Falmouth Education Foundation

By Elizabeth White

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

Cuts in state aid have left schools across the Cape struggling to provide adequate instruction. Teachers have especially scant funds for technology based projects. To alleviate this, there's a new community effort in Falmouth, the first of its kind on the Cape. It's called the Falmouth Education Foundation and its mission is to raise private funds for the public schools.

On a cloudy Sunday afternoon about thirty parents and teachers gathered at Morse Pond elementary school in Falmouth.

The small but enthusiastic crowd marched around town carrying signs in support of the nascent Falmouth Education Foundation. In May, the foundation awarded its first series of grants totaling $16,000. The foundation's president Margaret Russel is a graduate of Falmouth High. Though her own children attended private school, Russel places a premium on public education.

Margaret Russel: "I firmly believe it's one of the cornerstones of democracy, it really is. That opportunity everybody has for a good education. And all of us on the board just feel that it's the community's responsibility to provide the best we can."

The Foundation received twelve grant applications from Falmouth teachers, and funded six of them. The largest grant will install a research level seismograph at Falmouth High School. At $7,000 dollars, the cost of the project is already more than the science department has to spend on teaching materials for the whole year. Earth science students will use the seismograph to learn about plate techtonics by plotting actual earthquakes as they occur around the world. Russel says the Foundation funds innovative projects which fall outside the school's regular operating budget.

Margaret Russel: "We are not funding staff, we are not funding textbooks, we are not funding building repairs. The projects we're funding are extras in the sense that they're expendable in a budget."

However expendable in a budget, the seismograph will be invaluable in the classroom says science department chair Chris Brothers. She says the seismograph will help teach a range of skills.

Chris Brothers: "There's different waves that travel through the earth at different speeds, so there's math implications, science implications, geography implications for the students figuring out, well, we've got a point here, what country is that. You know all the studies show that kids don't really know geography that well. And it's not just kids, it's adults too. I bet most people still could locate Afghanistan on a map. And yet that's a kind of earthquake hot spot."

Sitting in her windowless office, Brothers says the idea is to teach kids science as it's practiced in the real-world.

Chris Brothers: "The technology involved in this, it is what actual seismologists do. In terms of being able to see the output form the seismograph and interpret that. So as much as we possible can we're trying to replicate that experience for students."

At least two Falmouth high students are looking forward to the seismograph. Juniors Colleen Tully and Courtney Williamson, think it sounds cool.

Courtney Williamson: "Like no really knows about that kind of stuff, so we'd kinda get to learn about it. "
Colleen Tully: "And we never have stuff like that at our high school."
Reporter: "What do you mean stuff like that?
Colleen Tully: "We never have really cool like technical, technology, like scientific devices brought to Falmouth high. It'd be interesting."

The lack of high tech devices at Falmouth High is ironic give the oodles of state of the art machinery employed just down the road in the world renowned science institutes of Woods Hole village. In a biology classroom that houses a pet lizard and a fish tank, Falmouth earth science teachers Scott Crocker and Claudio Palhais discuss the importance of engaging students with materials other than textbooks. Palhais says hands-on projects greatly improve the quality of science instruction.

Claudio Palhais: "I think in science especially when we get a chance to do things hands on the kids get more excited. They get excited about anything destructive: volcanoes earthquakes and things like that. But this gives them a chance to track that and like I said before this is real life, real-life issues in real time. This is not something that happened ten or fifteen years ago, this is something that's happening right now. "

For instance, students at other schools were able to detect the earthquake that devastated Pakistan a year ago, and could have picked up vibrations from North Korea's recent nuclear test. Crocker says teachers at Falmouth High have come to rely on private grants to fund classroom projects.

Scott Crocker: "That's kind of what's kept our head above water so to speak. For the last couple years anyway."

The science department's total yearly budget for books and instructional materials is $6,500, down from $16,000 five years ago. The Falmouth school system has a total yearly budget of $39 million dollars, of which $31 million goes to salaries and wages. Superintendent Dennis Richards says the Foundation is a great idea, but it's not going to solve the budget problems.

To find out more about the Falmouth Education Foundation, contact: Margaret Russel (508) 540-0876
Email: falmoutheducationfnd@gmail.com

Broadcast October 12, 2006

Elizabeth White reports for WCAI, the Cape and Islands NPR Station.