Linda Noel and Amanda Botwood are parent volunteers who serve as co-presidents of the Princeton Education Foundation, the independent 501(c)3 organization that seeks to support and enhance learning opportunities for students in the Princeton Public Schools.
Ms. Noel, who has daughters in the seventh and 11th grades, is herself a product of the Princeton Public Schools. Ms. Botwood, who moved to Princeton from the United Kingdom six years ago, has an eighth grade daughter and a 10thgrade son. They answered questions about the work of the PEF.
What do you enjoy about working with PEF?
Amanda Botwood: I like the fact that PEF tries to be the icing on the cake. While the district can fund many things, the district is not able to fund a lot of the projects that some of our more innovative teachers would like to do. PEF tries to provide the funding for those things. So that when you have a great teacher who wants to bring in an artist from outside or when the high school wants to try out an accounting program, PEF covers those things.
We do funding for one or sometimes two years and then, if it's something that's been proven to work, we go to the district and ask them to then fund it. We are really looking to help the teachers to lead their own destinies in the classroom by supporting them with funding.
Linda Noel: Mostly our grants are on the order of $2,000, so they're not giant grants, but they are designed to spark innovation. If a teacher has a really great idea, but it's not in the budget, and they want to just try something, then we hope that our money will allow them to do that.
Can you cite some examples of innovative projects PEF has funded?
LN: I think when we say, innovation, people think automatically of new technology--which it is, often--but for example a couple years ago we funded a dress up closet and puppet theater for a couple different kindergarten classrooms. It was designed as a program to encourage literacy and reading.
We also funded a laser cutter over at the middle school (see photo below), which is very high-tech. Remote students could create a project and send it to the teacher and he could produce it for them. So, even if they weren't in class, they had this tangible thing that they had created, that they could pick up at the main office.
AB: I think the only thing that we do fund year-on-year is the middle school Cardboard Boat Regatta. Unfortunately, it's not been on this year or last year because of the pandemic, but it’s a collaboration between a number of different departments at PUMS. We provide materials, and we go along to referee on the day. It’s a lot of fun for the eighth graders, almost like a rite of passage.
LN: It’s become a signature PEF event, because it does touch every eighth grader. It's been so popular, and the science teachers and social studies teachers really work hard at it.
Where does your funding come from?
LN: Our annual appeal is the bulk of our funding. We also reach out to corporations and local businesses that might want to get involved with the public schools. Occasionally we get an individual donor through the annual appeal or who contacts us directly saying, I'd really like to make a larger donation. Occasionally, we receive in-kind donations. We had for example a grand piano that was donated to the high school through the family of William Trigo, who was the choir director for many years. It’s really quite a wonderful grand piano for the school to have.
What we love to capitalize on is when people have had good experiences in the Princeton Public Schools and they've gone on to do wonderful things. It is true that people do like to give back to the places that meant so much to them. So it's not just current parents, it is former staff members and alumni who are interested in donating, as well.
AB: Recently we had a collaboration with LiLLiPiES Bakery, a virtual baking event. It was nice for us to provide some marketing for a local bakery, but also the business is run by a high school parent. They donated 100 percent of the proceeds, which was enough to cover two teacher grants. So that was a nice way for a local business to give to the schools.
Can you describe a few of your favorite grants from the current year?
LN: Martha Friend, who is a science teacher at Littlebrook, realized that when the kids were home and studying remotely, they were having trouble doing hands-on science projects. She asked for these maker kits that can be ordered, very simply, through Amazon. They come with tools that allow students to use household items like paper and cardboard to create engineering and science projects. Martha got together with the three other science specialists in the elementary schools. We ordered enough kits that an entire grade could have them for a period of time, then they could return them to school where they could easily be sanitized and repackaged and then given out to another grade. It was a really hands-on way for elementary school students to participate in the science curriculum by bringing the science lab to their houses.
PUMS educational media specialist Carolyn Bailey put on an author series. The idea was to bring authors to speak to the students, tied in with a book club. Some students were reading the books, but then everybody whether they were in the book club or not could watch these interactive author presentations. They were authors from underrepresented groups, they were authors of color, LGBTQ authors, and the idea was exposing our middle school kids to authors across the spectrum. They also were very interactive and fun and engaging for the students during a time where they're not getting to engage as much with each other and come together as a class or as a school.
AB: The high school is creating a garden outside, and we've provided gardening tools and plantings for them, and benches. The students are actually going to transform the space so that the high school students have somewhere to go, which links in with their social and emotional needs. PEF really likes to do is to do projects that will have a legacy. So even though that's a grant this year, students will be able to use it for the next maybe five or six years--as long as that bench stands up! And it’s something that can get the kids outside enjoying nature and get them some respite from the intensity that is high school.
LN: We plan to have our Walnut Lane Film Festival again this year. It’s a competition for middle school and high school students, who submit short movies that they've made. We have a panel of teachers and community members who vote on their favorites. We will hold it virtually this year or if there is a way, maybe we can do an outdoor showing. An alum who himself won awards on a number of occasions is now studying film in college. He is very keen on coming back to help us make the festival happen.
Do you need volunteers?
LN: We are looking for a couple more board members. Everybody on the board reads the grants, reviews them, and makes decisions on them. We’re a small enough board that that works well, and everyone is really interested in the grants.
As we work our way past Covid, PEF will go back to hosting benefits, galas, parties. Those always need volunteers for a short period of time. We know people's schedules are very busy and they're not necessarily interested in having a board position year-round, but they might, for example, love to help plan the 5K. We have many ways to plug people in where, if they don't have the time or they're just not sure what they're interested in, they can sort of join the group in a lower-key commitment.
AB: We also hope to find some teacher volunteers, just to be involved from a communication standpoint, to see that we're providing the kind of services that the teachers need. And to get feedback from the teachers on how we can help support them better.
Do you find that teachers share with their colleagues what they learn through grant projects?
LN: These are pilots. If a program is piloted for example at Community Park, and it's really successful, we encourage the teachers to speak to their counterparts at the others elementary schools. To cite one example, an elementary school asked for a set of ukuleles because it was a very simple instrument to teach to fourth graders. We ended up over the next two years funding ukuleles at all four elementary schools for their music programs. They don't necessarily use them exactly the same way because each school still has its own personality. But it's a nice way we can sure that the grant money is distributed in an equitable way.
And good ideas are shared. That's important to us.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Donations to PEF may be made at https://pefnj.org/support/support-pef/ or by sending a check to Princeton Education Foundation, 25 Valley Road, Princeton, NJ 08540.
- District News