huntsville City Schools Foundation and the Madison County Schools Foundation, the foundation serves as a bridge between local and state boards of education, education leaders, parents, students and individuals and businesses who wish to support public education in Madison County.
“We want to be able to set ourselves apart from what is happening in Alabama – what is happening nationally,” Elizabeth Dotts Fleming, The Schools Foundation executive director, said. “We really do have a lot to celebrate in education and we want to make sure that stays on the forefront. Through partnerships, we are always thinking outside the box and creating more opportunities.”
One of the ways the foundation is creating those new opportunities is with their newly-created endowment.
“Our newest and most exciting initiative is the establishment of our Schools Foundation Endowment,” Dotts Fleming said. “We have historically been very responsive to the school’s immediate needs in areas like professional development – providing professional development for our principals and for our teachers – and programmatic activities that serves all three (systems). What this endowment will enable us to do is look forward beyond just this year and identify areas that each of the school systems might want support with, that is not currently a reality.”
The endowment, supporting K-12 education, is unique in Alabama. It is overseen by a committee consisting of representatives from across Madison County tasked with securing the next round of gifts toward the endowment, setting fundraising goals and identifying donors. The foundation’s goal is to raise $2-5 million a year over the next five years.
“(The endowment) helps us answer some of the ‘wish list’ items for our school systems,” Dotts Fleming said. “It kind of gets us to the ice cream, if you will – the dessert of the opportunities. The things that our community expects, to be honest.”
“The taxes do not fund everything that the teacher needs in the classroom,” Bob Lott, board president for the foundation, added. “This is an attempt to cover those gaps.”
The foundation supports several initiatives, including the Military Child Education Coalition, Impact Aid, and Free 2 Teach, to name a few. It has also partnered with Huntsville Utilities to create Sign Up to Round Up, a program in which customers can authorize Huntsville Utilities to roundup their monthly utility bill to the next highest dollar to support public education.
In addition, the foundation works closely with the educational leaders of the school systems they serve to determine their immediate issues and concerns.
“We spend time with our superintendents, we work closely with all three of them (on a regular) basis,” Lott said. “It is important for people to understand – we are not out of line with what their needs and desires are.”
“At the same time, we are a 501c3 separate entity,” Dotts Fleming said. “A lot of other foundations across the state are direct arms of their school systems and we are set up differently in that we serve all three. Most of them are directly tied to one school system and one set of priorities. We focus on the regional aspect and the importance of our ‘three-legged stool.’”
While their primary goal is to serve Huntsville, Madison County and Madison, The Schools Foundation does work with other school foundations across Alabama to further their causes, such as standardized goals for students across Alabama. It also keeps an eye nationwide concerning education objectives and establishing a national profile for the systems it serves. As such, Huntsville/Madison County/Madison City were the first school systems in the country to be profiled on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s AchievingTomorrow.org “Voices” series, which highlights the positive benefits that educators, administrators, community leaders, parents and businesses can achieve when they join forces to help students.
That combination of personal relationships, statewide influence and national scope is paramount to the foundation’s goals of providing the highest quality to its most important partners: the students.
“We want our three school districts to be the gold standard,” Lott said.