Auburn Public Schools Foundation goes where taxpayer dollars can’t

It’s a known fact: students with empty bellies, tattered shoes, ragged clothes and other unmet basic needs don’t learn as well as their peers.

And while school districts everywhere would like to do something to help, the hard truth is that taxpayer dollars only go so far.

The Auburn School District, however, has an ally working on it.

Ever since its establishment in 2011, the Auburn Public Schools Foundation has raised and channeled funds to all of the district’s schools to ensure that each one has a pantry stocked with food, clothing, hygiene items and more.

On a complementary track, the foundation funds classroom-based grants that cover the costs of field trips — an expense that had often fallen on teachers — and supports learning in the arts, science, technology and math.

Natasha Daily, who’s been the foundation’s executive director since 2018, explains the mission like this:

“We’re here to help support those needs and make sure that students aren’t just getting access to education through the school district,” Daily said. “We’re here to elevate and support them beyond that. We’re here to make sure they get to go on field trips and things, and to see to it that their classrooms have access to whatever it is they need beyond what taxpayer dollars pay for.”

The Auburn Public Schools Foundation is the fruit of a community conversation that began long ago in Auburn about how to help poorer students get the maximum out of their studies. It launched in 2011 with a volunteer board that today numbers 12 people. Daily is its only paid staff member.

Over its 12 years of its existence as a separate but complementary entity to the ASD, the foundation has given a half -million dollars to the district through its pantry project and classroom-based grants.

Here is why its efforts matter so much:

Sixty-six percent of the Auburn School District’s students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch rates.

Two-thirds of the district’s students still come to school with other needs on top of just getting to school and needing food or school supplies or whatever else they’re missing out on.

The foundation raises its funds through a variety of channels, including $30,000 every school year through district employees keen about the foundation, Daily said. It also hosts three fundraising events a year: Trivia Night, which is coming up on April 28; the August “welcome back” event in partnership with the school district, which aims to get as many of the students’ basic needs met before the first day of school; and the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving at Sunset Park in Lakeland Hills.

The foundation writes grants. It has monthly giving campaigns, and raises funds from a lot of different areas and opportunities. But its main “high-impact opportunity right now is through our events and through our employee-giving through the school district,” Daily said.

The foundation is still fairly small, but raises on average about $150,000 each year. Over the last five years, it has tripled its income and is now working on larger grant asks.

“During the pandemic, we sort of shifted our funding and did a lot more basic need support. Since students weren’t in classrooms, we really couldn’t do classroom-based grants, so we focused a lot on supporting basic needs, and we actually provided $100,000 in $50 gift cards for our families, and those were for food, clothing hygiene items and gas,” Daily said.

Grant requests and field trips

So how does the foundation decide where the money goes?

It has two funding cycles per year for its classroom-based grants, although it expects to revamp that process this summer because of a record number of classroom grant applications it is receiving from teachers. In fact, more than it can fund. They average $1,500 and they are for STEM literacy, the arts, nutrition or field trips. The requests go to a grant committee, which reviews and rates them, and the board votes on them.

Pantry project funding is available to each school. The foundation replenishes each pantry on an as-needed basis, and as long it has money in its account, it makes sure the schools have money in their accounts.

The foundation asks for feedback on all of the grant requests it funds.

“The ones we send to kindergartners are always so funny because the feedback we get back. For example, we sent gym equipment to one of the elementary schools, and the teacher had her students write thank you notes, and one of them was like, ‘Thanks for the torture devices for my abs, they’re super strong now.’

“We heard during strategic planning for the district that some students had not been on field trips since the fifth grade. I know field trips are big opportunities for the school district, but we took that on for funding as many as we could right now,” Daily said.

Among those field trips, the foundation helped fund a recent outing to a bowling alley for students at Cascade Middle School, many of whom had never been bowling.

“The feedback sometimes makes us laugh because we think, oh, a bowling alley, but for students who don’t have those opportunities, we’re able to get them out of the classroom and make those connections. Kids also need some wiggle room.

“One we’re really excited to hear back about,” Daily continued, “is also from Cascade, where a teacher was taking his students to the Mt. Rainier Institute, and we funded $10,000 to his classroom. He can take his students, regardless of their ability to pay, to go camping on Mt. Rainier for three nights and four days. They’ll get to learn about geology and science and go camping and have this huge experience they otherwise wouldn’t have had.”

Daily said the next goal of the nonprofit is to hit $1 million in the next three years.

“We have some really good, high impact opportunities coming our way, and we’re really excited about providing more support for the district,” Daily said.

As far as Daily is concerned, she’s got the greatest job on the planet.

“It’s a position that allows me to give back to a district that I got a lot out of,” said Daily, an Auburn native and 2008 Auburn High School graduate. “I really love being able to work in the community.

“My husband is from Issaquah,” Daily added, “and he doesn’t really get our small-town nostalgia for Auburn. I’m a graduate of the district like so many of us (on the board) are — and we just never left Auburn.”

The APSF Board of Trustees is composed of President Linda Graves, Vice President Dawn Carmona, Treasurer Shelly Clair, Secretary Linda Ball, ASD Superintendent Dr. Alan Spicciati, Nancy Pappas, Clinton Taylor, Brenda Ellison, Marie Quist, Tracy Arnold, Richard Stirgus and Hilary Wood.