It's an organization that started out 25 years ago when a few business owners were concerned about local schools that has evolved into a vibrant education support group that encourages students, teachers, parents, supporters and those who are destined to teach the next generation.
The Santa Clarita Valley Education Foundation - home of the Principal for a Day, Teacher Tribute, grants and scholarship programs, the Children's Literacy and Arts Festival and Read With Me programs - is dedicated to success. Foundation President Jim Backer explains.
"Our history and involvement in the community really goes back to 1984, when we started as an education committee of the SCV Chamber," Backer said. "In 1995 we became our own separate 501.c.3 (nonprofit group). A few years ago we branched off further, became independent of the chamber and hired Ann Unger as our Executive Director."
"We really believe in public education and are there to try and support everything we can in the schools to promote positive public education," he continued. "I think we have outstanding public educators in the valley and the records and comparisons prove that. There are certain things we can do, from providing an option for a graduating student to go on to college or focusing on students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are more challenged in the English language. The individual attention we can give them through our volunteers in the Read With Me program is helpful to them as they accelerate their learning in the grade schools."
"Read With Me is in its second year and is a program where we put volunteers into the schools to work with one classroom for a year," said Ann Unger, the Foundation's Executive Director. "The kids and teachers get to know the volunteer and they become part of the family. Volunteers come in and work with the children who need help, whether it's their reading or completing assignments."
Unger said the program has about 35 current volunteers, mostly senior citizens and retired educators, but also including members of the Future Educators program at College of the Canyons.
"They'll sign up to do 20 hours as part of their service learning project, but end up staying," she said. "Some of the others were nervous when they started, but how can you not want to be where you walk in to this room with 7 and 8 year olds, who run up and hug you when you come in. Some of them even call the readers 'Grandma.'"
Unger said that volunteers must have the need and want to help children as well as a belief in literacy.
"It's very important that children be able to read at their grade level," she said. "The volunteer must be able to make a difference and help these kids to get on track and stay on track with their reading and comprehension skills. By the time you're in third grade, if you're not reading at grade level, statistics and studies show that you're falling further and further behind each year in school.
"In the primary grades, it's very important," she continued. "A person volunteering two hours of their time per week will make a huge difference. It will affect the rest of their lives."
Unger put herself into the program to get some first-hand experience and found that it was a good way to slow down and change her work-work-work perspective.
"It gives you time to stop and see what's going on around you," she said. "To be with an 8-year-old again, it's a real difference. Their outlook on life is so wonderful, if I can take one child or 10 kids and make a difference in their lives, it brings me back down to Earth."
"These kids are smart. We forget to see things through their eyes as we get older. We don't give them enough credit.
The scholarships for future educators is another way the foundation invests in the community.
"We started giving scholarships back in 1988. When we started, we were giving maybe a couple thousand dollars a year," Backer said. "Last year, we received a tremendous commitment from an anonymous donor who has committed to giving us $10,000 per year for five years."
"Something that's changed over the years is that now we're trying to provide scholarships for future educators; before we were focused on business side because we came out of the chamber. It's important to help kids know there is education beyond high school. Life is a learning process, they will always need education to get through life."
The foundation draws support for the scholarship and grant programs from sponsors who come forth for various events.
We're always out there trying to gather more support and we realize people have different interests - some like the arts, some like science, we try to cover all those different fields and provide them different ways to help."
Backer said that the foundation received more grants in 2009 than in their entire history, with Target, AT&T and the Newhall Family Foundation coming out for the Children's Literacy Festival as well as AT&T sponsoring the golf tournament
The festival, which is held the first week in December, has taken on a life of its own.
"Our third annual Literacy and Arts Festival was held in Hart Park. The first year, we were in Newhall Park, where it was small but showed that this program is good. The objectives are to bring an array of the arts to one place as well as to emphasize the fun that reading could be," Unger said. "Even if it's just one day, if we can reach out and spark someone's interest, we've done our job."
During the festival, participants can wander the grounds and hear classical guitar backing up a cowboy poet or build giant cities with blocks or balanced rocks.
