The Pender County Schools wants to not just get by but aims to thrive – with a little help from its friends.
One of those friends is the Pender Education Partnership (PEP), an organization whose mission is to advance excellence in the county’s public schools and to muster the resources to support the school system’s success.
“Every year, education [funding] gets cut,” said Superintendent Steven Hill, speaking of allocations from the state legislature. “It’s harder and harder to provide resources for teachers.”
When there is no money from the school district, teachers often dig into their own pockets to purchase necessities, the superintendent said.
PEP, a nonprofit foundation, was established in May 2015 to address the financial needs of both students and educators. Foundation members raise money to fund college scholarships and to provide teacher minigrants that help teachers purchase needed equipment and supplies.
PEP board member Tammie Parris explained how the mini-grant process works.
“Teachers give us an idea of something they cannot afford and they apply for funding,” she said. “We review [the applications] and discuss them. This year we received 28 applications and were able to fund 23 of them for more than $9,000.”
As it has matured, the foundation has continued to contact individuals, organizations and – increasingly – businesses.
“Many small businesses and a few larger ones are beginning to come our way,” said David Stipe, PEP’s president. “Small businesses are plentiful – restaurants, shops – most of us here know the owners personally. These businesses can become a partner at one of six levels ranging from $25 to $10,000.”
Parris spoke of the necessity of involving Pender County’s business community.
“We need businesses to understand what we are doing and why,” she said. “They can become a sponsor with one pledge or a supporter with monthly payments.”
One fundraiser is PEP’s annual spelling bee involving teams from each of the district’s schools. In January, the foundation sponsored its first State of Education and Economy forum, emphasizing the role public schools play in preparing a workforce for area companies. All proceeds from the spelling bee support student scholarships; the forum raised more than $3,000 for teacher mini-grants.
It’s not only businesses in Pender County that should take an interest in the county’s schools, Stipe said.
“Our county supplies the workforce for New Hanover County,” he noted, adding that Pender schools confer with employers large and small to predict what their needs will be, so the high schools especially can provide appropriate training.
Hill emphasized the importance to the schools of close working relationships with area employers.
“Our goal is to sit down with industry and find out what they need,” he said. “We talk with GE, Corning, New Hanover Regional [Medical Center] about their workforce needs, and work our way back. We ask them ‘What are your projects for the next five years?’ That gets us down to our eighth-graders. We are designing particular pathways in fields like coding and mechatronics to integrate more value into our curricula.”
Last fall, PEP stepped up its own game. Hurricane Florence devastated a number of the school buildings and displaced many people.
“PEP went out and fundraised after Florence,” Hill said. “They raised thousands of dollars.”
In Parris’ words, PEP became the catalyst for community-wide efforts to support the schools, students, teachers and staff after the hurricane. Not only was the foundation able to award 23 teacher mini-grants, but it wrote checks of about $300 each to 41 displaced teachers and staff.
“I presented those checks, and told [the recipients], ‘This is for your own use, not for your school,’” Stipe said.
The student scholarships are especially meaningful to Parris, who is Cape Fear Community College’s Pender County continuing education director.
“When you see someone who wants to get an education but can’t, it’s very disheartening,” she said. “Helping to select scholarship recipients gives you a sense of pride.”
In identifying candidates for its scholarships, PEP looks for students who have achieved academically but who have also been involved in community service or in athletics, Parris explained.
“But it’s unfortunate that we can’t do more scholarships because of our financial status,” she said.
Pender County’s population growth puts extra pressure on the school district’s budget, added Stipe, who is a retired school administrator.
“When I was assistant superintendent for instruction in Pender County during the ’90s, we had no more than 10 schools; now there are 15 or16,” he said. “The county is still a bedroom community with not much of a tax base. And we have two distinct communities: eastern Pender County and western Pender County.
“My goal for the next five years? I would really like to see our organization become far more financially independent, with business and industry – not just individuals – being major supporters. Wake County has a foundation there with an endowment of several million dollars. While we are not that size, we could still establish an endowment.”
Region in Focus - Pender County