It all started over 170 years ago when the first school opened in Marion Township in 1841 on the north side of 7th Avenue. It was a simple log building surrounded by tall prairie grass with Mr. Higbee as the sole teacher. A four-room, two-story Union School opened 13 years later in 1854 and was Marion’s first public school offering primary, elementary, and secondary classes. In 1860, Marion Independent School District was formed as the fourth school district in the state of Iowa.
It wasn’t until 1872 that Marion graduated its first class of three female students. Those ladies came back together five years later to hold the first class reunion on May 24, 1877. Established by Superintendent J.W. McClellan, the newly registered Marion Alumni Association hosted a reunion with 70 alumni at Jaquith Hall on May 28, 1879, and became the first alumni association in the state of Iowa.
The Alumni Association has continued for the past 140 years to be a single point of contact for all graduates of Marion Independent School District and a place they can return to in order to learn more about the history of Marion schools and stay connected with other alumni. The Alumni Association maintains a database that includes almost 12,000 records of graduates dating back to the first class in 1872.
In 1988, at the request of Superintendent Harold Hulleman, a group of MISD supporters formed a group to begin researching how to form a school foundation with the primary purpose of helping the students of Marion. The goal was to provide opportunities for students not typically funded by the school district. After a year of planning, led by Greg Hapgood, 13 leaders from the community signed their names to be the first trustees of the Marion Independent School Foundation on November 15, 1989. The first projects were small, but thanks to the financial support of generous donors the Foundation began to grow.
In 1994, the Foundation’s Board of Trustees hired its first Executive Director to lead the charge in raising $300,000 for Project CONNECT. The goal was to focus efforts on one large fundraising campaign to support educational enhancement at Marion. Technology and its use in education were making a substantial impact and Marion wanted to be on the forefront of this movement.
The goal of Project CONNECT was to install a fiber optic network in all school buildings, and thus enable classrooms to connect to the Iowa Communication Network. This campaign was extremely successful, both in raising the necessary funds and in developing awareness in the community of the Foundation and its mission.
Capitalizing on public awareness, the Foundation grew from focusing its efforts on specific fundraising projects to supporting a wide range of projects aimed at enhancing the educational experience of Marion students.
Thanks to a generous gift from Mary Anne White, the Jay White Educational Enhancement Fund was established and has funded dozens of district programs and projects over the years. It became an early framework for the grant programs currently available to staff. Other areas of support grew to include a number of scholarship funds and other educational funds.
In 1999, the Marion Fund was established to provide an internal granting program for teachers. During its first year, $25,000 was distributed throughout the district to support expanded curriculum and technology. As time went on, grants have also been distributed to support summer camps, programming for at-risk students, and much more.
A pivotal moment came in 2006 when John Nelson, a 1935 graduate of Marion High School and life-long Marion resident left the largest gift in the Foundation’s history. Foundation Vice President Greg Van Gorp ’78 remembers, “That gift was a game-changer because it came with no strings attached. Since then, it has allowed us to fund a wide range of projects at all grade levels.”
Long-time Trustee Doreen Zumwalt is a Marion alum and mother to two graduates and knows first-hand the important role of the Foundation & Alumni Association. “Having raised more than $2.1 million dollars for the district over the past thirty years has made a significant impact on our students and community. It is exciting to think of the many ways additional support can advance our students.”
That is why at the start of this year, the Foundation announced that it is expanding grant offerings in the district. The Foundation will continue to keep its largest pool of funds available for classroom needs with an annual spring application process but has added three new grant areas with funding that is available year-round.
One of those grants is for staff professional development. Foundation Trustees saw the need for this type of funding when sponsoring a portion of the MISD Summer Institute, a two-day district-led training in August that was open to all staff. The Grant Committee will consider applications for conferences and trainings that the district hosts internally as well as those hosted outside the district.
The other grant applications include options for a field trip and guest speaker requests, and funding of school groups or clubs. All grant applications will continue to be reviewed by a Grant Committee consisting of former teachers, alumni, parents and community members, and require the approval of building and district administrators.
Executive Director Erin Steffen stated, “The Foundation is so grateful to the MISD community for the continued support over the past thirty years. These new grant opportunities are a way for us to continue to move forward supporting education in Marion.”