Schools foundation making 'richer experience for kids'
After 25 years of raising money for public schools in Champaign and Urbana, giving grants to teachers and enriching the educational experience of thousands of students, the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation is turning 25.
It will host a gala next Saturday to celebrate, at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign. Featured speakers will be University of Illinois President Robert Easter and Parkland College President Tom Ramage..
The foundation was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1988 and originally called the Champaign-Urbana Community School Foundation for Educational Excellence.
During its 25 years, the foundation has given out plenty of money in grants and has put together programs such as musical showcases for high school students, Books by the Bushel (now a Junior League of Champaign-Urbana project) and many other initiatives.
"We've brought incredibly progressive ideas into the schools ... that have made a richer experience for kids," Executive Director Gail Rost said.
As the community has changed in the last 25 years, so has the foundation, Rost said.
It used to be that parents' donations helped the foundation survive. That's no longer true, Rost said, and the Champaign and Urbana school districts average 60 percent of students on free and reduced lunch. The poverty rate in Champaign County, excluding college students, is more than 23 percent, Rost said.
"I've seen a lot of changes," she said. "The world's a different place."
Rost has been the organization's director since 2000.
The community at large now helps fund the foundation, she said.
"It's taken a huge amount of effort to communicate to people who don't have kids in school that healthy public schools are important for healthy communities," Rost said.
She believes the foundation's strength is in collaborating with businesses, families and the schools.
"We are and have been a link that pulls together organizations and the community that would not usually be linked," she said.
It's also in strategic planning. In the last five years, the foundation completed one strategic plan, started and finished another, and created a third in the last eight months. The latter is aimed at helping the foundation survive for the next 25 years, Rost said.
The foundation's aim has evolved into funding programs with the specific goal of preparing kids for postsecondary education and careers.
"We are going to be strategic about how we disburse funds," Rost said, and it will support critical projects the community has asked for.
Previously, the organization was more passive in its hopes that teachers would apply for grants on topics that "might be meaningful," Rost said.
Now, the foundation will give grants for projects related to certain goals: supporting kindergarten pre-literacy, making sure kid are literate by fourth grade and that they have the math skills they need by eighth grade.
Those are some ways to make sure kids are ready to join the foundation's relatively new CUScholars program, which will prepare them for success later in life. Rost said those involved in the foundation are hoping to expand into giving out scholarships and reaching students in middle school, to start preparing them for future decisions.
"We feel like we can play an essential role in cooperating with both school districts," Rost said.
The foundation also cares about supporting students in the arts, in STEM and in physical health and wellness.
"It's about student achievement," she said, and the things the foundation provides can't be done with tax money, "especially in the state of Illinois, which is cutting and cutting and cutting."
Rost said she's feeling a "really exciting new energy about our public schools."
"The foundation will play a key role in that," she said.
Former Champaign Superintendent Mike Cain said the foundation has grown in the 25 years it's been serving Champaign and Urbana schools.
"It's just kind of flourished," he said. "It's hard to think it's been 25 years."
Cain said the foundation has especially grown under Rost's leadership, and with its board's ability to raise money.
Cain also mentioned the fact that the foundation recognizes successful alumni of Champaign and Urbana schools and brings them back to town.
"Again, that highlights the success that's come from the schools," Cain said.
Previous galas have honored those distinguished alums, Rost said, and while this year's event focuses on the foundation's anniversary, recognizing alumni will continue in the future.
Champaign resident Jane Green was the foundation's first executive director and has continued to be involved in the organization in the years since it was formed.
When the foundation started, Green worked out of her home, and the foundation had to work extra hard to help local PTAs understand it wasn't trying to take over its work.
"It was a new thing," Green said. "We wanted to make sure people understood it was separate," and that its money for teachers went for extras in their classrooms, "for the icing."
Urbana Superintendent Preston Williams said the foundation has brought the school districts together with local businesses for the betterment of public schools and their students.
"It's a great organization that has played a vital role in helping shape public education in Urbana-Champaign," he said. "It's extremely critical."
C-U Schools Foundation by the numbers
— 149: number of people who have served on the foundation's board during the last 25 years.
— 274: number of Master Grants the foundation awarded to teachers between 1990 and 2011. These grants were up to $4,000. They encouraged teachers to submit innovative project ideas for their classroom and to collaborate with others in their building, school district and neighboring school district.
— 634: number of Champaign and Urbana teachers who have received at least one Splash Grant from the Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation. Splash grants are $500 micro-grants for teachers to use in their classrooms.
— 700: Number of students enrolled in CUScholars, the program the foundation created in 2011 to help prepare students for future jobs, college or the military.
— 901: Number of Splash Grants awarded since 2008.
— $25,000: Amount of money the foundation's creative reuse store, The I.D.E.A. Store, has raised for the foundation since it opened in September 2010.
— $40,000: Amount the foundation has spent assisting 501 homeless students in local public schools since 2009. The SOS Fund was started with a United Way Grant and the foundation works with the Regional Office of Education on the program. Much of the money spent has been for short-term hotel stays and clothing.
— $1.3 million: Amount the foundation has given the Champaign and Urbana school districts through teacher grants, benefits to special projects, scholarships and recognitions of teachers.
Source: The Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation