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  • David A.F. Sweet

Firm Foundation: LFHS Non-Profit Keeps Investing in Education Amid Pandemic

By David A. F. Sweet When thinking about a science classroom, standard images of microscopes and test tubes may flash into mind. But thanks to the Lake Forest High School Foundation, mobile tables have become an important new part of the design. “I am able to move my classroom around to cater to the type of learning that I want my students to participate in,” said science teacher Kurt Schuessler, who can shift from a lab environment to a classroom discussion with ease. “It allows me to be more creative with my lesson planning. Students engage in more thoughtful discussion and communication when they are facing each other."

“The grants are truly the why of our foundation,” says LFHS Foundation President Suzanne Sands.

Founded in 2002 – no doubt spurred by the long-running and successful Spirit of 67 Foundation -- the high-school foundation is a crucial component to educational excellence in Lake Forest, Lake Bluff and Knollwood. In its nearly 20-year history, the foundation has awarded more than 300 grants proposed by faculty members, allotments worth more than $2.5 million. Because of these, students can now use virtual reality headsets to explore remote areas of the world, develop 3-D creations – and pivot easily to different science classroom configurations.

“The grants are truly the why of our foundation,” explains LFHS Foundation President Suzanne Sands. “We can be the impetus for creative ideas that otherwise wouldn’t happen because of a limitation on budget dollars.”

What comprises a winning grant application? One major criterion is whether it fits the LFHS mission to “support, enrich and enhance the Lake Forest High School experience for all students, faculty and staff through investing in educational excellence.” Additional considerations include how many students will be impacted, the percentage of funds that have been allocated to a department in previous years and other measures.

On March 12, a number of teachers received the good news their grant requests -- ranging from MacBooks for art students to kayaking equipment -- had been approved. Though the celebration that day was somewhat muted because of the pandemic, faculty members Ashleigh Malec and Corey Holmer still managed to present the awards while shooting off confetti guns. Winning teachers received a grant certificate, a sticker that announces “I’ve Been Granted,” candy and more. The LFHS Foundation – whose annual revenue fluctuates between $150,000-$200,000 -- counts on four sources of income to provide grants: donations from parents, donations from other local organizations, an annual luncheon and Pitch Night, where students’ entrepreneurial ideas vie for investors similar to the popular show Shark Tank. Though most donors are parents who give online during the school registration process ($62,000 during the 2020-2021 school year), partnering with local organizations has offered a big boost lately. A recent $10,000 grant from the Grainger Foundation, for example, will be earmarked for STEM-related grants. The LFHS Foundation isn’t the only fund-raising arm at the school, though its initiatives touch the most students. The Boosters, Association of Parents & Teachers (APTs), Producers-at-Large (PALs) and Applause also raise money for their more tightly focused concerns. The vivacious and friendly Sands, who joined the foundation board in 2018, said about 30 percent of parents contribute to the non-profit. Though that number may not seem high, it’s up from about 20 percent in years past. When the pandemic hampered revenue in 2020, Sands noted generous families stepped in to fill the gaps. The foundation postponed certain grants such as new calculators, given children had left the classroom for remote learning, along with professional development opportunities abroad for faculty members because travel had been shut down. Despite adroitly navigating the pandemic, challenges remain, such as ensuring volunteer engagement year after year. “It’s hard for us to plan more than a year in advance because you don’t know who will be there to do the work,” explained Sands, who noted about 30-40 parents and alumni are often involved with the foundation. “You don’t know who will be enthusiastic. High school parents are often in transition themselves.” Still, she is optimistic about the foundation’s future. “We’ll continue to get better with social media as younger parents get involved,” she said. “We’ll do better with video and telling our story.” This is one in a series of pieces on Lake Forest High School that will run until the end of the school year.


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