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New boss for education group

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Saturday July 06, 2002

After 19 years as executive director of Berkeley’s Public Education Foundation, Mary Friedman is calling it quits. Friedman will retire Aug. 1 and pass the reins to Trina Ostrander, the foundation’s current associate director. Ostrander will now guide the organization that started with $4,000 in donations in 1983 and distributed $700,000 throughout Berkeley public schools last year. 

“In the beginning, our ambition was to ask an ever-widening circle of friends to contribute the private funds that would give our teachers the basic resources – books, crayons, petri dishes – that suddenly there was no budget for,” Friedman said. 

“But before we knew it, we were being asked to provide all kinds of support, and a dedicated community of contributors was forming that enabled us to keep working harder and setting our sights higher.” 

The foundation’s accomplishments include a founding role in the Berkeley High School Health Center in the early 1990s, a $300,000 rescue of the district’s elementary school music program in the mid 1990s and a $1.3 million contribution to help construct the new Columbus Elementary School, now called Rosa Parks.  

Community leaders say Friedman will be missed. 

“She’s been such a pillar of support for public education,” said Terry Doran, school board member. But, he added that Ostrander will be an able leader of the foundation. 

“It’s in good hands,” Doran said. “I think Ostrander’s vision of what the organization can accomplish is as enlightened as Mary’s. At the same time, they’ll be hard shoes to fill.” 

Ostrander said Friedman, who will continue to serve as Executive Director Emerita, is leaving behind a formidable organization. More importantly, she said, Friedman is leaving the city with a belief in the power of public education. 

“The whole community, largely because of Mary’s tenacity and vision, feels we can make our schools work,” Ostrander said. 

Friedman said a group of Berkeley education leaders, including then-school board President Steve Lustig, launched the foundation in 1983 in response to the voters’ passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, which capped property taxes and reduced education funding, and a series of elementary school closings in Berkeley in the early 1980s. 

Friedman got involved in 1984 and soon took the leading role in the small organization. She does not recall exactly when she became executive director. But, Friedman says, with a laugh, she probably assumed the title when the foundation printed its first stationary and had to affix a title to her name. 

“At the point in time when she became our executive director, we’d had a good start, but things had slowed down,” said Allan C. Miller, outgoing chairman of the foundation’s board. “Mary just picked up the energy and everything the foundation has become is a result of her leadership.” 

The organization’s signature program in its early years was its Classroom Grants to Teachers effort. That program is still a hallmark of the foundation today. Last year, the group gave $160,000 to individual teachers to support field trips, literacy projects, school gardens and more. 

Friedman said a belief in the power of teachers has animated the grants program. 

“There are so many reasons why children don’t succeed. But I really believe a great teacher can overcome many of these obstacles,” she said. “I think teachers are the heroes of our society.” 

In 1991, the foundation launched the Berkeley School Volunteers program, hiring director Barbara Bowman in 1992. Last year, that initiative produced 46,000 hours of volunteer time in the schools. 

At the same time, the foundation raised some $50,000 in construction funds for the high school health center. 

“That was our first project that took us beyond the classroom,” Friedman said. 

The foundation followed that effort with a $1.3 million campaign that resulted in an additional pre-school room, a science lab, a family resource center and improved athletic facilities at Columbus Elementary School. 

The foundation also raised $300,000 to pay for the elementary school music program in 1994-1995. Funding cuts would have eliminated the program that year without the stop-gap funding. The Berkeley Schools Excellence Project - - a special local tax - - began paying for the program the following year. 

As the new executive director, Ostrander said she will work to maintain the strong classroom grants and volunteer programs, while focusing on large scale programs. 

Ostrander said landscaping projects, library supplies, support for the district’s early literacy push and a teacher training fund, named in Friedman’s honor, are all possibilities. She emphasized that she wants to talk to teachers and administrators to see where the foundation might best concentrate its efforts. 

Friedman said the foundation’s large projects mark some of her proudest moments. But she has taken particular pleasure in providing small grants to programs that have grown, like the garden program throughout the district and the Parent Resource Center at the high school. 

“The way the foundation has been most successful is through small grants, giving great ideas the time to germinate,” Friedman said.