This is The Rutherford Education Foundation
Updated: Feb 8, 2019
by Jennifer Ersalesi
Sixteen years ago, the Rutherford Education Foundation was created when the Board of Education determined a need for a foundation that could raise money to fund special programs that are unable to be funded through school budgets. Since then the REF has grown in both size and popularity, with almost thirty members.
The members work together to use the money that they raise through a variety of fundraisers to support and further enrich academic, athletic and extracurricular experiences of students in Rutherford. Mrs. Rachel Mejias, Reading Specialist/ Teacher at Washington School explained, “The Rutherford Education Foundation has been a huge asset to the Washington School Response To Intervention program. Our last grant titled “See It! Feel It! Learn it!” has provided us with various multi-sensory learning materials to support students’ understanding of literacy concepts. All students learn in different ways and having a variety of resources to teach to the visual, kinesthetic, auditory, and tactile learner has made a positive impact on student success. We are grateful for their generosity.” “This is Rutherford” interviewed Past President Andy Cevasco and Current REF President Christina Cole about the REF, their success, and the future of the foundation.
TIR: Rutherford resident Kerry Goldsack and current REF board member explained, “As a lifelong Rutherford resident and proud alumnae of Rutherford High School, I enjoy having the opportunity to give back to the school system and it’s amazing staff that gave me so much and will continue to give my children so much in the future.” The REF has become invaluable to the community of Rutherford since its inception. How was the REF created?
ANDY: My wife Doreen was a member of the Board of Education and the BOE wanted the Borough to have an education foundation that would raise money to fund a number of different programs and initiatives. She asked me to do the legal work necessary to incorporate the foundation and register it as a charity with the state and the IRS. Once that was done, I served as the first president and started the process of inviting interested persons to serve on the board. The original trustees including myself were: Elizabeth Fichtel, Anne Buzzerio, Rosemarie Kuruc, and Maura Keyes. We now have thirty trustees and have raised approximately a half million dollars in grants to date.
TIR: In 2018, $53,000 was provided in grants, supporting 29 projects. Does the amount of money awarded change significantly from year to year?
CHRISTINA: The amount of money we grant each year is determined by how successful we were in our fundraising efforts and the amount of grants that the teachers or the district requests. Some years we may have fewer grant requests, but the dollar amount for those grants may exceed a year with more grant requests with a smaller dollar amount. With the help of the Casadonte family, we have been able to grant about $60,000 for the past three years. Thomas Casadonte was a Rutherford Education Board of Education member, as well as BOE President. He passed away suddenly in December 2015 and his family has continued to support Rutherford education through monetary donations.
ANDY: The foundation began much smaller fifteen years ago. Our first fundraiser was a raffle that raised only $5,000, but we have been adding fundraisers and for the past several years we have been funding approximately this amount. Since we committed funds to the district’s Chromebook initiative, the number of grants awarded last year was actually a little lower than we usually fund.
TIR: Speaking of the Chromebook initiative, in 2017, you were able to provide a grant to help financially support the 1:1 Chromebook initiative for grades 6-12, which was such an important contribution to the Rutherford School District. Tell us more about how this all happened.
CHRISTINA: At the beginning of each school year I meet with Mr. Hurley to discuss any district initiatives that may need the financial help of the REF. This 1:1 initiative was originally going to take the district five years to attain, but we were able to help the district roll out the 1:1 initiative at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year. Mr. Hurley expressed that teachers were already trained to use the technology in their classrooms, but they were sharing chrome books among classes. Now that grades 6-12 have 1:1, each student now has the technology that can be accessed from home. Families that have more than one student in grades 6-12 can utilize their chromebooks without taking the time from the family computer.
TIR: There are so many different grant requests made by teachers in the district every year. How does the REF determine which grants to approve?
ANDY: Each Spring grant requests are solicited from the teachers. They are evaluated by the Grant Committee and reported to the Board. The REF Board then votes on the grants at the May meeting. We are flexible, but the ideal grant application is creative, relevant to the curriculum and engaging, and has the potential for eventual funding in the school budget.
CHRISTINA: The teachers submit a project report each year to show how the grant awarded to him/her has enhanced the needs of the students and/or the district. We enjoy when the teachers report back to us stating how their grant has helped them during the school year.
TIR: Teachers and administrators often make varying requests based on their students’ needs and interests. Mrs. Joan Macri, 4th grade teacher at Pierrepont School, told Downtown about the grant that both Union and Pierrepont Schools have received over the past two years, “Newsela is an internet-based reading program that we use in grades 4 through 8. Students are able to read online non-fiction news articles at their own reading level. Articles that are published daily are differentiated, high-interest texts that are organized by content area and aligned to curricula at each grade level. The students are able to learn a lot about a topic and about reading and understanding non-fiction text through the use of this program.” What type of requests do teachers typically make on their grant applications?
