The private-sector, wholly volunteer organization, founded in 1983, harnesses the willingness of individuals to invest time and effort for public schools and channels private contributions (including corporate and business gifts) to fund projects designed and submitted by teachers for use in the classroom.
The Culmination Day was the end of a year-long process required of every Tupelo High School graduate - a senior project presentation based on research, testing and implementation - and reviewed by evaluators chosen from the at-large community. More than 400 students demonstrated and explained their work in the BancorpSouth Arena. AEE provided the logistical and organizational support required for such a large undertaking.
AEE embodies the difference between successful and lackluster school districts: community interest and tangible support beyond the usual tax sources.
Organizations like AEE now operate in many other school districts, but AEE was a bellwether when it was formed 26 years ago. Its founders recognized that many good ideas for better learning could not be funded with available public resources. The logical source: the private sector. Individual membership dues are nominal, affordable for most families.
The larger revenue flow comes from corporate philanthropic gifts encouraged and solicited by AEE's volunteer corps. More than 500 total members give AEE the capacity to raise large sums annually - more than $2.6 million since 1983. Each year, $100,000 or more is invested in the special project grants, with all applications vetted by volunteer evaluators and approved by the Tupelo Public Schools' trustees.
The private finding empowers teachers to go beyond the ordinary in instruction, enriching students with special curriculums and topics beyond what's minimally required. In some cases, the classroom expands to "field trips" to see and experience firsthand the subjects discussed in a textbook setting.
While some skeptical national commentators minimize the positive effect of private philanthropy because school systems allegedly don't effectively use it, the difference with AEE is that its investment goes through the mesh of both private and public scrutiny.
Most students and parents touched by AEE projects affirm their worth, and certainly teachers appreciate the extra resources AEE provides.
Thousands of students have been provided opportunities beyond the average because of AEE's funding of teachers' creativity and talent.