The Verona Foundation for Educational Excellence’s fourth annual Teacher Toast is taking place on Friday, April 5, at Caldwell University. While you may know some–or all–of the teachers that VFEE will be honoring, you may not know the organization itself that well.
VFEE is a charitable organization that exists for the sole purpose of enhancing the student learning experience in Verona, beyond the scope of the regular tax-funded curriculum. Its complete autonomy from the Board of Education and the traditional school system gives VFEE the ability and the freedom to support “out-of-the-box” ideas, tools and activities for the town’s student body. It does this via grants and funding, which the educators themselves directly apply for, aimed at enabling students access to authentic learning experiences. These are used to inspire and foster creativity in students — often in non-traditional formats.
“Personally, I love VFEE’s purpose of inspiring a child’s mind,” says Luigi Cappello, vice chairperson of VFEE. “As a young student, I was exposed to an engineering program sponsored by an organization very similar to VFEE in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. That experience sparked an interest that eventually led to an undergraduate degree in engineering. I don’t think I would have gained that inspiration just doing the core curriculum. As an adult I want to help create these same opportunities for all of Verona’s students.”
Adds VFEE Chairman Nick Klose, “The learning does not have to be limited to the classroom and text books, rather VFEE can provide experiences ranging from hands on engineering programs, to immersions into the arts, to seminars dealing with the stresses of everyday life. These are just some of the areas where we can help our children learn and grow; inspiring ideas and interests that will stay with them for a lifetime.”
VFEE was founded 14 years ago, when, during his first term on the Board of Education, John Quattrocchi, and then-Superintendent Earl Kim, realized Verona was at a clear disadvantage versus neighboring towns. Other districts already had thriving educational foundations providing financing for supplemental programs designed to deliver beyond the standard curriculum; Verona did not have any such entity.
“It was a bold move; we were starting from nothing,” reminisces Kim, now the superintendent in Stamford, Conn.. “The aspiration was to create something substantial, that many people could work on together for the good of our children and that also complemented the strategic plan of the system and that was coordinated with the schools but not run by the school.”
Montclair established MFEE in 1991 and has since raised over $13 million to fund innovative educational initiatives throughout the town. In 1993, Glen Ridge established the Glen Ridge Educational Foundation. Caldwell-West Caldwell, Roseland, Millburn–the list goes on of neighboring towns with their own versions. In Verona, VFEE aims to be a vehicle for providing innovative teachers the opportunity to extend, enhance, and promote authentic learning. Unfortunately, this is something our public schools may not be able to accomplish due to funding limitations. VFEE has the flexibility and the capacity to fill this void, if it achieves sufficient funding from the community.
Philip Giannuario was part of the original group of VFEE founders. He had already witnessed the demise of VFEE’s predecessor, VEF (Verona Educational Foundation), back in the mid-1990s. “The original foundation was not amply supported, we weren’t able to properly get the word out and raise interest levels,” he says. “As a result, it just fell through.”
Giannuario went on to serve four terms on the Board of Education. When the foundation was eventually re-started under its new name, the original support came from the BOE. But it was the team of citizens, many of them still on as trustees today, that made the foundation what it is today.
“There were many views on how to restart the foundation, but the main concern was how to make it last,” Giannuario adds. “One thing was clear, everyone wanted to do what was best for the kids; by giving them experiences and opportunities for success. What makes VFEE so special is that it is a private organization that is purely funded by the people in town, not the BOE, not the township.”
The Verona community may not be aware of all of VFEE’s initiatives since these seamlessly blend in with the needs of daily student life. However, this organization has been a vital component of the excellence that characterizes the Verona school system today. In its 14 years of existence, VFEE has distributed approximately $200,000 via grants and funding to the six schools in town. Compared to the millions raised by other towns, this funding is relatively small, but the resources have represented important opportunities for the student body:
- MakerBot 3D Printer – H.B. Whitehorne Middle School received a VFEE grant to purchase a MakerBot 3D printer for the computer lab. The MakerBot 3D printer uses a heating element and spools of plastic filament to shape three dimensional objects like cell phone cases, toys, and even prosthetic hands.
- Google Initiative – A special district wide grant award, the largest one thus far, of $75,000 over the course of three years to support the leasing of Chromebooks in the district’s classrooms.
- The Whitehorne Album – HBW students became the stars, producers, and designers of their own full-length album.
- One District One Book – This initiative began in 2012, and VFEE funded the first four years. Every Verona family receives a copy of a book along with a reading calendar to read one a chapter of the book selection each night. The program is now funded by the Verona Education Association, the teacher’s union.
Today, there are new grants in the making that are exciting for VFEE, as well as for the students:
- Crime Scene Investigations for Students – Christopher Tamburro, a teacher at Verona High School, received funding to purchase professional crime scene investigation equipment to use in his Law and Criminal Justice class. In collaboration with the Verona Police Department and the help of Detective Joel Martin, the school resource officer,, the new equipment allows the students to benefit from a hands-on experience led by an experienced crime-fighter.
- Wind Tunnel – Jason Atkins, a VHS STEM teacher, received funding to build a wind tunnel to be used by his STEM and STEAM classes, as well as the physics students.
- Adaptive Seating – Julia Albertsen, a Brookdale teacher, recognized the impact a few pieces of adaptive seating had on her first graders and received funding to expand the options for her students.
- Maker Space – Librarian Corisa Walker received funding to encourage passive thinkers to become “makers” via projects and building materials.
VFEE’s biggest challenge has been fundraising. It used an annual campaign mailer for years, but the costs associated with the campaign negatively offset the actual donations received, forcing the trustees to seek alternative revenue sources. One helpful source has been the backpack folders, which are distributed to all the public schoolchildren in town in September of each year. These are organized by the various SCAs and include information on VFEE as well as a donation envelope.
It is important to note that most of the donations come from the same group of donors; therefore with each outgoing class of seniors, the urgency arises to seek new donors and get the word out about VFEE to the community of new parents. Once a year, VFEE holds a soiree aimed at including the entire Verona community in honoring teachers who have made a difference for their students.
At the April 5 Inspiring Excellence Awards , VFEE will honor Victoria Cirigliano Tatiana Fella, Amy Heckel, Max Morden, Angela Salisbury, and Brian Samples. The event will be held from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the Cougar Den in Visceglia Hall on the campus of Caldwell University. Tickets are $55 per person, and include food, wine or beer and, of course, support for VFEE. Tickets are still available for purchase on VFEE’s website.
Today, the trustees are VFEE’s backbone, responsible for keeping the organization on the right course for the future. Among the challenges that face VFEE today is obtaining the grant applications from the educators in order to fulfill its mission of inspiring minds. Richard Rampolla, former principal of Brookdale Avenue, joined VFEE’s distinguished list of trustees in 2018 as its new “School Liaison”. His primary role is to discuss with Verona teachers the potential grants that could add value for their students and to support them in this mission.
“VFEE is about helping teachers maximize their educational impact by providing hands on, authentic educational experiences for Verona’s students,” says Chairman Klose. ”The competitiveness of today’s global workplace requires students who are both academic and authentic learners who can apply what they have learned in school to real world problems.
Through the allocation of privately raised funds, VFEE has played an important role in helping teachers meet these demands. Looking forward, we hope to continue inspiring children’s minds by providing resources to teachers so they can stay ahead of the trends and expose students to new, enriching, and innovative learning opportunities that will enable them to make informed decisions about their future.
For more information, or to donate, please visit: http://www.vfee.org/grants.