Seventh graders at McMurray Middle School this year are traveling the island, learning from local historians and listening to guest speakers as a way to learn Washington — and Vashon — history, not from a book in their classroom, but from the world around them.
The program includes several field trips, historical photos printed on large sheets of plastic and a visit from a respected author who used to teach on Vashon. It was funded by the nonprofit group Partners in Education. PIE, as many islanders know it, is celebrating 30 years of providing money for education and has awarded more than $1.25 million since the group launched in the spring of 1987, funding more than 1,200 grants. In that time, it has consistently provided funds for Vashon Center for the Arts’ Artists in the Schools program and a range of other requests primarily made by teachers, from microphones for the high school theater arts program, to digital microscopes to trikes for the preschool.
McMurray teacher Patty Gregorich, who wrote the $6,000 Washington State History — Up Close and Personal grant for the full seventh-grade class, praised PIE and the effect it has had overall and on this traveling history unit in particular.
“It transforms our teaching,” she said. “This PIE grant allows us to bring history to life.”
Current PIE President Jenna Riggs indicated that kind of transformation has guided PIE for its duration.
“It has been a consistently simple mission: to enhance the learning environment in our public schools,” she said.
Last week, islander Bill Ameling, who helped start PIE and is still involved with it, shared his recollections of how the nonprofit started.
Ameling, who knows how to tell a colorful tale, recalled that different groups of people all had the same idea, independently, but at the same time. That group included — as he put it — the booster club for the high school football team, “a bunch of old guys who couldn’t fit into their letterman’s jackets, selling hamburgers to benefit the team.”
The prevailing sentiment, he said, was, “It’s a shame we don’t have a booster club for academics.”
With help from information that came via miniature grant programs as far away as Cleveland and the Allegheny region, the group formed with about eight people, Ameling said. He still remembers the first meeting, held at McMurray.
“Mike Kirk let us in the door,” he recalled.
To raise funds, he suggested a phone-a-thon and did not want to make the whole project too complicated.
“My idea was this: Two meetings a year. The first meeting you do the phone-a-thon. The second you give out the money,” he said.
School budgets are always tight, he said, and the group wanted to fund things for teachers that they could not get from the school district.
“It was a way for teachers to get something special,” he said.
The first year, he said, PIE members raised $3,000.
“We were ecstatic,” he said, adding, “I remember when we got up to $10,000, we could hardly believe it.”
Early on, the requests were simple, and grew more complicated with time.
“Calculators were always big because no one had one,” he recalled.
An art teacher wanted frames to hang art on the walls. Another wanted to take students on a field trip to see birds.
“And every year I could count on Carolyn Candy to ask for a new (rhythm) instrument,” he said.
Candy, who taught at the district for 27 years before she retired in 2008, recalls the first year PIE existed.
“I could not believe something like that could be a reality,” she said.
She applied and received funding for a wooden xylophone.
“It was a great gift,” she added.
Every year she requested funding for another, and several years later, when she became the music teacher, she had enough instruments for a full classroom of 26 students to play together. The third, fourth and fifth graders could play six-part African music on them.
“It would stop people in the hallway,” she said. “It just sounds amazing.”
Through PIE, the music room was “rich with rhythm instruments,” so much so, she said, that when visitors from other school districts saw the music room at Chautauqua, they were astonished.
“Their eyes would fall out of their heads,” she added.
Former McMurray Principal Kirk, who opened the door to the first meeting all those years ago, is currently involved in the seventh-grade history project. He recommended bringing David Buerge to the island to speak to students. Buerge taught at McMurray from 1972 to 1975, and last year, his latest book, a definitive historical account of Chief Sealth, was published. Kirk is also acting as an island historian for the project, along with Bruce Haulman. The two men recently went along on field trips and served as experts on the island’s former schools and docks. Coming up, they will lead walking tours, Haulman of Dockton and Kirk of Burton.
“It’s been a great program,” Kirk said of PIE.
Ameling and Kirk are not the only people who have long histories with PIE. Islander Phyllis Davis has served on the PIE board for 22 years. At the time she joined, her son was 7. He is now 29, and she said she has no plans to step down from the board.
A substitute teacher at Chautauqua, she said she has been able to see many of the grants in action. She noted that is was PIE that first funded robotics in the schools. The program started at Chautauqua and is now at McMurray and Vashon High School, with robotic teams that compete.
She recalled that in lean years, PIE sometimes had to fund books and maps, but its intent is to go beyond basic.
Now, through two fundraisers a year, PIE raises between $40,000 and $50,000 annually. Its primary fundraiser remains the fall phone-a-thon, PIE president Riggs said. But in recent years, it has expanded and is active with the Vashon Sheepdog Classic. Since 2010, it has offered people the opportunity to sponsor dogs. For $100, donors are able to meet the dog and handler, talk with them and get their photo taken. They also receive two all-event passes and are entered into a sponsors-only raffle with prizes provided by island businesses. The grand prize is a three-day stay at a condo in Whistler, British Columbia, donated by a PIE supporter.
There will be 96 dogs competing this year in the Sheepdog Classic, which is set for June 7 to 10. Sponsorships are now open; people who wish to sponsor a dog can do so online at vashonpie.org or through a PIE board member. Riggs said that PIE sold out of sponsorships last year and expects to do so again this year.
Riggs has been on the PIE board since 2010 and was prompted to join because she could see her children, then at Chautauqua, benefiting from the grants. What has kept her there, she said, is the simplicity of the mission. The bulk of the money comes in during the fall and is dispersed that school year.
More recently, Riggs said that PIE received a donation from the estate of Robin Appleford and now offers rolling grants throughout the school year that students themselves can apply for in the areas of civics and community, and environment and ecosystems. It is a nice addition to PIE’s traditional grants, she said, but the two grant processes are separate.
Ameling, whose contribution to PIE now is to host a potluck for one meeting and to cook an elaborate breakfast for another, said he, too, appreciates the simplicity of PIE. The money comes in, and it all goes out. He said that if the organization were bigger, it would not be any better than it currently is.
“The important thing is the idea of getting teachers that little extra boost that makes them excited about teaching,” he said.