Face to Face With Karen Kovach Webb, Executive Director, Fund for Teachers

Christine Hall
Houston Business Journal

Karen Kovach Webb teamed with Apache Corp. founder Raymond Plank to bring his personal initiative of recognition and reward for school teachers to the public in 2001. The resulting foundation, Fund for Teachers, aims to enrich teachers’ lives by offering them the opportunity to self-design summer sabbatical experiences, returning to the classroom re-energized in ways that impact students on a daily basis. To date, Fund for Teachers has granted over $14 million to over 4,000 teachers working in 47 states. In addition to positions in the corporate arena and as a small business owner, Webb has worked in nonprofit management, strategic planning and development for over 25 years. She has served on various community school boards and concerned citizens and advocacy groups that seek to ensure adequate resources and opportunities for basic services and education. She was interviewed by Christine Hall.

How did the Fund for Teachers program get started?

During the early 1980s, Raymond Plank, having been the fortunate beneficiary of many good teachers in his life, chose to honor the influential role those teachers played in his success by establishing a modest fund at his Minneapolis high school. Fast-forward to 2001: It was serendipitous; I was ready for a new professional challenge when Raymond approached me with the idea of scaling up his pilot program. From idea to pilot program to today: Fund for Teachers has grown from inspiration to a Houston-based, national public nonprofit program that helps teachers from across the country pursue their own self-designed learning opportunities.

How do you think Houston is advancing beyond other cities or markets in terms of education?

It is hard to ignore the national debate about education reform and its impact on the economy, today and tomorrow. Houston, like cities across the country, is facing the challenge to determine and sustain effective school improvement that will equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in the globally driven marketplace. A pause for reflection should be part of the deliberations as we all determine the best path forward.

What is the organization doing to supply the area with a quality base of employable people?

One in four Americans is in a school building every day. Research proves that teachers make schools successful. Fund for Teachers attributes its growth to the concerted effort to define our partnering relationships with corporate supporters and local education foundations with a commitment to shared purposes. To reach teachers across the country we affiliate with various locally based education reform groups. Fund for Teachers is somewhat unique in mission and program. We give money directly to teachers for the work that they know will most directly impact their efforts. We have been successful in bringing education reform groups from New York City, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other places together in collaboration around our mission and granting program to foster teacher growth and learning and thereby student growth and learning. The definition and scope of “community” grows exponentially through the constructive exchanges around our “table” – teachers and students benefit immediately.

And how is the private sector, i.e. companies and corporations, reciprocating?

We use the same approach with our donors. The Houston corporate community, led by Apache, cradled FFT: Its continuing support has served as the model and inspiration for national funders. Employers have a stake in hiring future graduates who are high achievers. The purpose of business cannot separate from the purposes of education. As companies struggle to articulate and act on value propositions, Fund for Teachers provides them with a way to support teachers and education directly, with immediate impact. Our teachers’ stories are proof that doing the “right thing” is good for business. Corporations feed the pipeline to the future. Let me give you an example: Understanding that a mastery of math concepts is integral to competing on the global business front; Steve Farris, chairman and CEO of Apache, started the Fund for Teachers Pi Society. He challenged other CEOs to join him in pledging funding earmarked specifically for math-related fellowships hoping to inspire the current generation of math students through their teachers.

What’s next for the organization?

As I look to the next decade, I know that Fund for Teachers must remain focused on achieving our goals and vigilant measuring our progress. We are nowhere near the fulfillment of our aspirations for a full-scale national coverage program making self-designed learning opportunities available to all professional teachers charged with guiding our future. Our continued successful partnerships will allow us to recruit the donors and local education partners aligned around that purpose. I am confident that the Fund for Teachers’ community table will expand and grow in positive, inspiring ways. Without doubt, more students will benefit from teachers who have explored their own curiosity and deepened their own scholarship. This is my passion.

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Health & Fitness magazine Fitness Enthusiast participates in Fund Run

Clair Maciel
Healthandfitnessmag.com

Running in February’s 5K Fund Run for Teachers has become an annual tradition for Christa Blyth. But she doesn’t do it solely for the purpose of staying fit. She runs as a representative of the many Houston teachers who have benefited from this local event and to give back to an organization that provided her with the experience of a lifetime.

