Hollywood films like to portray American schools as full of intelligent and beautiful people, equipped with the latest technology and modern facilities. Such schools are the envy of teachers around the globe – including those in the US! Because the reality is that, just as with schools in the UK, American schools have seen their budgets slashed. In the US, that figure is seven per cent over the past decade.
So how do schools bridge this financial chasm in order to deliver a high standard of education to their pupils? Well for one thing, American schools network very effectively. They plug into and ‘work’ their local communities, positioning themselves as central hubs for meeting, socialising and support.
Schools also ‘beg’ at every opportunity – it is completely acceptable to approach companies for support on a continuing basis. Businesses actually expect this, and many are geared up to making the most of the reputational brownie points they get from working with schools. So the giving is not all one-way. Indeed, much is made of the concept of partnership.
American schools actively support initiatives and programme in their community. They also fundraise for them – and pupils are at the heart of this. The purpose of this is to connect children with their locality and help them develop a sense of social responsibility. British schools, of course, encourage pupils in similar ways to carry out community work and fundraising, but with American schools such relationships are expected and can be well-developed and long-standing.
Moreover, everyone in the local community – whether connected to the school or not – is invited to school events such as sporting fixtures and concerts. And many people come along, because the concerts are high-quality or because they enjoy supporting a local team.
The example of one city primary school is typically enterprising. Sharon Jacobs is the former principal of Washington Montessori School, a state primary of 277 pupils in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina. As in the UK, most of her school’s fundraising was channelled through a PTA with charitable status.
The PTA ran Christmas and summer fairs, with parents and teachers encouraged to tap every possible resource to generate prizes and auctionable goods. No surprises there. But the biggest contributor to the fairs was a local church, which put together baskets to be raffled. Traditionally, churches are viewed as charitable organisations in their own right, but their willingness to assist with other community-based fundraising efforts is often overlooked.
Sharon Jacobs also reached out to fraternal and sorority networks that were local to her school. These are organisations that people join while at university, making a membership pledge to ‘give back’ to society throughout their lives. There is some similarity with UK university alumni networks, but in the US graduates from different colleges will join together in their home city to serve their local community and, in particular, their local schools. Their activities range from Christmas toy drives and winter coat donations, to acting as mentors and providing support and resources in times of crisis.
Washington Montessori school asked several of these organisations for support with providing school supplies for pupils at the beginning of the year. (The average US family will spend $117 – around £90 – on stationery per child for the return to school. This is in addition to the cost of clothing and of technology specified for high school courses, such as high-spec calculators, laptops or iPads!)
The school also capitalised on celebrations for its 100th anniversary by launching a ‘100 Pledge’ fundraiser. Students, parents, local businesses and staff were encouraged to donate 100 of something to the school. This could range from 100 pennies (from students) to 100 dollars from local businesses. As the money raised was not earmarked for a particular cause, this fundraiser encouraged continued support for the school, allowing it to provide a wide range of ‘extras’ for the students and staff.
For instance, the school ran a ‘Love Club’, effectively a relief fund for families experiencing unforeseen hardships, such as a house fire or flooding. The club also provided funds for staff to care for vulnerable children (at one point the school had up to 15 pupils who were homeless).
Another popular scheme in the States is Teacher Appreciation Week. It encourages individuals and committees to recognise the effort and care of teachers with small tokens of appreciation and a staff luncheon. Every teacher creates a class wish list and the materials and supplies are paid for by funds raised.
Across America, schools are reaching out to a range of charitable and other organisations to assist them and are also providers of support and help. In other words, we are all one community.
Angela Jones is an American teacher who has lived and worked in the UK for more than 10 years.