Education foundation changes lives in Cambridge

Nearly 300 runners toed the starting line at the fourth annual Rush Creek Stampede in October. They were racing to bring more learning tools and opportunities to students in the Cambridge School District.

The fall fun run through the Rush Creek Valley north of Cambridge is the major annual fundraiser for the Upper Country Education Foundation. The non-profit community organization formed in 2011 to alleviate financial pressure on the small rural district.

At a school board meeting during the recession about seven years ago, trustees were discussing cutbacks, including the possibility of closing the elementary school and moving those kids to the junior/senior high school.

“People in the audience started talking about how we could take a more positive direction and not just keep spinning our wheels,” said Nick Petitmermet, president of the Cambridge School Board.

From that and subsequent brainstorming sessions, the Upper Country Education Foundation was born.

The UCEF board consists of five community volunteers, including Petitmermet, who serves as its chair. The board works with the superintendent and district staff to identify and prioritize needs. Board members and volunteers find creative funding sources to address those needs.

“It became obvious to some of us that we needed to find outside sources of financial support to continue to provide a quality education for our students,” said Barb Ertel, UCEF board member.

Over the past four years, UCEF has raised more than $150,000 through grants, donations and fundraisers.

Those new dollars allowed Cambridge schools to implement a one-to-one iPad program for all 108 students. Other technology upgrades include installing wireless access in the elementary and high schools, 15 desktop computers in the computer lab, three wireless laser printers and a set of Chromebooks for the high school English classroom.

“The Foundation has had a huge positive impact,” said Bob McMichael, English teacher at Cambridge Middle/High School. “Before, the English classroom had no computers that worked. That’s especially tough when we’re trying to get kids to write and rewrite more.”

Those computers will be getting a workout in the coming weeks, as McMichael challenges each of his English students to write a minimum of 50,000 words in novel form before the end of November for National Novel Writing Month.

Ed Schumacher
Cambridge Superintendent Ed Schumacher

Cambridge Superintendent Ed Schumacher said the district reaps the benefits of the technology upgrades every day.

“Before the foundation stepped up, it had taken every penny we got from the state just to keep our 15-year-old technology functioning,” Schumacher said. “Now those state resources meet all our technology maintenance needs, and we have money left over to replace some equipment each year. We’re not just treading water anymore.”

Other items funded by the foundation include hurdles and mats for the track team, recording equipment for the music department, a new curtain and stage lighting for the drama department,  robotics equipment for engineering classes and field trips.

The foundation also purchased art supplies and was instrumental in bringing in Kaye York, an award-winning local artist, to teach art skills to sixth- and seventh-graders.

“We didn’t have an art program, so this is huge, to be able to give the kids this opportunity to learn and create,” said Cara Johnson, who teaches middle school communication and high school drama.

For the last three years, UCEF has covered the salary of a full-time elementary school secretary. That position had been vacant for more than two years.

“The work of the foundation impacts the lives of our kids every day. It has changed our whole culture,” Schumacher said.

Last year’s Rush Creek Stampede netted more than $9,000 for UCEF. Ertel expects proceeds will be higher this year as the number of participants increases every year.

“Generous community support helps us maximize the money raised for the schools,” said UCEF board member Judy Walters. “Businesses from as far away as Weiser and Ontario sponsor the event to cover the cost of the T-shirts and other expenses.”

Walters said runners are attracted by the beauty of the Rush Creek Valley in autumn, teacher Bob McMichael playing bagpipes at the half-marathon loop and delicious homemade soups and desserts awaiting the runners at the finish line, as well as the ability to improve opportunities for kids.