Strong Foundation

from parent volunteer to director

By Matt White

Jaime Detzi is the executive director of the Chatham Education Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy and fundraising organization that administers early literacy, teacher support and other educational programs in schools across Chatham. Jaime is in her fifth year as head of the foundation, which this summer will launch its largest program to date, the Kindergarten Readiness Camp. Jaime and her husband Chris live in Briar Chapel, have three children – Alyssa, 15, Brooke, 12, and James, 9 – in Chatham County Schools, at Perry Harrison Elementary, Margaret B. Pollard Middle and Northwood High.

What brought you and your family to Chatham County? We were living outside D.C. in northern Virginia. We wanted a slower pace of life for our kids. We followed my brother [Jason Dell, owner of Bold Construction Inc.] down here, who had moved here 15 years ago. Chris and I moved seven-and-a-half years ago, and my parents moved to Southport three years ago.

We’d been scouting out a bunch of areas, and we were really concerned about schools. We moved from the wealthiest county in the country to here, and we went back and forth about whether to move to Cary, because it was pretty similar to northern Virginia, or if we wanted to really slow it down and move to Chatham, which is very different. We started looking at schools. Somehow my sister-in-law [Susan Dell] finagled the then-Chatham County School’s public information officer, Beth McCullough, to come over to talk to us. We went on a tour of Perry Harrison, [then-principal] Janice Frazier gave me the lowdown, and that’s what sold us. I woke up at 4 in the morning one day, and I was like, “OK, Chris, let’s move to Chatham.”

And you got involved with the the schools at the policy level almost immediately. I co-wrote the [district’s] food allergy policy about seven years ago with [then-Director of Student Services] George Greger-Holt, who, to this day, still inspires me to take action when I see something that can be improved. My daughter Alyssa [then going into second grade] has food allergies. We sat down [with district officials] and talked about it, we rewrote it and everything changed. It was such a great opportunity because you can’t recommend change like that [in larger counties].

After that you served two years on the Perry Harrison PTA. What made you jump from your kids’ school to the Chatham Education Foundation and its county-wide mission? My brother’s best friend was on the board. He said they were thinking about making a change, and was I interested? And I said, “I don’t want to work yet.” I’d been at home for years with the girls and James. He said, “It’s only 10 hours a week, [and] you’re volunteering so much anyway. Why don’t you get paid?”

I was excited because it was district-wide. For instance, right now we’re providing literacy training for 25 third-grade teachers across all of Chatham rather than the teachers of just one school.

I don’t know where to begin with the things that have changed in my life personally just from understanding what kids have and don’t have in different parts of Chatham County, and understanding the difference between going from a school where many parents volunteer to a school like Virginia Cross where parents can’t volunteer for various reasons, perhaps because they are working three jobs to make ends meet.

It’s a big, diverse county. How do you balance your outreach among schools and populations who each have very different needs and resources? We’re always trying to find folks from western parts to work with. Not just Siler City but you have to think about Bear Creek, where you have a lot more older, rural families, which is very different than the population in Siler City and the [eastern side of the county]. So I would say we’re conscious of the three area demographics that feed into our three traditional high schools, and I’m very conscious of not doing anything for a school my child goes to that [I wouldn’t do for] that school otherwise.

What’s your day-to-day role? I mostly interact with district staff on programs and fundraising to make those programs happen. For our Kindergarten Readiness Camp, that’s $344,000 (over two years), all at the district level. If we’re giving grants to classrooms, we have a committee that reviews them, and I’m the only one who knows which school the applications are coming from. We make that blind so no one knows where they are coming from, and we do that for scholarships as well.

For 2018, the Kindergarten Readiness Camp represents a huge new program, both in budget and complexity, aimed at very specific, multi-year goals. Where did the money come from, and what is the program? The first grant for $94,000 came from the N.C. GlaxoSmithKline Foundation and the remaining $250,000 is pending with the Oak Foundation. What is it for? [Roughly] 54 percent of students who enter Chatham County Schools don’t have early literacy skills. What that shows us is either students are not attending preschools or are not in a structured early-learning environment. The goal is to get them reading proficiently by the third grade because statistics show that gives them a better chance to graduate from high school. So if you come to kindergarten not prepared, you have an uphill battle to get to third-grade proficiency. One intervention we took on was doing a three-week, half-day camp [at four regional elementary schools] to ease the transition. We’re going to work on literacy skills, math skills, and social and emotional skills, which is one of the most impactful if you’ve never been in a structured classroom before. We’re going to feed the children two meals per day and provide transportation, all at no charge to the parents. We’re going to hire the school’s own teachers, teaching assistants and literacy coaches.

We have watched Orange County do this for two years on a smaller scale, and they’ve had some great success. They’ve helped us with some logistics. So our goal is prove over the next two years that it works, and then seek county funds to continue it.

It’s a massive undertaking. I’m thrilled our schools are excited about doing this because it’s a big undertaking for them as well and shows their dedication to student growth.

Your annual budget is $200,000 now, a big jump from when you started. When I first started this, we’d get a $1,000 grant, and Chris [Ehrenfeld , past CEF board chair] would laugh at me because I got so excited when I told him. Then I’d call him with a $5,000 grant, and I was like, “That’s OK.” Then it was $20,000. Then I called him with a $250,000 [grant] and he was like, “You should be more excited.”

I felt like we were making little Band-Aid fixes before, and our goal is to try to really make an impact on students that we can see for years to come.  CM

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