Planting Seeds to Grow Education

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A prize patrol strolled through the halls of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD) schools surprising teachers with large cardboard checks. It was the largest amount ever awarded, but it wasn’t winning the sweepstakes that they celebrated—it was the PSJA Education Foundation teacher mini-grants.

The PSJA Education Foundation awarded 35 teacher mini-grants for $500 and, for the first-time ever, a $1,000 mini-grant to help fill gaps and assist teachers in areas outside of the normal budget. Teachers submitted requests for needs they have in the classroom, and then in early December the foundation’s prize patrol made dreams come true.

Valentin Tonkin and Julie Robie, teachers at Berta Palacios Elementary, will use the first $1,000 mini-grant to purchase family fun packs that focus on reading and math in a dual-language setting. The school’s Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten students will be able to checkout these packs to take home on a weekly basis.

The $500 mini-grants will be used in a variety of ways throughout the school district from: teaching real-world economic principles to fifth graders at Carman Elementary, to building a reading loft for Kindergartners at Cantu Elementary, to establishing a tutoring center at PSJA High School, to forming a reading club at Kennedy Middle School.

“It’s our way to give back and fund projects that are needed outside of the normal scope,” said PSJA Education Foundation President Joel Gonzalez.

The PSJA Education Foundation is an independent non-profit organization that promotes excellence in education by developing and sustaining financial and non-financial support from the private sector to PSJA ISD students and staff. The foundation was founded two years ago by merging the Tri-City Business Education Coalition with the school district’s efforts to raise funds for its schools. Although independent of the other, the district and foundation share the same belief that a successful education system must involve a team effort of family, school and community to provide students with the tools they need to be lifelong learners and productive citizens.

The original education coalition was a group of local business leaders who had spent the previous 15 years raising approximately $50,000 a year for the schools. Now, combining forces with the PSJA school district they have raised $250,000 this year.

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“It’s been a lot of hard work,” said Gonzalez, a senior vice president at Lone Star National Bank. “All of us have a vested interest in our community, 13 of the 15 board members are PSJA graduates and of the other two—one has moved into Pharr and the other is the PSJA ISD superintendent.”

The mini-grants are just one of the ways that the PSJA Education Foundation is investing in its area’s education. Earlier in the school year, the foundation presented a $13,000 grant to the PSJA ISD Library Department to fund the BRIGHT Summer Readers and Battle of the Books programs. At a super-hero themed event, the Library Department accepted the funds to purchase books and materials needed to continue the programs.

Before the foundation’s existence, the coalition would award $11,000 in scholarships to 11 students each year. Last year, the foundation awarded 63 students $1,000 scholarships each. This year, they plan to distribute $100,000 amongst 100 students who are chosen based solely on the merit of their grades, teacher recommendations, essay and accomplishments. The foundation will also award four renewable $1,000 scholarships to assist the students throughout their college career.

“It’s a seed that we’re planting so these students know people care and want to see them continue their education,” Gonzalez said. “In the future, we want them to look back and say, ‘the PSJA Foundation helped me’.”

Students and their families are already giving back in appreciation of the support they received at PSJA ISD by establishing family scholarships. Last year, the Coral Family and Peralez Family each awarded scholarships through the foundation. Cecilia Coral graduated from PSJA High School and went on to earn a degree from Stanford University. She asked her family members to join her in establishing a scholarship in the family name as a way to re-invest in other students.

To raise funds the foundation holds a yearly concert fundraiser, seeks the support of local businesses as its sponsors, and the PSJA ISD teachers, staff and administration also give from within. Last year, 100 PSJA ISD employees participated in a payroll deduction to support the foundation, and this year 731 employees are participating in the payroll deduction.

“We have the support of the school district and that has made a huge difference,” Gonzalez said. “We’re all business people working all day, and it helps to have the school district working with us.”

The PSJA Education Foundation envisions a day when it awards a $1,000 scholarship to every graduate of a PSJA ISD high school. “We’re just getting started and the sky’s the limit,” Gonzalez said. “It takes a whole community to raise our children.”