The tiny Benson Village School in Vermont, hard-pressed for cash, had lots of ancient computers but no modern ones.

Thirty miles away, Middlebury College was upgrading some of its computer equipment and needed to get rid of the old machines.

Enter the Foundation for Excellent Schools (FES), a national nonprofit that is dedicated to helping educational institutions help each other. The Cornwall, Vt.-based FES brought Benson and Middlebury together, and last year the computers changed hands.

“They had a whole lab full of machines that were four times faster than anything I had in my school, and it was their discards,” said Benson Principal Gary Netsch. “They just became ours.”

Bringing schools and students of all shapes and sizes together is the mission of FES, an organization started 11 years ago by Rick Dalton, a Harvard-trained educator who wanted to level the playing field for students from all backgrounds.

The FES goal is simple: To foster connections between schools and communities, between learners and mentors, between parents and teachers, and among all the other entities that are crucial to education.

Ultimately, Dalton wants to help students who need it to take at least one more step–to graduate from high school when they were planning to drop out; to consider college when they assumed it was out of reach.

It’s a strategy that Dalton believes can strengthen the fabric of society.

“There has to be an investment on the part of the high schools in the colleges, and on the part of the colleges in the high schools,” Dalton said. Otherwise, colleges blame the high schools when students aren’t prepared for the work; the high schools blame the middle schools, the middle schools blame the elementary schools, and the elementary schools blame the parents.

“Instead, there has to be cooperation,” Dalton said. “There has to be the seamless web between all those educational entities.”

A decade since its formation, FES has dozens of collaborations to its credit, with new ones emerging each year.

In Port St. Joe, a rural town in northern Florida, FES helped the local high school organize programs that increased attendance, lowered the dropout rate, and in three years raised the percentage of college-going students from 49 percent to 80 percent.

Although the school needed money when it started working with FES several years ago, it also needed help defining its mission and organizing its efforts, said Port St. Joe math teacher Carol Cathey, who also is an FES program director.

“You could throw all the money you want at a school, and it’s not going to solve the problems,” Cathey said. Instead, what teachers really need is an opportunity to step back from the day-to-day demands to work on long-term planning.

Among other things, in Port St. Joe, FES helped educators set up a scholarship program that continues to grow, Cathey said. FES, which is based much more on mentoring and guidance than on providing funds, sets up a formal arrangement where educators hear from an experienced FES director who is removed from, but familiar with, their situation.

“It’s nice to have an outsider come in and say to you, ‘You’re doing a good job, or this doesn’t seem to be working; here’s another school that’s tackled that same problem; maybe we can get in touch with them,'” Cathey said. “It’s someone that just keeps supporting you and doesn’t let you give up.”

In Westfield, Mass., where Dalton grew up, the help from FES was highly practical when educators took on the monster task of splitting the town’s large middle school into two separate schools with sixth grade newly added to the mix.

Ron Rix, now principal of one of Westfield’s new middle schools, ticked off the jobs that were part of the move, among them dividing the town into districts; placating worried parents whose sixth-graders were going to a new school; and controlling the rumor machine by sending out a newsletter.

FES helped the educators build a three-year plan and split that into one-year components. Westfield organizers reported back to FES every month, and FES gave them feedback on their progress.

Then, just before the big move last summer, FES had the Westfield educators visit Vermont’s Middlebury Union High School, which had just moved into a new building, to get some advice.

“They told us things that worked and things that they had forgotten about,” Rix said.

The scope of FES is complex and fluid, as Dalton tries hard to keep programs tailored to individual needs.

“Our approach has to meet the needs and the culture and even the politics of a school and a community,” he said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.”

It’s a colorful mix of ideas and encouragement. FES helped the Benson Village School attract more people to a literacy night by suggesting they serve food and hold a competition with prizes. Only four people attended the first literacy night; after putting the FES suggestions into play, said Netsch, “the place was packed.”

This year, Dalton helped Netsch apply for a technology grant of $10,000, which they found out in mid-August they had won.

In Westfield, FES helped bring together the century-old state college, a teacher’s college, with the schools; the two entities had never had a formal relationship. Soon, students at the teacher’s college will start doing internships at the Westfield schools, and Westfield teachers will be able to take courses at the state college.

FES sends teachers and administrators away on short retreats to help them refine their goals and plan more effectively. It helps educators reach out to parents who are reluctant to get involved in the school by showing them how to be less intimidating and more available.

FES, which has a budget of about $1 million, is working with 50 Vermont schools this year, in part through a grant from the Freeman Foundation. Mentoring is a big part of what FES helps to organize in Vermont; last year, Dalton said, FES had 1,200 college students from 17 different colleges at work mentoring 1,200 students.

Nationwide, FES is working with 120 schools this year.

The group succeeds by easing the isolation that is almost always the fate of poor schools, Dalton said.

“America is the land of plenty; all we have to do is just go out and apply ourselves,” said Dennis Moore, a retired school superintendent in Georgia and an FES director. “It’s almost like walking through a field of diamonds; will you reach down and pick yours up? In this country, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, the opportunities are available.”

Links:

Foundation for Excellent Schools
http://www.fesnet.org