Mary Mélon started her third year as the president and CEO of the Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools in September. And she is upbeat about what has been accomplished and what is in store for 2017.
Mélon sat down with Free Press a few days before Christmas to reflect on her last two years with the foundation after having been the publisher of the Journal-Record, an established and respected business newspaper in Oklahoma City.
“I have to say, I love it,” Mélon said. “The first year I was getting my sea legs and so the second year – this Christmas versus last Christmas – I’m just in such a more secure place in terms of how we go about making a difference.”
Raising money and other resources for the biggest public school district in the state, with one of the highest poverty rates among its student population could be daunting.
Mélon talked about key programs like “Coat-a-Kid” that provided coats to every child that needed one right before Christmas as an example of what they are doing for the district’s children.
In the recent extreme temperatures, the program was not just something nice, it was a necessity.
OKCPS reported 4,400 children out of the 45,000+ student population who are in some state of homelessness where the students don’t have a consistent place to sleep from night-to-night. Some may stay with various friends and relatives, or their situation may be more extreme involving staying in a shelter or sleeping in a car.
She said the foundation has increased its staff from one to four and has made serious advances toward building support for the district.
Have we turned the ship? No. But, have we changed some people’s minds who really didn’t understand all the dynamics going on in public education? I believe we have. Have we gotten more people engaged in seeing the real issues? Absolutely. Because of that we are providing more help for teachers and more help for principals and more help for these kids.
Mélon said that in her first year they spent a considerable amount of time defining strategies and areas of focus. “We did that with a lot of effort and discussion and a lot of discussions with the district.”
She knew quite well how to run a business enterprise and had considerable experience serving on various boards of service organizations.
But to direct the day-to-day operations of one of those organizations was a new experience. Motivating the organization’s volunteers was a new learning for her. They aren’t employees. In fact, they are employees elsewhere and engaged across a broad spectrum of activities.
“Volunteers are very busy with a lot of other things,” Mélon said. “I don’t have their full attention eight or nine hours per day.”
She identified several ongoing projects that have succeeded and several others that she sees as growth areas for the organization.
The foundation took over the money-raising campaign for Coat-a-Kid this year. It freed up district staff who are already extended into several district projects.
Mélon said they raised $144,000 this year by deadline compared to $80,000 last year.
DonorsChoose.org, a new development under Mélon’s leadership, has provided for individual teachers’ needs by providing a system of connecting donors with those in need.
That system has replaced the previous one of donors blindly giving to the district without knowing if there is an actual need for what they are giving.
Through Donors Choose, teachers specify their specific needs and then donors view those needs and sign up to give. An example would be if a teacher needed a set of reading books for her classroom and a donor gave to pay for them. The books would then be shipped directly to the teacher’s classroom.
Donors from anywhere in the U.S. can respond to the needs detailed on the Donors Choose website.
“I think it’s done more than they ever thought it would do, and it’s certainly done everything and more than we thought it would do,” Mélon said. “Within one year our partnership with Donors Choose made us the largest education foundation partner that Donors Choose has in the country.”
She said the total financial impact is getting close to $875,000, but they only had to raise about half of that because of the ways that system leverages donor connections.
Partners in Action is another initiative that works locally to connect the needs of whole elementary, middle, and high schools with local donors. Principals write up needs their school has and donors then can see the specifics on the foundation’s website and respond.
This year the foundation has worked to hold Partners in Action events at the recipient schools so that donors and the whole school population can connect.
Mélon listed three other programs that are being developed for the coming year.
- English/Spanish Language programs – The foundation has started a program for bilingual para-professionals who want to become certified teachers. They want to develop a pipeline of qualified bilingual teachers in OKCPS classrooms. The other segment of this program is establishing a “Spanish for English-speaking educators” program for those teachers who want to become bilingual teachers.
- Support teacher and leader professional development – The foundation has thrown their support behind the Urban Teacher Prep Academy, first started by University of Central Oklahoma and now joined by several other state universities. Mélon explained that they have seen greater success from first-year teachers who have been through the academy in that it prepares student teachers for the challenges they will be facing in their first urban classroom.
- Community education and advocacy for OKCPS – “I don’t want to be a lobbyist, but I do want to help educate the public about the possibilities and needs of public education,” said Mélon.
- Oklahoma City Public Schools Compact – The compact includes the foundation, OKCPS, The City of Oklahoma City, The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce, and United Way of Central Oklahoma. Their first focus of the newly-formed group is literacy for the children of Oklahoma City. “I’m chairing the task force to bring a diverse group of people together to focus on how do we get more of our kids reading at grade level,” said Mélon.
In all, Mélon is hopeful about what has been accomplished and what she believes can be accomplished in 2017 with discipline and determination.
“It’s been amazing. It’s just been amazing. And I can say I haven’t thought once about any regrets looking back,” she said with a big smile.
Update: The original version of this story said that Mélon was nearing the end of her second year when the story was published late in December. It has been corrected to show that she started her third year in September, 2016.