Minding the Gap
By Amelia Blades Steward
Left to right: TCPS Superintendent Kelly Griffith, Ed.D. and Steve Wilson with Easton Utilities staffers Ted Book, John Horner, and Hugh Grunden, P.E., along with Education Foundation Board members Rebecca Firth, Ph.D., Michael Fisher, M.D., and David Short C.P.A.
When the pandemic forced Talbot County to close its public schools in March 2020 and start providing lessons virtually, administrators knew they needed to find a way to make sure all families could connect to the Internet. That’s when the Talbot County Public Schools Education Foundation stepped in to help.
Within months, the foundation had created its “Digital Divide Campaign” and begun raising funds from local businesses and individuals, joining the efforts of Easton Utilities to solve the problem. “Through the Digital Divide Campaign with the education foundation and our amazing community partnerships, TCPS was able to level the playing field of connectivity so that everyone could access teaching and learning,” schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith says. “I’m so grateful for this initiative and the powerful impact it had on keeping us all connected. That was a game-changer for our children and staff.”
In 2016, a group of Talbot County residents founded the foundation to engage the community in supporting excellence in public education and to provide resources to enhance the teaching and learning experience for all. Among its founding members were Richard Marks, Patrick Fitzgerald, Rebecca Firth, and Laura Heikes. The foundation was modeled after the Baltimore County Public Schools Education Foundation, which used a grant program to fund teacher needs that weren’t supported by the annual school budget.
“Before the foundation, there were little means for doing things outside the box or addressing any unexpected needs that arise,” Griffith says. “When we started our strategic planning process, we realized we needed more than the sports boosters, band boosters, and [parent-teacher organizations] to help support some of the innovative ideas of our teachers. The purpose of the [foundation] was to fund more enrichment and innovative ideas to benefit the staff, the students and the community. To date, this has included funding field trips [and] innovative classroom projects, and increasing diversity in our literature.”
The foundation was created within the Mid-Shore Community Foundation, a public charity that connects private resources with public needs to enhance the quality of life throughout the Mid-Shore Region. “We all know that teachers reach into their own pockets for projects they think are important to student learning,” says Heikes, the foundation’s outgoing board chair and a retired banker. “We needed the teachers to tell us their needs and our task was to build awareness of what we could do.”
Teachers applying for grants from the foundation are required to explain how their proposed projects support the district’s curriculum and efforts to provide equity for all students. The district’s curriculum team reviews the applications before they are submitted to the foundation.
Two annual events have raised a significant amount of funding for the grant requests, according to the foundation. In 2017, the organization hosted its first “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” event—a student- and family-oriented competition between six teams of TCPS fifth-grade students vying for the right to hang the champion banner at their school’s front entrance. The second event, “Mission Possible,” is held annually in November and recognizes distinguished alumni from Easton High School, Moton High School and St. Michaels Middle High School. It includes a reverse auction to support approved grant requests.
“One of the purposes of the foundation is to find the passions in the community and the challenges in the school system and pair the two,” Griffith says. “It’s a great way to also find a challenge and to be able to funnel resources to it most efficiently and effectively. It also taps into a community that might have a passion for what we are doing.”
Nothing brought the district’s needs and the community’s passions together more than when the public responded to help the district provide Internet connectivity for virtual learning.
“Initially when schools closed in March 2020, we were mailing 800 to 900 packets a week to students. I said, ‘We need to get these kids connected virtually somehow someway by the end of June.’ It was a lofty goal,” Griffith says.
The district already had provided laptops to students in grades six through 12 and purchased iPads for students in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. “What we weren’t thinking about was connectivity,” Griffith says. “Two issues were surrounding TCPS connectivity — one was that people couldn’t afford it and the other, which was less obvious, was related to voids in the infrastructure of our community.”
Heikes says that during the foundation’s first virtual board meeting in May 2020, Griffith shared that many TCPS families and teachers did not have adequate Internet access for learning and teaching. “She asked that we consider a campaign to raise $60,000 to help 300 TCPS families connect,” Heikes says. “We were inspired to help, but we were unsure how we would raise these funds, especially when we couldn’t hold in-person events.”
While Easton Utilities, which was already a partner with TCPS, was trying to help solve the infrastructure issue, Griffith also was concerned about families living in outlying areas who didn’t have reliable connectivity. To address some of the immediate needs, The Talbot Family Network facilitated a grant enabling TCPS to purchase some Internet “hot spot” devices to distribute to students and staff. Verizon also became a partner in the project.
Meanwhile, Easton Utilities developed a special subsidized service plan for families of students who qualify for free and reduced meals—approximately 50 percent of TCPS students. The foundation agreed to pay for the other half of the costs as long as funds are available.
In mid-June 2020, the foundation’s board members began contacting friends and community members by phone, mail, email and social media to sound the alarm, and its “Digital Divide Campaign” was underway. By June 30, the foundation had raised $3,000.
“We ended the fiscal year uncertain but hopeful, and more dedicated and passionate than ever about supporting public education. We knew that with our generous community’s help we would meet or exceed our goal, and in fact, by the end of the 2020 calendar year [we] had raised more than $100,000 to help meet this critical need for TCPS students and staff — much of it through $200 individual donations to support connectivity for a family for one year,” Heikes says.
Local businesses contributed to the campaign. Paul and Joanne Prager, owners of BluePoint Hospitality, closed the gap to the initial $60,000 goal with a significant leadership gift. Since the district also was able to use funds from the federal CARES Act to support the project, the remaining funds raised by the foundation will continue to be used to pay for connectivity for TCPS families in need.
With the district getting ready to unveil its Strive for 25 Strategic Plan, Griffith sees the foundation continuing to play a role. Future issues that the foundation could support include early learning and readiness; wraparound services for mental health, tutoring or enrichment; and recruitment and retention of TCPS staff, she says.
“What has been the best moment for me was when we hit the $500,000 mark with the foundation’s overall fundraising this year,” Heikes says. “My husband Ed and I believe in the importance of quality public education. It is supporting where we live. It’s the backbone of our community.”