In the summer of 2006, Blyth, a teacher in the Spring Branch ISD, received a grant from Fund for Teachers (Fundforteachers.org), a non-profit organization that raises money through the Fund Run and awards grants to teachers to support their professional growth and learning. With her grant, Blyth had the opportunity to travel to Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, a trip she said inspired her as a teacher and enabled her to share her amazing experience with her students.

“Teachers don’t necessarily have a lot of opportunities to explore the world, but this organization really gives teachers the chance to experience new cultures,” Blyth said. “It’s a great, great cause, and as a past recipient of the grant, I wanted to support the group by running this year.”

Blyth, 29, has her plate full as a mother of two, a 5-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, a day job as an eighth grade history teacher at Northbrook Middle School, and all the responsibilities of a graduate student pursuing a degree in administration to eventually become a school principal. And to maintain the energy to keep up with juggling all of her roles, she makes regular exercise a priority whenever she can fit it into her schedule.

“It’s important for me to exercise because I want to have a lot of energy during the day. I’m so busy that I have to exercise in order to keep up with my crazy schedule. I also do it because I enjoy having the time to myself.”

A native of Lafayette, La., Blyth admits she rarely took the time to exercise on a regular basis before she moved to Texas a few years ago.

“I wasn’t really into sports before. I didn’t start becoming athletic until I moved to Houston about three years ago. That’s when I decided I wanted to get in shape and start exercising regularly.”

These days, she makes it a point to squeeze in a run at least two or three times a week, whether it’s on a treadmill or at the local park. And if she’s not running, she and her sister will occasionally hit the bike trails and go for a ride together.

Not only does Blyth bike and run for exercise or to support a good cause, she also participates in running events simply for the fun of it. “I’ve also done the Women’s Race in Austin for the past two years. It’s so much fun because it’s a two-woman team event where you partner up with someone and compete against other teams in running, walking, some mind games and a water activity. We have so much fun doing that.”

Of course, Blyth is not the only one in the family who has taken up the athletic lifestyle. It seems her two children are following closely in her footsteps. Her son has started playing T-ball, her daughter is active in dance and both enjoy riding bikes.

It’s that kind of activity Blyth said she tries to encourage in her children, not only because it’s healthy, but also because she sees the importance of staying fit even at a young age.

“I definitely promote a healthy lifestyle with my kids. I’m very conscientious of their health and what they eat. I’d much rather have them playing outside and running around than sitting inside in front of the TV.”

View photos.

Katy Resident Participates in Third Annual Fund for Teachers “Fund Run”

Katy Texas News
Katymagazine.com

Pictured Left to Right: Katy Resident Cynthia Ramos takes in the fun and festivities at the “Fund Run” – Runners at the third annual “Fund Run” prepare to begin the race – Karen Kovach-Webb (center), executive director of FFT congratulates Jennifer Brown and Jose Lara on their male and female first place finishes.

On February 9, approximately 1,000 runners, volunteers and spectators took part in the “Fund Run” by raising money to benefit Houston-area teachers. One of the runners was Katy Resident, Cynthia Ramos, who teaches at Jackson Middle School. Ramos used her Fund for Teachers (FFT) grant in 2006 to travel to Budapest, Hungary where she researched Hungarian folk tales and new perspectives in literacy techniques to bring back to her students.

FFT is a Houston-based non-profit whose mission is to enrich the lives of school teachers and students throughout the U.S. by providing outstanding teachers with recognition and opportunities to pursue independent studies over the summer. Since 2001, Fund for Teachers has provided $8.5 million in grants to 2,609 teachers in 47 states and Puerto Rico. In Houston, FFT has awarded grants totaling $1.8 million to more than 500 teachers.

View photos.

Landrum teacher to take part in Fund Run

Kim Morgan, Chronicle Correspondent

Memorial resident Dianna Gunn – who has run over hot rocks and away from molten lava during her world travels – will be among those who take part in Fund for Teachers’ third annual Fund Run on Saturday, Feb. 9.

