When two teachers at Millstone River School had a remarkable idea to create a milkweed habitat for butterflies in the school courtyard, their plans did not fall within the standard parameters covered by the school budget. Unthwarted, the teachers applied for a grant from the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the schools. Founded in 1995, the group has awarded over $100,"000 in grants to support more than 115 innovative projects.
“Most of the school budget is paying for curriculum requirements and personnel and staff, the very people who make this district excellent,” says Marcia Smith Fleres of Plainsboro, the newly appointed executive director of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Foundation. Acknowledging that parents, as taxpayers, are already writing checks that funnel funds into the school system, she explains that the foundation goes a step beyond. “We’re here to support and enhance the programs, enhance the excellence. It’s not only what the school does, it’s also what the parents and the foundation do.
It takes a village to raise a child; it’s not 100 percent the school district’s responsibility.”
The Millstone River project, in which students worked together to build a garden and develop an appropriate habitat for monarch catepillars to flourish, also incorporated concepts of ecology, biodiversity, and even history (one teacher wove in a lesson about teamwork, using the westward expansion and the intercontinental railroad as an example).
Grant approval is competitive, and the foundation is particularly drawn to programs that are “cutting edge, programs that try new things, that take risks, that give teachers the opportunity to be creative and innovative,” says Fleres. She brings to her paid part-time position a distinctive career encompassing the fields of alcohol and drug counseling, education, and nonprofit consulting, marketing, and grant writing.
Grants are awarded to a wide range of programs, such as Kids Loving Kids, in which students in High School North’s Academy Program are bused to Cherry Tree, a preschool for homeless children, where the high schoolers act as mentors, reading to and interacting with the youngsters. “The students benefit because they are helping kids, feeling part of their community, and feeling good about themselves,” says Fleres. Other programs, like Maurice Hawk Elementary School’s Learning Science with Tadpoles, for first graders, focus on creative hands-on learning experiences.
Fleres was born in New York City and grew up in Leonia, New Jersey. A graduate of Rutgers College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she received her M.B.A. from the Rutgers Graduate School of Management.
She and her husband, Tony, a civil engineer with URS Corporation in Newark, have lived in Plainsboro since 1993 and have two children — Mark, 10, a fifth grader at Millstone River School, and Amanda, 6, a first grader at Town Center Elementary School.
Fleres previously served as a counselor in alcohol programs at Raritan Bay Medical Center and Northern Community Hospital, a faculty member at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, and an education and prevention coordinator at the former Middlesex Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse. From 1981 to 1998 she was executive director of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of Middlesex County.
In 1998, when her daughter turned one, Fleres made the decision to take a hiatus from working professionally. In 2001 she served as the president of the Village School PTA and the following year became the founding PTA president at Town Center School. She is a member of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Municipal Alliance on Drug and Alcohol Abuse and a trained parent facilitator of the Parent Leadership Corps, a substance abuse prevention program. She is also a core team member of the school district’s Strategic Planning 2004 committee.
“I love children, education, prevention, advocacy, and working with a wide variety of groups to make our community a better place,” she says. “Excellence in education is a value. The bigger the foundation can be, the more we can do.”