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The Ohio School With a Strong Foundation

When Walnut Hills High School needs help making ends meet, its alumni foundation chips in.

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In late October, Walnut Hills High School social studies teacher Bob Moliterno asked the school to spend $1,100 for new books in his Advanced Placement U.S. history class. The timing was not so great: Ohio had already cut state funds for education twice this academic year, and a report by the Cincinnati Public Schools showed that Walnut Hills (No. 36 on the U.S. News Best High Schools list) was the lowest-funded high school in the city on a per pupil basis. Moliterno prepared for rejection.

A few days later, his request was approved.

How could the high school afford new books that weren't in the budget? The Walnut Hills High School Alumni Foundation. "I knew that [book] request would be supported by the foundation," says Principal Jeffrey Brokamp. Established in 1995, the foundation originally was tasked with raising funds to outfit a new wing on the Depression-era school building. It did that, paying $12.5 million of the $13 million cost for the building that opened in 1999. Since then, it has been raising about $1 million a year. With the funds, it awards about $100,000 in annual scholarships, ensures that lower-income students can participate in school-related activities—an upcoming marching band trip to London in January 2010, for example—buys microscopes, musical instruments, and other equipment and provides a wide range of other support.

Long associated with higher education, fundraising foundations have picked up steam among the public high school set, in part because of the tight budgets many schools are facing. The National School Foundation Association estimates that some 6,500 foundations have been established in the nation's 14,500 school districts in recent years. Foundations come in different flavors, many aiding schools districtwide, others helping just one school, like Walnut Hills. The Fairfax Education Foundation, for example, has raised more than $20 million, mostly from Northern Virginia businesses, in the past 25 years to support technology-related programs in the county's schools. Among its biggest achievements: helping establish Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the top-ranked public high school in the United States.

"The biggest value of the K-12 education foundations is you've got another set of adults...focused on helping the district [or school], pure and simple," says Jim Collogan, interim executive director of NSFA. How foundations can contribute to public schools varies by jurisdiction. "We cannot fund union positions," says Deborah Heldman, executive director of Walnut Hills' foundation. "Our mission is to enhance the overall Walnut Hills experience." That leaves considerable leeway. Besides funding the state-of-the-art, 59,000-square-foot Alumni Arts and Science Center and scholarships, the foundation has arranged for funding the school's writing center "in perpetuity," pays to advertise open houses, supplies needed textbooks, and arranged for a $40,000 donation from the class of '58 to enhance the computer graphics lab.

The foundation really came through this school year. Walnut Hills already faced a 10 percent budget cut going into this school year. Brokamp says last spring, Heldman and the foundation encouraged him to "put every penny for personnel and nonpersonnel to support the teachers and not cut anybody, saying, 'We'll take care of the rest.'" The foundation was able to raise $250,000 by June 1 to fill the gaps. "We would look totally different right now, if it wasn't for that," the principal says.

Academic oasis. Walnut Hills High School is an academic oasis in the midst of a hardscrabble urban neighborhood. Any seventh to 12th grader living within the Cincinnati Public School District can enroll for college preparatory classes at Walnut Hills, needing only to score in the 70th percentile on a standardized test. "We are a school of legacy and first-generation collegebound kids," says Heldman. Nearly all its graduates go to college. Walnut Hills also is one of the most economically diverse among U.S. News's top 100 high schools. Enrollment has grown 9 percent in each of the past two years, making it by far the largest public school in the city with 2,140 kids.