A unique summer school quietly backed by a group of socially minded business leaders in New Brunswick is showing such promise in helping students in reading and math that officials are eyeing expansion to other areas of the province.
As kids get ready to head back to school, more than 40 students at Milltown Elementary School in St. Stephen are winding down after the summer-long program.
On a hot August day, two classrooms are running at full-tilt with lessons and games – and the kids are surprisingly happy to be there. If you ask the students, this is definitely not summer school – they call it “Super Dooper Fun Fun Fun Camp.”
The Million Dollar Pledge, a network of 12 business leaders in the Saint John region each committed to donating $10,000 a year for 10 years to fund socially minded community projects, is backing the camp and other programs at Milltown. Some Pledge members recently visited the school to witness the impact their funding is making.
Beth Kelly Hatt, founder of Aquila Tours in Saint John, was approached by one student at the lunch break to show off a hand puppet he made that morning. They smiled and laughed at his antics – a memory that will live on for her as a reminder of the importance of the investment and its impact.
“It was a quick moment of joy that will stay with me,” Hatt says. “The students are, after all, the leaders of tomorrow. I feel it is our responsibility to help them be strong, giving and impactful in their world.”
The Million Dollar Pledge was launched in 2017, championed by Dave Veale, founder & CEO of Vision Coaching and co-host of The Boiling Point podcast on entrepreneurship, leadership and social responsibility, and by Blair Hyslop, co-owner and co-CEO of Mrs. Dunster’s and Kredl’s Country Market.
They saw it as a way for like-minded businesses to direct their community support in a collaborative way, drive the giving through informed decisions and amplify the impact through a larger network. Other businesses in the greater Saint John region soon signed on.
The Pledge directs its efforts with the assistance of the United Way of Greater Saint John, which advises Pledge members on possible projects and reports on their outcomes. Decision-making on funding projects is based on data and evidence.
The summer program at Milltown Elementary combines a morning of academics run by the school with an afternoon of summer fun hosted by the local Boys and Girls Club. Every Friday, the students head out on a field trip as a break from the classroom.
Buoyed by the results – roughly 90 per cent of students improved or maintained both their math and literacy skills last summer – officials are looking to expand it into Sussex and Saint John. The program is also currently run at Blacks Harbour School, and was tested at one school in Saint John this summer with encouraging results.
Heather Bell-Williams, principal of Milltown Elementary, says the program began at Milltown about 10 years ago as a way to reduce the “summer slide” students experience after a two-month break from classes.
She took some Pledge members on a drive through the town of 4,000 so they could also understand some of the challenges that can hamper a child’s progress at her school, such as poverty, housing and transportation issues.
The Pledge and the United Way also fund programs at Milltown Elementary aligned with the summer program, including individual literacy tutoring, empowerment for mothers, after-school sessions and family support. All are designed to contribute to the success of children at school.
“I’m learning that helping a child with literacy Is not just about getting them into the classroom,” says Veale. “It is also about issues like food scarcity, family dynamics and issues with transportation – making sure the kids are coming to class well-rested and nourished.”
Bell-Williams says the Milltown programs benefit from the stable, long-term funding the Million Dollar Pledge provides.
“It is really awesome for us to have a large chunk of money committed over a few years,” says Bell-Williams. “We can focus on long-term goals and not have to worry about constantly filling out grant applications.”
Keith McQueen, a manager at the accounting firm Teed Saunders Doyle who spearheads the United Way drive at the company, signed on for the challenge of raising even more support so the firm could join the Pledge. Employees jumped onboard.
“We liked the idea of being involved and in having a greater say where the money went, and being a part of a group that had the collective goal of really making an impact,” McQueen says. “It creates a much bigger impact than if we had just given $10,000 ourselves.”
Wendy MacDermott, executive director of the United Way Greater Saint John, says she recently received a call from a business leader looking for ideas on how to get his company more involved in the community.
“After discussing it for some time, I suggested to him that if you want to make it really easy, we have this turn-key strategy called the Million Dollar Pledge. You become part of a network of small business owners who are coming together and thinking about how to make an impact beyond just writing a cheque. I probably said about three sentences and he said ‘Yes, that’s what I want. Sign me up.’”
He’s currently in the process of signing on. Pledge members are Hemmings House Pictures, InteliSys Aviation, Mrs. Dunster’s/Kredls, Spartan Systems, Teed Saunders Doyle, Vision Coaching, Porpoise, Dominos, Aquila Tours, Town Health Solutions, Scott McCain and an anonymous donor.