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News >  Idaho

Program supporting Sandpoint schools adjusting to new era

Over the past 12 years Sandpoint schools have been enriched through the efforts of Panhandle Alliance for Education, a nonprofit that hands out teacher grants, coordinates classroom volunteers and spearheads an early childhood literacy program.

The group’s success was due in no small part to the generosity of Coldwater Creek, its principal patron from the start. Recognizing that a strong public education system is a key to recruiting and retaining quality employees, the company raised millions of dollars for the alliance.

“It helped them with hiring to have a good story about schools,” said Marcia Wilson, the organization’s executive director.

An annual golf tournament hosted by Coldwater helped the organization build a $3 million endowment for its support of the Lake Pend Oreille School District.

When Coldwater Creek went out of business last spring, that flow of corporate money ended for the alliance. It wasn’t exactly a bombshell.

“We could kind of see the handwriting on the wall with Coldwater,” Wilson said. “We knew it was too good to last forever.”

Like the community at large, the alliance is adjusting to the post-Coldwater landscape. The nonprofit is building relationships with other potential benefactors, and its board and staff are learning new donor development and fundraising skills. Litehouse Foods, a longtime supporter of the cause, will take over the charitable golf tournament. The company bought and moved its headquarters into a 32,000-square-foot office on the former Coldwater campus up the road in Kootenai.

“We’ve got a number of businesses that are growing very quickly and trying to hire,” Wilson said. “I just see a very rosy picture. People are very generous in this community and have really taken care of the schools in the past, and it’s only going to get better.”

Held the weekend after Labor Day, the golf tournament grew into one of the more successful fundraisers in North Idaho. Coldwater brought in vendors from all over the world – big spenders who helped the event gross $600,000 to $900,000 a year.

“Coldwater said if you want us to be strong we have to have good schools to attract good people to our community,” Wilson said.

The absence of those participants was apparent this past September. The event went on but grossed far less – $130,000.

“I think we’ll be fine. It’s just going to be a little lean for a while as we build the golf tournament back up,” Wilson said.

Since 2003 the alliance has awarded over $1.25 million through more than 500 teacher grants. The group gives about $75,000 a year for personal technology and apps, textbooks and experiments, musical instruments, student mentoring, field trips and more.

Teachers get to decide what would be most beneficial in their classrooms. The money has paid for lessons on water-quality testing, robotics, solar cars and sheep brains. More than 1,800 seventh-graders have dissected those brains as part of a science curriculum.

The organization’s READY! For Kindergarten program came in response to data showing that 44 percent of children entering kindergarten test below proficiency for learning readiness. After six years of the program for children ages 5 or younger, 90 percent of the graduates enter school testing above kindergarten readiness levels, the alliance reports.

Another achievement is a school volunteer program in partnership with the Equinox Foundation. A professional volunteer coordinator works with community members who have time and special talents to share. Last school year, over 15,000 hours of trained volunteer time was logged across the district’s 12 schools.

The alliance also funds one-on-one college and career counseling in high school. In 2013, 78 percent of graduating seniors took part and planned to enter college or technical schools.

“We have people moving here because of our schools now. And it’s really one of the best-kept secrets,” Wilson said.

“People are here and staying here because they love it. And that’s not going to change.”

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