By, of, and for Teachers, National Foundation Gains New Respect as

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During the 1989-90 academic year, William Mittlefehldt initiated a new unit in his social studies class at Anoka Senior High School in Minnesota. Using real-world data bases that provided detailed information on the 50 states, the students drafted strategies to enhance Minnesota's economic development. The best were then presented to a three-member legislative panel in St. Paul.

The following year, inspired by a technology conference in San Francisco he had attended, Mr. Mittlefehldt returned to Anoka and reformed the unit. He took his students to the state's planning agency, where they learned how to manipulate additional software. He also persuaded the state's economist to address his classroom a second time. And he got the legislative panel to lengthen the time it would hear student testimony.

Meanwhile, the social-studies teacher, along with some of his honors students, entered into a project with the city to plan for the year 2010 using an even more sophisticated data base. In the end, says Mr. Mittlefehldt, not only were the mayor and city council paying attention to a group of teenagers, but the city provided financial support to the school.

To top off that success, Mr. Mittlefehldt this past summer was selected to represent his state as one of 35 teachers nationwide at weeklong sessions on energy and environmental policy at the University of Oklahoma and in Washington. Out of that experience grew an eight-page proposal for an electronic network housed by the Smithsonian Institution to be operated by teachers.

Chances are, Mr. Mittlefehldt might have accomplished a good portion of these undertakings without outside support. But to hear him tell it, it was the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education, a Washington-based education foundation that financed his trip to the San Francisco conference, that provided him the boost to continue his innovative teaching.

"I got the synergy and networking out of it. The money was immaterial," says Mr. Mittlefehldt, the recipient of the newest line of grants, Learning Tomorrow.

The only foundation at the national level to bestow grants exclusively on teachers, N.F.I.E. is the philanthropic arm of the National Education Association.

Once tightly bound to its parent, the foundation has gone through a number of metamorphoses since its inception in 1969. And now, in its current incarnation, N.F.I.E. has emerged as a respected foundation that not only awards grants to teachers but is also largely funded by them. Since 1985, when the foundation underwent its last major reconfiguration, teachers have contributed more than $1.7 million to its coffers.

"Their reputation among their colleagues is very strong," says Mary Leonard, director of pre-collegiate education at the Council on Foundations. People admire the high quality of their grants and are really quite amazed at the reputation they have made in recent years for a teachers'-union foundation, which a lot of people didn't have a lot of respect for simply because of the nature of that relationship. But N.F.I.E. has amassed a good asset base now and is quite able to work very nicely [with the corporate community]. That is a real coup."

Moreover, says Ms. Leonard, the N.F.I.E. invests in teachers as agents of change, a concept that strengthens the reputation of teachers and the public's confidence that they "are part of the solution and not just part of the problem." And, as the N.F.1.E.'s executive director, Donna C. Rhodes, sees it, the foundation represents one of the few places for teachers where "taking risks is rewarded."

A 'Godsend' for Teachers

Several observers attribute the foundation's new-found status to the N.E.A.' s past president, Mary Hatwood Furfell, and its executive director, Don Cameron. During the early 1980' s, according to Ms. Rhodes, union officials had been pondering ways to refocus this somewhat amorphous entity that had up to that point relied only on sight-money projects.

"There wasn't a sense that is really made a difference in terms of education," she says. The N.E.A. "realized the need for a permanent foundation that wasn't always seeking soft money, one that was more focused and provided the opportunity for teachers to experiment."

Ms. Futrell called on her members to contribute $1 a year for the next five years to establish a $l-million Endowment for Excellence. In 1987, the union's Representative Assembly, its policymaking body, approved the request.

In addition to putting the foundation on a more solid financial footing, Ms. Futrell in 1985 also created a special program to focus its efforts on dropout prevention. On top of the endowment, another $700,000 from the teachers' contributions was earmarked for the new program, which was dubbed "Operation Rescue"---a name later changed as the anti-abortion group with the same name came on the scene.

Today, N.F.I.E. has endowed more than $2 million to dropout-prevention programs at 73 sites across the country.

