Charlotte Fletcher, Experiential Science Curriculum Assistant, used a Teacher Innovation grant to renovate outdoor areas of Park Road Montessori to use as an outdoor classroom. The revamped pond and access to natural areas on the 23-acre campus allow for “hands-on science lessons outside,” says Fletcher, which reinforces what is being taught in the classroom. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Fletcher)

Presented by Foundation For The Carolinas

For the past 19 months, former WCNC news anchor Sonja Gantt has been revitalizing the CMS Foundation, an independent fundraising arm for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

This foundation, established in 2004, had been largely dormant for nearly a decade until Gantt became its executive director in January 2016.

The three-person staff has been meeting with teachers, current and potential donors, servicing grants, expanding high-priority programs, amassing a board of directors, helping CMS identify its highest needs and more. “We’re building the car while driving it,” Gantt says with a throaty chuckle.

All to a single purpose, she says: To be a catalyst for achieving systemwide dreams, goals and objectives by funding programs that support educators.

The Teacher Innovation Fund, for example, which initiated from a $250,000 donation from the Hornets Foundation in 2014, has funded teacher-led projects in science, technology, math, literacy, health and fitness and other areas.

“This is a great example of a donor who came forward with a vision of contributing to teachers but wasn’t sure how the gift should be structured,” says Gantt. The current Foundation Manager, Ashelyn James, who was serving in the district in another capacity, helped develop the competitive grant process for teachers. That’s the kind of stewardship for which the foundation was built — to be a bridge between CMS and the donor community.

Foundation For The Carolinas provides fund management, endowment and fundraising support for CMS Foundation, which allows CMS Foundation staff to focus on the start-up programming and direct fundraising work.

Sonja Gantt reacts to Jay Everette’s surprise announcement of grants for each presenters’ school during the Teacher Talks event in March. Everette, center, is Senior Community Relations Manager for Wells Fargo, a sponsor of the event. CMS Foundation Board Chair Sandra Conway applauds the announcement. (Photo courtesy of CMS Foundation)

Two, four, six, eight — which school do you appreciate?

Gantt hopes to tap more deeply into the school spirit of the Charlotte community by “developing a culture of  ‘Schoolanthropy‘  a spirit of support for our public schools.”

Through the lens of “Schoolanthropy,” the foundation is “calling on our community to really invest in our educators, so that when they’re standing at the front of a classroom, they are as well prepared as possible to really reach our students,” Gantt says.

On Sept. 29, CMS Foundation will host its first “Schoolanthropy” luncheon. The fundraiser is a way to share with the public what the foundation does, says Gantt. It will also be an opportunity for people to learn more about CMS; a school leader will be seated at every table to answer questions and share information.

Reflecting on her own experiences as a CMS student, Gantt also wants to spotlight “how important CMS is to the ongoing success of Mecklenburg County.” She wants to hear from fellow alumni about their favorite teacher, class or experience — reflections she plans to share in an exhibit and video.

Leveraging success

“A wonderful amount of potential exists in the school system,” says Gantt, and the focus of CMS Foundation is to find private investment, not only to create but to leverage existing programs that nurture that potential.

The Cultural Proficiency program, which helps teachers strengthen their ability to effectively bridge cultural differences in the classroom, needs nearly $5 million to train 6,600 additional teachers; 2,400 teachers are already enrolled.

With a diverse student body that speaks 160 different languages, it’s important that teachers are equipped with the training to feel confident working across many cultures, Gantt says.

The Reading Foundations initiative is intensive, literacy-focused training designed to equip teachers with strategies to better support emerging readers. The total cost of this program is $2.8 million. Teachers in 50 schools have been trained; a donation of $185,000 from Wells Fargo paid for training in 24 of the schools.

“We wanted to get the program into half the elementary schools (54) this year, but we weren’t able to,” says Gantt. “We want teachers to be able to start the year with the training, and we ran out of time.”

Without private investment, taking a successful program to scale takes a lot longer, Gantt says.

Other fundraising priorities

Teacher Innovation Fund
Through grants awarded to CMS teachers, this fund supports innovative ideas for projects in science, technology, math, literacy, arts, health and fitness and more. This past year, $70,000 from the Charlotte Hornets was given out in teacher innovation grants.

Leveraging the success of the grants program, the foundation is seeking donations to support another identified need in CMS — social/emotional learning, a subject Gantt says she hears a lot about in meetings with teachers and education leaders.

[Read more: Innovation grants allow educators to extend lessons beyond the classroom]

Teacher Talks
Modeled after the popular TED Talks, the CMS Foundation launched Teacher Talks to provide educators with a forum to exchange ideas, share experiences and inspire others. Teachers prepare and deliver powerful talks to a live audience, which are filmed and shared online to spread their reach and impact beyond the stage.

YouTube video

The first Teacher Talks evening, held in March, was emceed by former CMS teacher and 2014 N.C. Teacher of The Year James Ford, whose idea spawned the project. Gantt called the event the highlight of her tenure on the job. “The evening was a new way to collaborate and share,” Gantt said. The program “elevated (teachers’) voices and gave them a professional-sharing space they don’t always get.”

Success by Design
Based on the success of Opportunity Culture first piloted in CMS through Project LIFT, the Success by Design initiative provides teachers a way to earn more money by expanding their impact and taking on more responsibility within the school without leaving the classroom.

‘Schoolanthropy’ Luncheon
This special event will feature student performers, remarks from new CMS Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and an interactive tribute to CMS teachers. CMS alumni are invited to share memories of their favorite teachers or what they most appreciated about their school experience. Share your story
When: Sept. 29, 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
Where: Mint Museum Uptown, 500 S. Tryon St.
Cost: $50 for individuals; $500 for a table
Buy tickets

Want to be a ‘Schoolanthropist?’
There are a number of ways, big and small, to donate — from tribute and memorial gifts to corporate giving. Check out the CMS Foundation site. The foundation also receives and distributes funds from donors who want to contribute to individual schools but need a 501c3 to take advantage of corporate matching gifts. They handled nearly $105,000 in pass-through funds for the 2016 calendar year.