Olympic alums launch plan to support school’s teachers

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comDecember 31, 2013 

  • Olympic’s All Stars

    For information about Olympic High’s All Star Teacher Initiative, contact Joan O’Brien at 980-343-3800, ext. 4006211, or OHSFoundation@cms.k12.nc.us.

Teachers at Olympic High School could get a boost in the coming year, as alumni raise money to clone a support initiative created at East Mecklenburg High eight years ago.

A handful of alums have hired Joan O’Brien, the professional fundraiser who made East Meck’s All Star Teacher Initiative a success, to launch something similar in southwest Charlotte. They hope to provide stipends for classroom supplies, host gatherings to build team spirit and pay for teachers to take classes and workshops.

“I just can’t think of a more important thing that we could be doing,” said founder Charles Beatty, a 1980 Olympic graduate. His wife, Angela, teaches English there, and their three kids are also Olympic grads.

Beatty said teachers face growing demands and shrinking paychecks. “We just were kind of watching the teachers coming and going out of Olympic.”

East Meck’s program started when alumnus Bob Silver announced in 2005 that he would donate $500,000 to help teachers if school supporters could match it. The school hired O’Brien, a fundraising consultant and former development director for Discovery Place, for a nine-month startup effort.

It turned into a long-term gig. O’Brien organized “megaluncheons” that drew hundreds of alumni and other supporters. East’s foundation met the $500,000 match by 2007. The original plan was to spend the $1 million and quit, but the effort proved so popular that O’Brien kept raising money. East plans to replace O’Brien and keep its teacher initiative going.

So far the money has bought special textbooks, technology and classroom supplies. It has sent dozens of teachers to professional conferences and retreats. One of the most popular gestures is a simple one: Every school year, each teacher gets a check for classroom supplies they would normally buy out of pocket. They don’t have to file receipts or account for their spending.

“If we trust them with our children, we certainly can trust them with one or two hundred dollars,” O’Brien said.

The initiative can’t stop turnover. East still loses teachers to retirement and family changes. When Principal Mark Nixon moved to open Rocky River High in 2010, he took some of East’s good teachers with him, O’Brien said.

This year, East lost a couple of good teachers for financial reasons – one to a private school and one to a career change – said Principal Rick Parker. But he has no doubt that the extra support makes a difference.

“It’s helping retain and train our best teachers,” Parker said. “The teachers love it.”

Olympic gets interested

Beatty, a financial adviser, started talking to fellow Olympic graduates Al Winget, David Suddreth, Suzanne Newsom, Chris Thomas and Charles Wilkerson about the possibility of creating a similar program. They didn’t have $500,000 to donate, but they kicked in enough to hire an executive director, reasoning that a serious, sustained fundraising effort is beyond the capacity of volunteers.

O’Brien thought it was time to hand off East’s program and try a new challenge: “The intent was always to take it to other schools, because it was for teachers.”

Olympic, like East, is racially and economically diverse. Both schools fall into Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s middle ground: not as many affluent families as suburban schools have, and not as much government aid as high-poverty schools get.

“We’re left behind a bunch,” Beatty said. “We’re going to try to do something about it.”

Olympic opened in 1967, so it has a large roster of graduates. But they haven’t created a strong network, Beatty said. Finding them and persuading them to donate is part of the task ahead. They’d love to find a big sponsor, but “we may do it with $5,000 or $10,000 a pop,” he said.

O’Brien, who signed on in November, said the first small gathering with about 30 people raised more than $40,000. She plans another small get-together early in 2014, with hopes of being able to convene a big event for Olympic alums in the spring.

Beatty talks about going into 2014-15 with $100,000. O’Brien thinks bigger, more like $250,000.

Mike Realon, Olympic’s career development coordinator, has already built a strong network of support from businesses and corporations in southwestern Mecklenburg County. Their focus has been career education, internships and apprenticeships for students. In December, the German manufacturer Bosch Rexroth Corp. announced an $80,000 donation to create a machine shop for students to learn advanced manufacturing skills.

O’Brien said she’ll work with Realon to make sure they’re using that network without competing for dollars.

Newsom, a 1981 graduate who teaches English at Olympic’s Renaissance school, said she’s long heard good things about the All Star Initiative from colleagues who teach at East. She’s looking forward to bringing some of the same perks to her school.

“It helps morale,” she said. “I like to feel good when I’m driving to work.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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