Operating for more than 20 years, a local volunteer-staffed organization has been working to connect and support public schools and the community.
Public Education Partners of Aiken County, or PEP Aiken, is an independent nonprofit organization that works with both the private sector and the public school system. It was founded in 1995.
PEP Aiken is staffed by 17 volunteer board members, including John Lamprecht, the organization's board chair and community engagement chair, and Nicholas "Chip" Retson, the endowment committee chair.
"We've focused on creating the connection between the community and the schools, and trying to improve the schools overall," Retson said. "This year, we have three major initiatives that we're focusing on: teacher success, early learning literacy and STEAM."
Teacher success, early literacy and building up STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – are three of the four goals under PEP Aiken's 2018-2020 strategic plan. The fourth is strengthening the organization itself.
In 2020, one of PEP Aiken's priorities was recognizing teachers, Retson said.
"We want to honor and respect and show the teachers that the community understands what they're going through," Retson said.
Teachers in the school district had the opportunity to apply for PEP Aiken's 2020 Classroom Innovation Grant in the fall. The grants, up to $500 each, are meant to support teachers in developing creative strategies that engage and enhance student learning, according to PEP Aiken's website.
Lamprecht said the organization plans to open more rounds of applications in the spring.
"We'd like to be that bridge, always, to make sure that kids are getting the best education possible, but then we're also supporting the staff and the educators that make that happen, because without them, the whole system just doesn't work," Lamprecht said.
In partnership with the school district and other organizations, PEP Aiken is involved with several programs for local teachers and students.
One of these programs begins helping children learn as soon as they're born.
"There's no formal role of the school system yet for kids from birth until the day they enter kindergarten." Retson said. "So what we're trying to do is look at programs that help create educational opportunities and get the kids school-ready. One of the longest standing programs we have is Baby's First Teacher."
A partnership between the school district, Aiken Regional Medical Centers, First Steps, retired teachers and PEP Aiken, Baby's First Teacher provides a gift bag with a book, a developmental toy and information about the importance of reading.
PEP Aiken also helps enroll local children in the Kisner Foundation's Tee Up to Read program, which provides a free book every month until a child's 5th birthday.
"One of the fun things about [the Tee up to Read program] is that all the kids in the same age, grade get the same book," Retson said. "So four years later when they show up at kindergarten, and some of the books are on the bookshelf, they all have a common reference. They've heard that story before. So that's kind of a connecting thing to a poor family and a wealthy family."
Other local programs PEP Aiken is involved with include the Garcia Orchestra Festival and the early college program at Midland Valley High, in which students take classes at Aiken Technical College. PEP Aiken also organizes ATC's Technical Scholars Tour for high school students, according to the organization's website.
"While we, ourselves, are not Baby's First Teacher, we're not Tee Up to Read, we're not these other places that we're endorsing and recommending, but we want to be more like a guidance or advisement for that. To say, here are the holes that we see, and here's what needs to be filled," Lamprecht said. "That's kind of what we've always been, to act as that bridge between what the education system does and what the public themselves does."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, PEP Aiken has held fundraising events, like adult spelling bees, to pay for its programs.
Lamprecht said the PEP Aiken members had wanted to hold an end-of-the-year fundraising gala to honor teachers. Instead, the organization is simply reaching out to prior donors and spreading the word about the organization.
"In the non-COVID days, we were with our name tags at all these events," Retson said. "Whether there was some event going on related to the schools, we were there."
Despite the challenges, Lamprecht and Retson said working with public schools, teachers and the community is a rewarding experience.
"The act of service, for me, is rewarding in its own," Lamprecht said. "It was rewarding when we gave out scholarships to students this year for the Garcia Festival. That was rewarding. I know that there's one kid now who is less concerned and less nervous about the future. If just one small little act can do that, then that's rewarding for me."