PEF Director looks to fill funding gap in teacher professional development

Sharon Deal started as the first full-time executive director of the Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville and Albemarle in December with a clear mission: help teachers navigate a rapidly changing educational landscape.

As both school divisions explore ways to implement student-designed curricula, teachers will need additional education to transition from traditional classroom models to modes where students learn by experience and experiment.

“That’s really our basic mission: making sure the students get those opportunities but then also providing opportunities to the faculty,” Deal said.

Through the foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2004 with offices at the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, Deal hopes to expand professional development opportunities for city and county teachers. Professional development is vital, she said, but its funding often plays second fiddle when budgets get tight.

“I don’t know how much the public really understands in both the city and the county how professional development budgets have been cut and funded through grants or potentially through organizations like [the Public Education Foundation],” she said.

In Albemarle, the division is just now recovering from a period of deep cuts to teacher development, said Kate Acuff, county School Board chairwoman.

“For county schools, it has gotten cut enormously,” she said. “Since 2007 and 2008, there is about a $7.5 million difference in where we would be if we had kept spending at that level and where we are now.”

To bolster its efforts, the foundation this year used National Teacher Appreciation Week as a springboard for a campaign running through Friday to raise money that will be funneled into helping teachers keep up-to-date, Deal said. Details on the campaign are available at pefca.org.

“[The foundation] understands the demands on our public school teachers and the significant role they play in transforming students’ lives,” she said. “By offering teachers professional development opportunities, we are supporting their efforts of making every student’s educational experience a valuable one.”

Research by the Rand Corp. shows that classroom teachers are two to three times more impactful on students’ success, including test scores, than any other single factor in education.

To help drive teachers’ understanding of performance-based learning, the foundation this year will host 24 third- and fourth-grade teachers from the city and county at its Innovation Institute.

The program will ask the teachers to work in teams to develop curricula that allow students to drive their own learning.

Matt Haas, county schools assistant superintendent, said the foundation is a key ally.

“In recent years, grants have become an increasingly valuable catalyst for programs that champion project-based learning and more fully engage students in how they learn,” he said. “The Public Education Foundation can accelerate these improvements in our schools through their collaborative approach and their focus on contemporary professional development, which is so important to our continued progress.”

Deal came to the foundation after a stint as a researcher at the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. It was that work, she said, that crystallized the importance of public education for her.

“In my work at CASTL, we were always working with underserved and at-risk populations, and that is really when my focus changed,” Deal said. “Basically, you cannot have a democracy without an educated populace.