ENGLISH class at the Roosevelt Middle School in Decatur, Ill., had a star quality last year. Lee Iacocca told the students to determine what they want and ``be willing to work tirelessly'' to reach their goals.
Judge James Parsons, an alumnus, and the first black appointed to a federal court, suggested that the students appreciate ``things that are noble and good.''
Thanks to support from the local education fund, teacher Dorothy Sallee was able to initiate a project of her own design. In an effort to prepare her students for high school and after, Ms. Sallee helped the students write to adults - role models for the community and the nation - to ask for advice. The students printed the replies in a booklet for their classmates and families.
In all, the project cost only $300, with postage and printing. But because the school budget wouldn't cover it, Sallee turned to the community's local education fund, ``Partners in Education,'' from which she obtained a grant.
This local education fund - LEF - is one of many grass-roots groups to start up across the United States in the past five years. They function as an independent third party between the school and the community with the purpose of improving education in the area's schools. They are nonprofit, funded privately, and self-governed.
Today there are more than 300 local education funds, and a central office - Public Education Fund Network - in Pittsburgh is ready to help LEFs get started (see box).
But providing money is not the only purpose of these local funds. Involving the community in its schools is equally important. ``We supplement, not supplant, tax dollars,'' says Andrew Bundy, director of development at the San Francisco Education Fund. ``Even if there were enough tax dollars, there would still be a need for [an LEF],'' he explains, ``because we provide a community-support system ... a stimulus to do a better job.''
The money raised by the funds is not for basic expenses, like teacher salaries, but for special projects initiated by teachers. Projects range from small classroom activities to programs with a specific reach, like the truancy and dropout programs in San Antonio, where citizens work directly with ``at-risk students'' to develop an interest in school.
Last year, Decatur's fund had an operating budget of $50,000, which was to be distributed among the 56 schools in the county, (22,000 students; about $2.60 per student). Of this money, 60 percent was from local businesses, 20 percent from civic groups (women's clubs, Rotary), and the rest from individual donations and money-raising events.
On a larger scale, Rochester, N.Y., worked with a $270,000 budget last year for the city's 50 schools (33,000 students; about $9 per student). Eighty percent of the budget was from corporate donors (Kodak, Xerox, Gannett), 10 percent ($27,000) from a state legislative grant, and the rest from memberships and individual donations.
Only four years old, the Rochester fund is one of the most active and innovative in the country. Last year several elementary school teachers planned a curriculum around the area's Genesee River Valley. Students looked at plants, rocks, and animals for science, learned about Indians and early settlers on a trip down the river, and wrote about their field studies for English.
Recently the fund opened a clearinghouse of surplus supplies where companies donate unwanted items, and teachers take what they can use - paper, computers, TVs, buttons, a piano. ``We've been able to funnel about $400,000 worth of supplies to teachers,'' says Bea Paul Harris, executive director of the fund.
``Our project is successful because it has created an atmosphere to make education a top priority among people in the community,'' says Ms. Harris. She notes the importance of including the ``power brokers'' - corporate and civic leaders, clergy, school administrators, teacher unions - on the governing board.
Back in Decatur, Sallee isn't sure she'll get funds this year for another letter-writing project. ``Since it cost so little, I'll probably pay for it myself,'' she says. ``It was definitely worth it.''
Nathan Rosser, a student who didn't receive a reply from his adviser, astronaut Sally Ride, says he enjoyed the project anyway. ``It made getting ready for school in the morning a lot more fun ... for a couple of months, anyway.'' How to start a local education fund
Network. ``Work as much as possible with people in a community that already has one,'' says Andrew Bundy, director of development at the San Francisco Education Fund. The Public Education Fund Network in Pittsburgh publishes a handbook of step-by-step instructions on start-up, plus a resource list of other funds and projects.
Keep the basis of support broad. ``The organization must be representative of its constituency,'' advises David Sugg of San Antonio's Target 90 program, which has a governing board that is 50 percent Hispanic, reflecting the city's population.
Define specific goals. Do not allow the fund to be used as a slush fund.
Establish financial stability. This may require aggressive fund raising in the beginning, but keep expectations realistic. Remember that small amounts of money can do a lot in the classroom.
Tap local resources. Get citizens, businesses, and civic groups involved.
Keep the community informed of the fund's activities. Give credit when due to classrooms and contributors. And don't forget to report on the school's progress.
For more information or to obtain a start-up guide, contact Ms. Gerri Kay, Executive Director, Public Education Fund Network, Allegheny Conference on Community Development, 600 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219. -E.A.B.