Parents at Woodland and Kaiser elementary schools started an experiment in 2010. Now, after two rounds of privately funding a dedicated science teacher, they have a simple conclusion:
"It works," said Tricia Lamb, the teacher funded by the Kaiser Woodland Schools Foundation.
Lamb holds one of two dedicated science positions at the twin elementary schools. When her job was at risk of disappearing in 2011, parents fought to keep Lamb in the lab and kids experimenting with fulcrums, sound and states of matter.
"This is not book science. This is laboratory science," said Andy Peters, the foundation's chairman. "The more science education you provide, the better students do."
By digging into their bank accounts, hosting fundraisers and writing grant applications, parents have helped double the percentage of fifth-grade students deemed proficient or advanced in science, Peters said.
For about 15 years, an anonymous donor funded one dedicated science teacher at Kaiser, which serves grades 3-6, and its feeder school Woodland, which serves grades K-2.
In 2006, the two schools got a second science teacher thanks to an Irvine Co. grant for science education throughout the district.
But in 2010, parents started hearing whispers that their anonymous donor might pull out, eliminating Lamb's position.
"When I found out this job was going to go away … I sat there and I bawled for the weekend," Lamb said. She previously worked as a third- and fourth-grade teacher and likely would have returned to that, but she called teaching science her passion.
Not wanting to lose Lamb or a dedicated science position, parents scrambled, forming the foundation in 2010 and receiving final word in early 2011 that the donor had indeed pulled out.
"From late February to basically the end of May was all we had to make the commitment," Peters said. "So we had to figure out what are we going to do in order to generate enough resources in just a couple of months."
In 2011, they funded a science class — salary, insurance, lab equipment, field trips and more — at 60%.
"Our biggest contributor was the science teacher herself, who agreed to work a 60% contract for the year," Peters said. Through fundraisers, ongoing donations from parents and a fireworks stand that netted $12,000, parents met a $70,000 goal.
The results, parents say, are worth the price tag.
In the 2004-05 school year, when the two schools had one dedicated science teacher, almost 8% of fifth-graders were advanced, with 42% scoring proficient or advanced on standardized tests.
In the 2009-10 school year with dual science teachers in full swing, almost 50% of Woodland and Kaiser students were advanced, with 85% scoring proficient or advanced.
That was well above the district average of 63% proficient or advanced that year.
The foundation was aiming for 80% funding this year but recently surpassed that, Peters said. The closer parents get to 100%, the more time Lamb can spend in lower grades.
Now parents are trying to move away from personal funding to pursue grants instead. The foundation has already received sponsorships from the Orange County Roosters Foundation, the Rotary Club and a $2,000 gift from Boeing Monday night.
Lamb said the foundation's success will be judged by its longevity — if Woodland and Kaiser can keep their science programs whether she's still teaching or not — even though it seems to be on solid ground for now.
"The fact that they've got the money now," Lamb said. "It's working."