CHRISTINA: We see a variety of grants. Technology is always changing so we might see iPad's needed for the classroom or upgrades to makerspace. Education is always changing and I think that the teachers in the district keep up with the trends and it reflects upon the types of grants that we see each year. We always get small requests like a butterfly kit needed for a primary classroom or a rolling library for the K Center. Even though some grants are small monetarily, it can be an enormous asset to a teacher for his or her classroom.
ANDY: There does not seem to be a “typical” grant. Most grant applications are for less than $1500 and involve creative educational opportunities for students. We have also funded many big projects, such as the outdoor classroom at Washington School, the Lincoln Woods project, climbing walls, Heroes and Cool Kids Mentoring Program, and Theater and TV Studio upgrades at RHS. Our website has lists of the various grants made over the years.
TIR: Fundraising is an integral component of the REF. "Co-chairing the wine tasting (one of our major fundraisers), is an opportunity for me to give back to the teachers and students of this wonderful town. As a volunteer, it is exciting to collaborate with members of the REF and local businesses in order to ensure that this event is a success. It is so thrilling to know that every single cent raised goes back to our children's schools,” former REF member Maria Begg-Roberson told TIR. What other types of fundraising events does the REF do to bring in the money needed to award the grants that have been requested?
CHRISTINA: We have several fundraising events throughout the school year. We always begin each school year with our fall raffle where we raffle three prizes in mid-October. Casino Night is held in November. This is a fun night out where adults can fake gamble to win tickets for our baskets at the end of the night (most of our baskets that are raffled are made by the teachers and staff of each school). The baskets are amazing and we appreciate how the teachers put so much effort into preparing the baskets. This year we will have our Irish Whiskey event.. It's a more intimate event that has two small sessions in one night, 7 pm and 9 pm. This event will be held on January 26, 2019 at Matera’s Loft. We have our NJ Devil's family night, which will be held on February 17th. Each year we either go down on the ice to take a group photo or ticket holders get to take a shot at the goal on the ice.
This will be our third year hosting the Harlem Wizards Family Night in the RHS gym. Last year it sold out and it's an event that the whole family can enjoy. This event will be held on Wednesday, March 20th. Our last event of the year is our Wine Tasting. This year our theme is "Run for the Roses” (Kentucky Derby theme) will be held on May 4th at the Elks Club. We work closely with Mason's Cellar who does an excellent job of providing several distributors for our event.
ANDY: As Christina mentioned, we have a wide variety of fundraisers. We also sell bricks for the RHS Alumni Walk and accept donations from the public as an approved 501 (C)(3) Charitable donation. The RHS Alumni Walk Project gives families and individuals the opportunity to purchase engraved bricks for the entrance of Rutherford High School. The money raised from this project enables the REF to provide funding to fulfill grant requests and it helps maintain the school grounds at the high school.
CHRISTINA: Families can also contribute by buying a booster ad for one of our events or donating a prize for an event. People can also utilize their company’s donation match program. Our success depends upon the support of businesses and families in Rutherford and the surrounding areas. We are always in awe of the generous support at all of our events.
TIR: The REF is made up of a wonderful group of individuals who work hard to support the community. Former REF President Sergio Alati explained, “The REF was created so that teachers had the ability to innovate by using funds that are not in the school budgets. As a result, students benefit because the schools can add new programs, additional classroom resources, or even pilot new curriculum or programs. The REF has financially supported school assembly speakers and special evening presentations, such as the presentation about the college placement process. The community at large benefits because the REF provides multiple events where Rutherford residents and supporters can come together and develop a closer tie and connection with our schools and their goals.”
What is most rewarding about being a part of the REF?
ANDY: Working together with a dedicated group of parents (and a couple of grandparents) is rewarding, but reviewing and funding grant applications makes it all worthwhile. I especially enjoy reading thank you notes from the students who have participated in projects we funded.
CHRISTINA: The most rewarding part of being part of the REF is supporting the teachers and students in the district. I am lucky that my children attend the great schools in this town and I am grateful that their teachers come up with ways that will help improve their instruction for all students. I am a teacher in an urban district and I truly wish that my district had a foundation that I could utilize for my students. Some years I don't even receive a box of crayons for my students so when I heard about the REF four years ago, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this foundation. I work with a fantastic board and every person has a unique skill set that helps contribute to the success of this foundation.
TIR: Now that the popularity of the REF has grown, there are more and more individuals who wish to become involved in this organization. How can individuals become members of the REF?
ANDY: We continually accept new volunteers. The board consist of 27 Board members currently.
CHRISTINA: Right now, we have a waiting list of people who wish to join REF. If you are interested in becoming a member of the REF or would like to help at one of our events, you can contact us at REF@rutherfordschools.org. We also have a Facebook page and there is a link to REF on www.rutherfordschools.org. Meetings are held the second Wednesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. in Council Chambers, Borough Hall.