In the hopes of raising money for school supplies, field trips and other unbudgeted expenses, students are sent door-to-door to sell magazines, chocolate and other expendable merchandise, while parents are roped into attending auctions, dinners, and the grandmother of all painfully mandatory events — bingo night.
Kim Morrow wants to change that.
Morrow is the founder of iscream4reading, a startup fundraising company that aims at raking in money for schools through an incentive-based literacy program.
A mother of two and a former Chicago Public School teacher, Morrow likened the nascent program to a walkathon or a 5K race, with miles traversed swapped out for reading hours.
First, students in the program commit to a certain number of hours that they intend to spend reading, whether over the summer or during the school year. Then they round up sponsors — usually family, friends and neighbors — who dole out a pre-determined donation if the student hits their goal by the end of the reading period.
Students earn rewards for meeting their reading targets, and schools take in the virtually overhead-free profits from sponsor-donations.
“Obviously we’re slashing funds at schools every day, so if we can raise the money and keep the kids reading, that will obviously help to support each individual school,” said Morrow.
The iscream4reading program was born last year, when Morrow and her colleagues in a parent-led group at Abraham Lincoln Elementary, 615 W. Kemper Place, were trying out a few different fundraising tactics to funnel money into the Lincoln Park neighborhood school.
Aside from the pilot-literacy program, the school worked with three other fundraising companies which provided magazines, wrapping paper and winter greenery for the students to sell.
Morrow said those models seemed to divert from the educational philosophy at Lincoln.
“It was hard to find fundraisers that actually focus on literacy, rather than just selling stuff,” she said.
In the end, the three sale-based programs raised $25,000 for Lincoln, while the reading initiative brought in $59,000.
Additionally, the school recorded 18,000 reading hours among the student body, with 84 students reading over 100 hours over the course of the program.
“We decided that this was a better way to go,” she said.
In December, Morrow founded iscream4reading as a for-profit company.
Based on her experiences at Lincoln — where she has served with the parent fundraising group for seven years — Morrow said that she modeled the program with three goals in mind: keeping kids active in reading (especially in the summer months), boosting returns for schools, and minimizing dependence of parent volunteering.
The effects of a bookless summer vacation can be detrimental to elementary school-age students. In some cases, students can lose up to 25 percent of their reading level over the summer, according to data reported by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in 2009.
Studies have shown that teachers can spend at least a month reteaching material that students have forgotten over the summer.
The act of fundraising can often seem self-defeating, said Morrow, as many companies that organize sales-based fundraising programs can take up to 60 percent of the profits before the money reaches school coffers.
Iscream4reading doesn’t come for free — the company charges on a profit curve that takes a 35 percent cut from schools that make less than $10,000, to 18 percent from schools that break the $200,000 mark.
“My fee structure is designed so that schools can profit,” she said. “I didn’t want to start taking large sums of money away.”
Because the read-a-thon is organized through the company’s website, run in partnership with the Chicago-based web firm SocialRaise, iscream4reading has a minimal dependence on volunteering from parents and teachers.
“I wanted to take a lot of the work out of the schools, so that what was left was the fun stuff like the pep rally and passing out the prizes,” said Morrow.
The company has signed on with the Newberry Math & Science Academy to run iscream4reading over the summer, and is currently in talks with four other schools, including one in Michigan, to carry the program this year.
Morrow also hopes to shop out the program to summer camps, youth sports leagues and other institutions that could benefit from the fundraising model helpful.
Morrow said that she built the model for iscream4reading with the fundraising institutions — and the students — in mind.
“Kids are really getting more from this,” she said.