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Imagine you are a high school student attending the True/False Film Festival for the first time. The environment of the festival is already alive with an abundance of activities occurring around town, but there’s only one thing that has fully grasped your attention: the documentaries. The production of real world stories told in a way that toys with its viewers’ emotions. For you, a high school student, the opportunity to attend this festival could release a calling for a future career that you never considered before.
Opportunities like these for students are made possible by the Columbia Public Schools Foundation.
For the past 20 years, the CPS Foundation has worked to help endow funding for initiatives in Columbia Public Schools that impact student learning, including classroom supplies and grant programs. Since the foundation opened up in 1996, they have funded more than $1,000,000 in grants to Columbia schools, from providing funds for field trips to events like True/False to creating makerspaces at CPS elementary schools, where students can experience hands-on STEM projects like robotics or coding. The CPS Foundation provides the district with tools to enhance each student’s experiences.
The foundation is financially independent from the district: local businesses, organizations, and individual members of the community donate to the foundation. Board members then assign those donations to different grants, which fund the various programs, projects, and proposals for Columbia’s public schools.
“I love how we are able to provide extra opportunities for kids to remember forever,” Lynn Barnett, president of the CPS Foundation, says. “To impact their lives forever — that’s the exciting part of working with the foundation.”
Sally Silvers, who has been the longtime secretary for the foundation, has witnessed it grow from a mere idea to an organization that changes lives. It all began in the early ’80s, when Silvers, along with several others involved in Columbia’s schools, started throwing around the idea of a foundation. Around the same time, another one of the foundation’s original founders, Lynnanne Baumgardner, had been running for a spot on the Columbia school board.
“She used the idea for Columbia Public Schools Foundation as her tagline while running,” Silvers says. “And by the ’90s, she had put together a community to launch it and organize it.”
After the foundation officially began in 1996, members from the school district and community jumped in to help. Grants were gathered and distributed among classrooms across the district. Silvers recalls one exciting grant that was given during the foundation’s infancy that called for a roll-cart of encyclopedias that would be shared between classrooms. Before the internet, Silvers says, technology was something, like the foundation, she didn’t expect to become so important.
“Technology . . . crept in and changed the foundation over the last 20 years,” Silvers says. “Grants for Smartboards and tools to improve our reading program proved to us that indeed [technology] was here to stay.”
The foundation expanded from funding classroom proposals to funding projects that include the entire school district. As a longtime member of the foundation, Silvers has seen the result of different grants and proposals in action.
“A while back, I had been helping out a friend of mine pick up her daughter from school when she couldn’t get there,” Silvers says. “One day, I called to ask if her daughter needed to be picked up, and she told me ‘Oh no, you don’t have to pick her up because there is a bus bringing her home.’”
It dawned on Silvers that the foundation tested out pilot programs, including a bus to transport kids in after-school programs. When the grant was originally discussed among CPS Foundation members, it made sense to everyone to offer that after-school service. If the kids have no transportation to get home, what would have been the point of an after-school program?
“What really hit home for me was the fact of, ‘Oh my gosh this is what we did and your child benefitted from it.’ I absolutely love it,” Silvers says.
But the passion of CPS Foundation members working for the foundation goes beyond simply creating new opportunities for the kids. Their passion starts with their love for Columbia and teaching in its schools. Barnett, who grew up in Columbia, first met Baumgardner when she was in the eighth grade.
“While I was growing up in Columbia’s schools, Lynnanne happened to be my Spanish teacher,” Barnett says. “It is amazing to think that we’ve become close through the school district. She had started the foundation a few years before I was hired as an assistant superintendent.”
Then, in 2009, after Barnett retired as an assistant superintendent, she decided to keep working for the kids of the district. She joined the board for the CPS Foundation, and she’s stayed involved. The love for education shared among the members of the CPS Foundation has expanded the group’s ability to further a student’s educational opportunities, something the group hopes to do for another 20 years.
Main Function: Provide grants and test pilot programs for Columbia Public Schools
Full-time employees: Zero
People served: Roughly 18,000 CPS students