"One of the objectives was to show how art plays a part in every part of the curriculum. Teachers are bringing art in; kids are acting out history, putting on costumes, or singing words to learn to read."
The backbone of the Literacy Festival is the cadre of volunteers, who come from every walk of life - educators, community leaders, business owners, actors - and share their love of the printed word with the children. Unger said that parents listening with their children often get caught up in the stories and don't want to leave or have the stories end.
But reading is the cornerstone of the Foundation's festival. A young girl was fascinated by the work of a magician and asked him where he learned his craft. He responded that he read a book on magic, prompting the girl to turn to her parents and say "I gotta start reading!"
Along with local nonprofit arts groups, the local graphic novel store also supports the Festival because everyone has a comic book story from their past.
"As long as they're reading, it doesn't matter if it's a comic book," Unger said. "Captain Underpants isn't great literature, but it's a start. It's getting those kids to read, if they enjoy that, they'll move on to bigger and better things."
Another event of the Foundation is the Teacher Tribute.
"It started in 1985 to honor public school educators who had been chosen as mentor teachers and asked to provide additional services outside the classroom," said Backer. "In 2000, we went to a system where districts chose their own honorees, but our emphasis was on honoring those teachers who stayed in the classroom. So many leave teaching and go into administration or other things, we wanted to pay them a stipend above their salaries and honor them as outstanding classroom teachers."
The Tribute is an evening of celebration for that classroom passion, where a video featuring each teacher sharing their motivation is shown (produced by students at Valencia High School).
"It's such an uplifting program, we've also included future educators from COC, they become inspired," Unger added.
Principal for a Day evolved after Backer - a developer by trade - was invited to visit a county camp classroom to observe firsthand the challenges of running a school.
"I came back and talked with Marc Winger and said that we needed to put together something locally. He thought that was a great idea, that he could get the educators and I should get the business people. Fool that I was, that meant he made four phone calls and I had to call 30 people. Clearly, he outfoxed me on that one."
Despite its beginnings, the project has been a success and is in its 18th year.
"We have found that it's a great way for us to connect community leaders to schools," Backer said. "People love to comment on or criticize schools, and how we're educating kids. Even if you have a kid in public school, you go to open house, or try to volunteer in the classrooms, but that's not enough time to see the challenges.
"Being the Principal gives you a chance to get an overview of the whole school and see how they deal with budget issues, new teachers, teachers that are retiring, or site issues like portables or school construction."
Backer said that the Foundation has always held out hope that the program might foster a relationship between the principal shadowed and their business person, which has happened in a few cases. He said that along with bringing business people into a school setting, it's a challenge to get the mindset of school people changed to think like a business.
"Business people have learned that partnering and asking others for help is part of the process and we're trying to foster that."
This year's Principal For A Day event is scheduled Friday, Feb. 19, and will feature a panel discussion by most of the school superintendents who will help participants understand how the state budget works where it comes to education.
"There are so many mandates without funding, and some timing gaps in what educators thing they're going to receive and they will discuss how schools are equipped to deal with that. They all share great optimism about public education, but they also share great concern with how much inconsistency there is in Sacramento."
A program that has changed in name, but not in purpose is the Student Enrichment program. Formerly known as the Grants to Educators program, Backer was excited to share the details.
"The real idea here is to enable the entreprenurial spirit of the educator to come out," he said. "We want to support something they want to teach or bring into the classroom that may not be funded by the public school, such as a math project or science project; we've helped start a student newspaper, and purchased instruments for student orchestras. We try to be the enablers of teachers' dreams here in the valley."
Backer laughed as he recalled the program's early days.
"We used to give out a computer," he said. "It was worth $5,000 at the time, and it was a big deal."
Since then, the Foundation has not only granted educators the means to bring their dreams to fruition, but also encouraged them to get financial support from parents or PTA groups. Such was the case with Meadows Elementary School, which requested a piano. During a ceremony where grants were awarded, the unveiling of the piano was the night's big finish.
For more information or to get involved with the SCV Education Foundation, you can find them on Facebook, call Unger at 661-414-4465 or visit the website at www.scveducationfoundation.com .