Students at Emerson Elementary School with tutors from the LEARNS Program, one of the programs currently seeking a grant on the crowd-funding Friends & Family Grants website created by a group of UC Berkeley students. Photo: Diane Dew
Students at Emerson Elementary School with tutors from the LEARNS Program, one of the programs currently seeking a grant on the crowd-funding Friends & Family Grants website created by a group of UC Berkeley students. Photo: Diane Dew

Crowd-funding has made its way to the Berkeley public schools, thanks to a group of students at Cal. Berkeley teachers can now use the Friends & Family Grants website through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund to raise money for everything from books to robotics kits.

Take John Fike for example. The Berkeley Technology Academy teacher is on special assignment this year, addressing intervention for the alternative school’s 100 or so students.

“Many have academic struggles because they have life struggles,” Fike said. Most of the students, he said, need mental heath care and emotional support.

Fike wanted funding for public speakers, field trips, training  for BTA teachers, and after-school activities, such as dance and music production classes.

Fike turned to the new Friends & Family Grants page and posted his request for nearly $10,000. He sent the link to the school’s families, but also to his own friends – many of them fellow graduates of Berkeley schools — and posted on Facebook. He also solicited family, and, “Mom was hitting up her friends,” he said.

Fike got his $9,500, and now the kids at BTA are taking dance and music classes, and planning their field trips.

Students at LeConte Elementary School reading with a community volunteer. Several of the grants that have been funded, or are currently looking for funding, on the Friends & Family Grants website are for classroom libraries. Photo: Diane Dew

“The grant is equity in action,” Fike said, a chance for community members to support causes they care about.

This is all thanks to the group of UC Berkeley students who created the crowd-funding site for free. Blueprint is a club of mostly computer-science majors. They “build technology that improves the world,” as their homepage puts it.

Since the club began in the spring of 2013, it has taken applications each semester from non-profit groups that need technology help. In fall 2013, they accepted three out of 15 applications, one of them from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund.

The project leader, student Wonjun Jeong, said they decided to work with the school funds site because, “We are really passionate about utilizing technology to make a social impact. Especially in the education sector.”

Jeong led a team of four others — Varun Rau, Vivek Raghuram, Jessica Lin, and Sam Lau – who spent about five to 10 hours per week creating the funding platform.

The UC Berkeley Blueprint team that created the crowd-funding website for the Berkeley Public Schools Fund: (l to r) Sam Lau, Varun Rau, Wonjun Jeong, Jessica Lin, and Vivek Raghuram. Photo: courtesy Blueprint

“The team got to learn a lot about technology,” Jeong said.

The project was supposed to last 10 weeks – one semester but it ended up taking twice as long.

“I was lucky to have a team so motivated. They kept working after starting new projects (in the spring semester),” Jeong said. “I think while we were building it, we were focused on just building the application. But after we heard feedback — with a $10,000 grant getting funded — it’s a totally different experience than building a project for a company.”

Erin Rhoades, Executive Director of the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, said: “We are thankful for the group at Cal – they’re incredibly talented undergrads.”

The Schools Fund has been giving grants to classrooms for 28 years, Rhoades said, and last year it raised $900,000 in the community. In the past, teachers had to apply for money by the end of September and get notified in November. That program still exists, but, with the new website, funding can also happen year-round now, Rhoades said.

And, she added, teachers like Fike can reach beyond the students’ parents for donations. In addition, community members can search for ways to give that particularly interest them.

“Anyone in the community can search for something arts-related, literacy-related, science-related,” Rhoades said.

To date nine projects have been fully funded, for a total of $13,063. Currently, 14 projects on the site are seeking funds for books, computer programming, cooking classes and iPads for students with special needs, among other things. Rhoades expects the list to growing as more teachers learn about it.

Blueprint, the Cal group, has also been growing. This semester, the group received more than triple the number of applications from last year and took on six projects – twice as many.

“We’re trying to grow slowly to make sure that projects are high quality,” Jeong said.

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...