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Village schools — Private fund fuels change

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Yellow Springs school teachers and administrators were impressed by their visit in the fall to the Academy of Global Studies at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati, which emphasizes project- and technology-based education with a global focus. They were excited about the strong arts presence and digital media curriculum at the public STEM school High-Tech High in San Diego. And they were blown away by the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y., whose focus on expeditionary learning uses the Outward Bound field trip model to drive its curriculum.

Yellow Springs schools are on the road toward change, and investigating other education models is one piece of the complex web of adjustments the district expects to make over the next eight years as part of its strategic plan. Though the budget is tight, the district is determined to go forward with the help of a private funding source known as the Yellow Springs Exempted Village Schools Capital Endowment Fund, or YSCAPE. The goal of the fund is to support the transition specified by the Class of 2020 Strategic Plan, much of which would not be possible without additional funds outside the regular school budget, Superintendent Mario Basora said in a recent interview.

Shifting the local education to an interdisciplinary, project-based learning model is the first goal of the strategic plan, and one that teachers and staff have already begun. Switching to an education system that engages students to ask and then solve their own questions will require many things, including sustained professional development for teachers, a significant increase in student field trips, deeper connections with community resources and the development of an internship program, according to Basora. And while the district could attempt to implement change within the confines of its own general fund budget because, according to Basora and many of the district’s teachers, “we think this is the best way for kids to learn,” it would be “very difficult to do” without the support of YSCAPE.

To jump-start the newly established YSCAPE, Richard Lapedes and Maureen Lynch, who live across the street from Mills Lawn and are long-time Yellow Springs school advocates, donated a seed gift to the fund (the couple declined to identify the amount). The couple raised their children in the village schools, and Lapedes served as a school board member from 2004–2011, actively supporting the development of the 2020 strategic plan and its promise to deliver a more relevant and impactful education for local students. The couple also commissioned Triple Shadow, a sculpture recently installed at Mills Lawn, as a model tool for using art to inspire and facilitate student investigation of the academic and natural worlds.

Education is a rapidly evolving field, according to Lapedes, who believes that today’s children are coming to kindergarten with needs that a system designed for an older generation doesn’t satisfy. Modern youth “have to be prepared for a very different world than we had 25 or more years ago,” he said.

“Maureen and I, and all of us who care about the vitality of the community and the vitality of the education we give our children are hoping to radically improve our school district,” he said. “And if Triple Shadow is a symbol of what’s coming, YSCAPE is a tool designed to address the financial start-up needed to make the change in pedagogy and give our teachers what they need to decide how to retool their teaching.”

YSCAPE is a fund of the Yellow Springs Community Foundation, administered by a seven-member advisory committee, including three members appointed by YSCF (currently YSCF board chair Bruce Bradtmiller, trustee Susan Miller and member Lisa Abel) and four from the school district (currently McKinney teacher Jack Hatert, parent Lori Kuhn, Basora and school board member Sean Creighton.) The advisory committee will recommend how gifts are spent, while the YSCF would have final discretion over the fund’s expenditures.

YSCAPE consists of two types of funds, including the capital subfund for unrestricted spending from principal and net income, and the endowment subfund for net income spending only. Because the initial gift was designated for the capital subfund, some of it has already been used to support the visits to other innovative school districts and several other teacher training events.

School board member Sean Creighton, who helped to initiate the strategic plan and its support mechanisms, believes that private school funding will ultimately be needed for schools that have long struggled to stay afloat with the current public school funding model.

“We can’t continue to tax the community to offset the expenses — that’s a broken method, and it’s not a long-term sustainable method for funding school districts to offset the drop in state funds either,” he said.

Higher education has been in the private fundraising business “forever,” Creighton said, and public universities are now getting into the field as well, developing their alumni network in a way that Yellow Springs could do with its alumni all over the world, he said.

The initial gift to YSCAPE is meant to kick-start a new flow of community and other gifts and grants to the village public schools.

“The fund would not be possible without the generous support, trust and faith of Richard Lapedes and Maureen Lynch, who have supported our dream of where we’re moving for our school district,” Basora said.

But with hopes of being able to spend about $200,000 over 10 years on professional development alone, plus more to hire a part-time development director and someone to do the work of making field trip and internship connections in the community, the district hopes the community can pull together to support the plan as a whole. Once the initial and most intense years of professional development are completed, the district might be able to find ways of generating its own revenue by helping other districts to modernize and become more effective as well, Basora said.

For now, YSCAPE is just beginning.

“The generosity of Richard and Maureen really helps, but we’ll have to raise a lot more to really make an impact,” Creighton said.

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