One beneficiary of the new grant program was a group of teachers in Ysleta, Texas, who had wanted to start a program in the public schools that would reach children long before they could legally drop out of school. Under their plan, teachers would visit homes during the school day to show that they truly cared about their students, celebrate the children's Hispanic culture, and set up mentoring relationships between the business community and the children.

In July 1988, the teachers received a two-year grant of $30,000 from the N.F.I.E. SO successful was Project CARE, which is operating in 12 predominantly elementary schools, that the district picked up the subsequent funding, says Gloria Barragan, who has evolved from classroom teacher to full-time director of the project.

"I think it is a godsend for teachers ," says Ms. Barragan. In addition to the financial support, she says, the project also received technical assistance and emotional support from the foundation.

Moreover, it helped her and her colleagues gain respect and confidence. "We
as teachers did not wait for someone to give us a prescription."

Foundation Gains Independence

Another factor that has contributed to the N.F.I.E.'s success, observers note, is its growing distance from its union parent.

As part of that effort, it began in the mid-1980's to recruit outsiders to its board.

"The board had atrophied," says Ms. Rhodes. "They had only N.E.A. related people at that time."

Among those serving today are William H. Kolberg, president of the National Alliance of Business, and Arthur E. Wise, president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.

It also hired Ms. Rhodes, whose background included both pre-collegiate and collegiate teaching, staff development, fundraising, and government service at the state and federal levels. Mr. Wise, currently the board's chairman, likens the new structure to those of corporate foundations, which he says are created to advance some corporate values but not in a self-serving fashion.

"That's what the N.E.A. has done here," he says. "It has created N.F.I.E. to advance educational improvement, consistent with the belief that the teacher is the center of the instructional process."

The foundation funds projects, Mr. Wise adds, that "actively engage and advance the idea of teacher professionalism, but do so in a way which is independent of the large N.E.A. structure."

The grants help contribute to the union's goal of school restructuring, notes Ms. Rhodes. "We didn't intend them to be projects on school restructuring," she recalls. "But when you give money... to teachers, you do affect the structure of schools."

In another act to distance itself from its parent, the foundation opened up its grants to other than N.E.A. members. (Two grant programs left over from the earlier N.F.i.E. the William G. Cart and the Hilda Maehling grants--continue to go only to union members.)

It also attracted new funding from corporate sponsors, such as Nike Inc., that has enabled it to bring the size of its grants near previous levels. From 1986 to 1988, heady with its mission and its funding, the N.F.I.E. bestowed grants as high as $50,000. Over the next two years, however, grants dropped to $5,000. Since the infusion of new funding, grants have increased once again to as much as $25,000.

So strong has its reputation grown, Ms. Rhodes points out, that Nike approached the foundation, rather than vice versa.

As the foundation has grown in size and stature, it has added new programs. The Christa McAuliffe Institute for Educational Pioneering was begun in 1988 to help innovative teachers execute their ideas and share them with others. And two years ago, the foundation launched Learning Tomorrow, which provides grants to teachers who use technology.

"It's probably the most cutting edge program we have," says Ms. Rhodes. "We're not talking about technology. We're talking about how technology aids school restructuring."

Kathleen Duplantier, a resource teacher at Abita Springs Elementary School in Louisiana, who was named a Christa McAuliffe educator in 1990, says that program has also been a boon to her school.

Based on the work she was doing in her district, Ms. Duplantier and four other teachers were charged with putting together a summer institute on restructuring at Stanford University that was attended by other Christa McAuliffe fellows.

Before the institute, she was flown to various sites in the country to examine restructuring efforts and to meet with renowned educators. She was given a $5,000 check for her personal use and a home computer. And her journeys have continued since then.

"Every time I took off there were new ideas I could bring back to the school," says Ms. Duplantier. "1 realized how important it is for me as a classroom teacher to step outside my school and have different experiences."

Vol. 11, Issue 02, Pages 6-7

Published in Print: September 11, 1991, as By, of, and for Teachers, National Foundation Gains New Respect as
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