TRINITY — As last school year was winding down, Seven Springs Middle School teacher Cindy Tehan got the bad news: Funding for the service-learning program she started more than a decade ago had been slashed because of state and federal budget cuts.
"We were told to stop working on our grant proposals. There was no money," Tehan said of the Learn and Service Florida program.
That was not acceptable to Tehan, who created the district's only program in 1998 using a state grant to incorporate service-learning projects as part of her drama and chorus classes.
The program has transformed over the years into its own "Lead the Pack" class offered to seventh- and eighth-graders, teaching students the value of reaching out to the community and its charitable organizations. They help groups at school, such as Homework Help, an after-school program of students helping students with homework; and others beyond the campus, such as the SPCA. Students have collected pet food, worked at the local shelter and donated money through their mini-grant program.
The program went so well that last year a second class was added with teacher Dorothy Taylor.
So the two teachers resolved to continue the program this year without government money. They rallied the troops, including students, teachers, parents and members of the community.
Parents came up with ideas like the recently held silent auction and a virtual talent show. Students pay $10 to participate in online auditions for a live show in December. Teachers dreamed up the Oct. 28 Harvest Moon Halloween Dance, which was a big success with 400 tickets sold for $5 apiece.
The big coup came from a phone call principal Phil Kupczyk received before the new school year began. A team from the Clearwater office of Merrill Lynch, which has an employee who lives in Land O'Lakes, saw a newspaper article about the program being slashed, and wanted to help. Tehan and Taylor met with the group over the summer and made their pitch. The group and Merrill Lynch's parent company, Bank of America, pledged to match up to $10,000 of the program's fundraising efforts — bringing the program back to the funding it had last year.
"They saved the day," Tehan said.
The school advisory council pitched in $3,000, and the PTSO gave $500. Smaller-scale fundraisers, including car washes, will continue.
"Having the service-learning programs in the community is priceless," Kupczyk said. He noted that the funding cuts actually led to another student learning opportunity: "The kids are taking a more active role in fundraisers and that makes it all the more special," he said.
On a recent Monday morning Tehan's Lead the Pack students sat in a circle considering mini-grant applications from several school projects and clubs. A total of $2,925 was requested. Most of the money goes to transportation costs for service-learning field trips and substitute pay if a full-time teacher participates. One group was awarded more than $800, and another $10 to carry out their projects. The students smiled with each gift.
"I feel very fortunate that the program is alive and well," Tehan said.