Through a grassroots foundation, West Feliciana residents are raising funds and recruiting volunteers to keep the "public" in public schools
West Feliciana Parish residents overwhelmingly send their children to the four public schools that make up the West Feliciana Parish Schools system—Bains Lower Elementary, Bains Elementary, West Feliciana Middle and West Feliciana High School. Together, these institutions serve more than 2,200 students and form the heartbeat of the community, maintaining consistently high rankings amongst Louisiana public schools and providing a solid educational foundation for generations of West Feliciana kids from all walks of life. But when a local tax that would have provided additional support to the school system failed to pass in 2014, a group of parents found another way.
“We wanted to see how we could help the school ourselves,” says parent Jaimee Pangburn, a former development executive. “We saw an opportunity to raise private funds and recruit volunteers to support each campus.”
What started as a grass roots project around a kitchen table has grown into a flourishing organization with a lot of momentum. Pangburn and fellow parents launched the West Feliciana Education Foundation in late 2014, raising about $13,000 during their first year. In 2017, the annual amount raised jumped to $35,000, thanks to growing interest in the foundation’s signature event, the WFEF Dodgeball Challenge. Held every August, the Dodgeball Challenge is a good-natured, high-spirited dodgeball tournament held at the West Feliciana Sports Park. Dozens of teams turn out in themed costumes and do battle for the chance to take home the coveted Golden Hippo trophy. Complete with food and drink vendors, comedy commentators, and prizes for the best-costumed teams, it’s a great community day out. And there are no head shots allowed.
The Dodgeball Challenge has enabled the foundation to fund all sorts of projects, including supporting a group of students from West Feliciana High School to travel to the Yale University Bulldog Mock Trial Invitational. The Foundation has also helped spruce up bathrooms and build a new trophy case for West Feliciana Middle School, and conduct badly needed upgrades to the Pro Start classroom at West Feliciana High, where students learn skills for careers in the culinary arts.
The foundation has even purchased a year’s supply of coffee for the West Feliciana School Board office and all four schools to keep teachers from having to pay for their own coffee.
“Big and small, projects have really made a difference in the lives of teachers and students,” says Pangburn. “The schools know we care, and it has a really big effect.”
The foundation is 100% volunteer-based, and spends just 1% of income on operating costs, so donations are used almost exclusively to fund projects. They’re deposited into an account at the Bank of St. Francisville, which has also been a loyal corporate partner to the foundation since the beginning, says Pangburn.
“The Bank of St. Francisville has always stepped up,” she says. “They’ve been our presenting sponsor for the Dodgeball Challenge for the last three years.”
To apply for funds, teachers and administrators complete a short grant application in January. A panel of community residents and foundation board members decides which grants to fund, and grant recipients are announced in May. Previous projects include the purchase of virtual reality glasses, artists’ sketchbooks and funding for professional development conferences on topics such as discipline.
“We fund projects that are not in the school budget,” says Pangburn. “These things really have a reverberating effect on campus.”
Increasing volunteerism at the schools is another focus of the foundation. Last January its leaders began organizing a day of service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day recognized across the country as an opportunity to serve. Volunteers came out for a school work day and helped weed, trim and improve school grounds, says Pangburn.
“The schools here are a huge part of the community,” she says. “We are really excited to support them.”
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