Gunn, 36, a science teacher at Landrum Middle School, 2200 Ridgecrest Drive, spent two weeks studying active volcanoes in Europe, thanks to a $5,000 grant from Fund for Teachers.

“I’m not a runner, never have been, but I’m training as much as I can for that little 5K race,” Gunn said.

“I have about 15 of my friends signing up, too, because I want as many teachers as possible to have a wonderful opportunity like I did.”

Fund for Teachers is an organization that provides grants for teachers who wish to “pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their students and on their school communities.”

Gunn, who teaches seventh grade, visited volcanoes in Italy, including Mt. Etna, Vesuvius, Pompeii and Stromboli.

“Stromboli is one of the most active, if not the most active, volcanoes in the world,” Gunn said.

“It’s been erupting for thousands of years, gentle eruptions that throw out blobs of lava that look like fireworks every 15 minutes.

“But it varies, and when I was there I saw ash explosions, not lava. I was kind of disappointed but it’s also very dangerous.”

Gunn said the last time Stromboli activity waned, so much pressure built up that when it did erupt in December 2003 it blew out a side of the crater, which then slid down into the water, resulting in an 18-foot tsunami.

In fulfilling the fund’s mission, Gunn came back to Houston and created a unit for her students so they could experience what she did.

“We don’t have volcanoes in Houston, thank goodness, and they might never get a chance to see one,” Gunn said.

“I dressed every day exactly how I was dressed in the photos I was showing them.

“We had a lab where they got to go through stations, looking at samples of rock and sand I brought back.”

Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers, said that’s why teachers like Gunn are a perfect fit for the grants.

Since 2001, Fund for Teachers has provided more than $8.5 million in grants to 2,609 teachers across the United States.

In Houston, grants totaling $1.8 million have been awarded to more than 500 teachers.

The fund is supported by foundations, individuals and corporate donors.

Kovach-Webb said the Fund Run, while expected to bring out more than 1,000 participants and raise approximately $65,000, is more of an awareness campaign than a fundraiser.

“It gives our corporate supporters an opportunity for their employees to come out with their families and meet some of our teachers,” Kovach-Webb said.

“Last year in Houston we awarded 101 grants worth $375,000.”

That number will likely go up, because this year they are increasing team grant amounts from $7,500 to $10,000, she said.

“We upped it because it’s really interesting to see the teachers’ quality of work when they collaborate on their project, and then collaborate back in the classroom,” Kovach-Webb said.

Individual grants such as the one Gunn received will remain at $5,000.

Seguin Elementary School teachers to take part in Fund Run for Teachers

Kim Morgan, Chronicle Correspondent

Sarah Baker, Nirmol Lim and Amy Rose, all teachers at Seguin Elementary School, 5905 Waltrip Street, aren’t much for running.

But they want to show their gratitude and support to Fund for Teachers, so they will volunteer at the registration booth or by passing out water during the FFT Fund Run on Feb. 9.

Fund for Teachers is an organization that provides grants for teachers who wish to “pursue opportunities around the globe that will have the greatest impact on their practice, the academic lives of their pupils and on their school communities.”

Baker and Lim received a team grant of $7,500 to attend a national energy conference in Washington D.C. last July.

Lim, who teaches fifth grade, said they would never have been able to afford the conference without the help of Fund for Teachers.

“The conference itself was $1,000 each excluding airfare and taxi,” said Lim, a 29-year-old southeast Houston resident. “It is wonderful of Fund for Teachers to help teachers learn.”

Baker, a fifth grade science lab teacher, said she learned things at the conference that surprised her.

“I learned a lot about nuclear energy,” said Baker, a 28-year-old Meyerland resident.

“One thing that surprised me most is that nuclear energy is renewable. The tablets they use to make uranium, they can use again and again.”

Baker said she met a woman at the conference from Puerto Rico whose home runs completely off of solar energy.

“It costs her $3 a month,” Baker said. “I didn’t know you can get solar shingles on your homes.”

In keeping with part of the mission of Fund for Teachers, Baker is passing everything she learned on to her science pupils at Seguin.

“We’re about to start our energy unit,” Baker said. “We will build solar ovens, solar cars, hydro-powered cars and design a (wind) turbine.

“The grant also provided money to buy the materials to do the activities. I was able to get more than $800 worth of supplies.”

Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of Fund for Teachers, loves to hear stories like that.

She said the Fund Run, while expected to bring out more than 1,000 participants and raise approximately $65,000, is more of an awareness campaign than a fundraiser.

“It gives our corporate supporters an opportunity for their employees to come out with their families and meet some of our teachers,” Kovach-Webb said. “Last year in Houston we awarded 101 grants worth $375,000.”

That number will likely go up, because this year they are increasing team grants from $7,500 to $10,000.

“We upped it because it’s really interesting to see the teachers’ quality of work when they collaborate on their project, and then collaborate back in the classroom,” Kovach-Webb said.

Individual grants will remain at $5,000.

Since 2001, Fund for Teachers has provided more than $8.5 million in grants to 2,609 teachers across the United States.

In Houston, grants totaling $1.8 million have been awarded to more than 500 teachers.

The fund is supported by foundations, individuals and corporate donors.

Fund Run set for Feb. 9

South Belt Ellington Leader

The third annual Fund for Teachers Fund Run will take place Saturday, Feb. 9, near the Galleria on South Post Oak Road between Ambassador Way and Lynn lane beginning at 8 a.m.

Founded by Raymond Plank in 2001, FFT’s mission is to raise grant money for teachers to travel during their summer vacations to broaden their horizons and return to share what they’ve learned with students.

To date, more than 2,500 teachers from 47 states have studied and traveled throughout the United States and 100 other countries on seven continents.

The nonprofit organization is supported by foundations, individuals and corporate donors. Since its inception, the group has provided $8,571,804 in grants to 2,609 teachers.

In Houston alone, FFT has awarded grants totaling $1.8 million to more than 500 teachers.

The 2007 Fund Run had more than 1,000 participants and benefited more than 100 local teachers.

FFT grants are awarded to teachers working with students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Teachers submit proposals detailing how their fellowship will make them a better teacher and how their improved skills are to be implemented in the classroom, benefiting students, curricula and school. Grants are awarded based on application quality and merit as judged by a committee.

Several teachers with ties to the South Belt have been past grant recipients. Among these are Donna Edwards and Robbie Biggerstaff.

Edwards, a South Belt resident and math teacher at De Zavala Fifth-Grade Center, traveled with a group to Costa Rica to learn about the scientific wonders of the region and to experience immersion in the Spanish language and culture. She attended a two-week intense Spanish language program at the Costa Rica Language Academy. The teacher also went on excursions to places like Tortuguero National Park to study the rich ecological zones and biodiversity of the country and gather scientific information, pictures and videos to show her students upon return.

Biggerstaff, a seventh grade English teacher at Beverly Hills Intermediate, went on a trip last summer to visit the birthplaces of Southern female authors to discover how culture, history and geography inspired their work. She went on a four-week literary tour of three Southern states, visiting the homes of seven women authors, including Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. She studied the locales that influenced these writers in an effort to better share their stories with her students.

Karen Kovach-Webb, executive director of FFT, is enthusiastic about this year’s event, “Houston has so many wonderful teachers, and it also has a truly generous community of people that want to inspire them to keep doing what they do,” she said, adding, “With the help of people like these, we want to make it possible for more teachers to develop their own talents so they can infuse students with vision and confidence. We are thrilled to host this third Fund Run, and we look forward to seeing a big turnout to show the love for our local teachers.”

The event will feature a 5-kilometer race for children. The top male and female finishers of the 5-kilometer competition will each receive a $100 gift certificate to Fleet Feet.

The children’s race is free, while entry fees for the 5-kilometer contest vary. Early registration is $20 for participants 18 years of age and older and $10 for 17 and younger. Late registration is $25 for 18 and older and $15 for 17 and younger. Early registration ends Friday, Jan. 25. Children under 11 must be accompanied by an adult.

Sign-in and late registration will take place from 7 to 8 a.m. The children’s race will go from 8 to 8:30 a.m., and the 5-kilometer run will begin at 8:30 a.m.

Registration is available online at www.fundforteachers.org or by calling 1-800-681-2667.

Registration fees include a T-shirt and chip timer. Due to city ordinances, pets are not permitted.