By Michaela Kron
Sixteen years ago, the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce established Greater North Fulton Education 2000, an initiative that addressed the needs of youths through programs inside and outside school.
Since then, the initiative has undergone many changes. In 2000, its name changed to the Greater North Fulton Education Force, and a year later, it broke away from the Chamber and became the Community Education Force (CEF), a nonprofit organization exclusively serving Sandy Springs. Recently, on Aug. 10, CEF board members voted to change the name of the organization to the Sandy Springs Education Force (SSEF).
“When it became CEF in 2001, the idea was that we could turn around our own community,” said SSEF Executive Director Irene Schweiger, who has more than 20 years’ experience with community and school advocacy.
SSEF has worked to identify and facilitate supplemental educational programs and solutions through community partnerships with a “whole student” focus mostly aimed at at-risk students. The goal of the organization is to level the playing field for all students.
The organization has sponsored programs such as Best Kids, an after-school program for at-risk children; Project Soar, which exposed students to work experiences; and Project Lead, which helped high school students develop leadership and decision-making skills. The programs have earned local and national awards, including a National Honorable Mention for Excellence in Community Collaboration for Children and Youth, the Georgia School Public Relations Association’s Gold Award of Excellence, and Excellence in School Business Partnerships from the Georgia Department of Education.
Despite the success of its programs, SSEF became dormant around 2005 because of a lack of money and time.
“It’s not that the need went away; it’s just that the resources were not there,” SSEF Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Axt said.
The resources are there now. Last September, the Couchman Noble Foundation, which assists organizations in North Fulton and surrounding areas, provided SSEF with a three-year funding commitment to revive the organization.
SSEF Chairman David Couchman, who began the Couchman Noble Foundation with his wife, Melanie, said the educational mission of SSEF piqued his interest while the foundation was looking to assist more nonprofit organizations in North Fulton.
“We’re not large enough to have an impact on the adult population, but we wanted to have an effect on students,” Couchman said.
He said SSEF has the ability to significantly influence youths, particularly those at risk, in Sandy Springs. “Most people think of Sandy Springs as being an affluent community, but we have a very diverse population here.”
Axt said SSEF not only serves a supplemental purpose in Sandy Springs, but also meets an important need.
“It doesn’t matter what type of community you have. It doesn’t matter how excellent your school is: Young people need a lot of support from a variety of sources,” Axt said.
Since SSEF became active again almost a year ago, Schweiger and the organization’s board of directors have worked to implement plans. Most recently, SSEF has partnered with the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce and Junior Achievement of Georgia to develop a program to teach students financial literacy. The program will begin this fall at North Springs Charter High School.
Also beginning this fall is the After-School All Stars program, a comprehensive after-school program five days a week from 4 to 6 p.m. at Sandy Springs Charter Middle School. The program, under the direction of Georgia State University, is in place at nine Atlanta schools.
Students in After-School All Stars at Sandy Springs Charter Middle will be able to go on field trips to places such as the Chattahoochee Nature Center as a result of a $2,000 grant from the Sandy Springs Society, the largest philanthropic agency in Sandy Springs.
SSEF also plans to introduce an after-school program at Spalding Drive Charter Elementary School. The organization’s goal is to offer an after-school activity or program in every Sandy Springs public school within three years.
Schweiger said SSEF establishes initiatives based on the needs of individual schools, and all programs are tailored to those needs.
“We’re delivering exactly what the principal is looking for,” she said. “It’s not a haphazard. It’s very, very targeted.”
Ultimately, Schweiger hopes that the programs of a reinvigorated SSEF will reduce skepticism among schools that have been “overpromised and underdelivered in services.”
“It’s my job to turn around and actually go in there and do what we say we’re going to do,” Schweiger said. “We’ve got a wonderful opportunity here in Sandy Springs.”