The Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation has been around since 1998, and it's perhaps best known among the philanthropic community for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program that routes hundreds of thousands of dollars toward students' education.
But now it's starting something new: Adopt a Harrisburg Classroom.
"I got this idea from, frankly, the Lancaster school district foundation," says Karen Snider, executive director of HPSF. "Businesses and churches and individuals and community associations and so on are always interested in doing something for the schools, but they don't always know what to do. This is tangible. That's why it's so successful in Lancaster."
Shanon Solava-Reid, executive director of Lancaster Education Foundation, says Adopt a School District of Lancaster Classroom has been running for more than a decade and is still growing. Last year, 56 classrooms across its 19 schools were adopted, affecting more than 1,400 students. Adoptions can happen at any point in the school year, she says. So far this year, 30 classrooms have been adopted.
"Our perspective on it is, this is a way for donors to connect directly to teachers and students," Solava-Reid says. It's not a requirement, but most donors end up building a relationship with the classroom, too. "It might be their opportunity to get more involved. We encourage the thank-you notes and the relationship and all those things."
The cornerstone of both programs is that the teacher gets to choose how to use the money, although Harrisburg emphasizes that donors can also be part of that decision. The use has to be educational, but that leaves a lot of options.
"A lot of times it goes to supplies that maybe aren't covered otherwise and would come out of the pocket for the teacher," Solava-Reid says. "Or it could be a special professional development opportunity, or something they want to do special for their kids, such as a treat day or a field trip."
In addition to the financial aspect of the program, Solava-Reid says, it also gives teachers an emotional boost.
"It's really an honor for a teacher to have their classroom adopted," she says. "It's not a great environment for public education right now. It's tough to be a teacher, and to have a community member say, 'I'm investing in what you're doing in the classroom, and you get to decide how to do it' — their colleagues look at them and say, 'Wow, you got adopted!'"
Both programs feature plaques indicating who has adopted a classroom. Lancaster has a minimum donation of $250 per classroom, and any classroom in the district may be adopted. Harrisburg has a set donation of $500 per classroom, and for this initial year it is restricting the program to kindergarten through fourth grade — a total of 133 classrooms.
Snider said the concept has drawn quite a bit of interest already, from organizations ranging from faith groups to neighborhood associations. And, of course, businesses.
"Getting involved in the Adopt a Classroom program was a natural fit for PNC," says Jim Hoehn, regional president of PNC Bank in Central Pennsylvania, which will be sponsoring 10 classrooms. "It extends our longstanding support of the Harrisburg School District and furthers our strategic investment in preparing local children for success in school while building a strong foundation for the future of this region."
Snider and Solava-Reid say they're not worried that the classroom adoption programs will draw donations away from other parts of their program. In fact, Solava-Reid says, it tends to work the other way. The foundation stays in touch with people who have adopted classrooms, and they frequently continue their sponsorships for years — and in some cases, go on to get acquainted and then involved with other foundation efforts.
"When we have employees from businesses volunteer in the school district, they get so much out of it. One of the things I hear about it is, 'This is one of the best things about my job,'" says Solava-Reid. "To be out of their office and out of the plant and get to be connected to the community, that makes them want to stay."