NORTH BERWICK — Noble High School senior Mike Lavigne holds up the wooden neck of a guitar-in-progress, explaining how sanding the edges affects the vibration of the strings. Grabbing an unfinished guitar body, he rattles off the science behind the magnetic pickup and throws in a bit on sound wave theory.
For Dave and Sandy Perloff, who listen intently to his jazzy riff on how to build a guitar, Lavigne’s voice alone is the sound of success.
The Perloffs are here on one of their twice-yearly visits to the class, which they funded through their Perloff Family Foundation.
Over the last 13 years, the Perloffs have given almost $1 million to such projects through more than 520 small grants to teachers throughout Maine. Dave Perloff, an executive in the semiconductor industry, said he approaches their grant-making as if every project is a startup company.
“We really want to be in the school, meeting the teacher and seeing the students,” he said.
What sets them apart from many educational grant-makers is their unorthodox approach, said Pam Cleghorn, senior program officer for the Maine Community Foundation, which administers the Perloff Family Foundation grants.
The Perloffs don’t have a traditional application process. Instead, they decide which geographic region to fund, and the teachers there are invited to submit simple, one-page applications for as much as $3,000 for any project they like.
The process is short on red tape and long on accountability, which is why the couple visit each grant recipient twice a year. They commute coast to coast every two weeks anyway, between their home in Maine and their primary residence in Los Altos Hills, Calif. Dave Perloff, 71, estimates that they drive 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year visiting schools across Maine.
“That’s the fun part,” Sandy Perloff said. “We want to see the kids doing what they’re doing.”
Their hands-on approach means they don’t have to rely on long applications or a lot of paperwork. “We know what’s happening,” he said. “We really understand where it’s working or not.”
That works for the teachers too, said Alan Carp, a math and science teacher who oversees a greenhouse project at Kennebunk High School that was funded by the Perloff foundation. He said the application process was simple, the grant was approved quickly and he has had regular feedback from the couple.
“The Perloffs are by far the best and easiest to work with,” said Carp, whose fully automated, solar-powered greenhouse has webcams and weather stations. “They want to talk to the students and they’re really involved. They’ve been out twice since September, and they’re coming back in January and they want to see progress when they come.”
WIDE RANGE OF PROJECTS FUNDED
While many of the Perloff grants are geared toward science, technology, engineering and math, they have funded a range of projects. Their funds have gone to purchase everything from snowshoes to 3D printers for classroom projects. Over the years, they have funded:
• An algae-to-biodiesel project.
• A maple tree mapping project, with students later tapping the trees and producing maple syrup.
• A greenhouse in Perry that provides food for the school, with enough left over to sell at a farm stand whose profits raise funds for the project.
• 3D printers at seven schools.
• An archery project.
• A portable puppet stage for an elementary school in Mars Hill.
Sandy Perloff admits to having some favorites, like the special-education class that got money to buy a cash register to learn math while the students operated a small rolling cart as a school store, selling pencils, erasers and similar items.
“I have seldom seen so much math worked into what kids are doing,” she said. “We seeded them a couple of hundred dollars and by the end of the year, they had made a $1,200 profit.”
Another favorite is Children’s Stage Adventure. Two actors and a trailer full of costumes and sets arrive at a rural school for a week of training, with the school putting on a play on the fifth day. The Perloffs have funded about 25 schools for Children’s Stage Adventure.
They like to start something and move on, leaving the school or community to support a project or find a way to continue supporting it and demonstrate its educational value. Programs like the guitar-making class and the school store project now fund themselves.
Not every project works, they admit. A boat-building project at one school limped over the finish line because the students didn’t feel they had any sense of ownership, they said.
ROBOTICS PROGRAMS HAVE HIGH IMPACT
Last year, the Perloffs launched a grant called STEM4ME to provide $5,000 in three-year grants for science, technology, engineering and math projects. They also have aggressively funded robotics projects, which can be started quickly once kits are purchased. They now fund 70 robotics projects.
Robotics is exciting because it taps into a desire to fund STEM projects, it’s not gender-specific and it’s “not necessarily the straight-A brains that do best in it,” Sandy Perloff said. “They work with their hands and you need to have creative thinking.”
It can change the culture of a school, they said.
When they started the robotics programs, “the girls were on the perimeter,” Sandy Perloff said. “Now look at the girls,” said Dave Perloff, showing a picture from a school where girls were prominently shown at the computer and waiting in line to test their robots.
It can also prompt school officials to take off with an idea. At Oxford Hills Middle School, the Perloffs funded the first robotics class five years ago. This year, every seventh- and eighth-grader will have robotics included in their curriculum.
TEACHERS A PRIORITY FOR GRANTS
Sometimes the Perloffs come in when they hear of a special need.
King Middle School in Portland, for example, was poised to cut back its robotics program recently because of funding difficulties. The Perloffs stepped in to help, with a requirement that every kit they bought be matched by a kit funded some other way, from a business or the school district. In the end, the Perloffs funded 10 kits and the robotics program was back to full strength.
“We try to be really nimble,” Dave Perloff said. “We don’t have to start everything.”
The Perloffs make it a point to target teachers and individual classrooms for their grants.
“I see the teachers as the priority,” Sandy Perloff said. “You are empowering them with a small amount of money, and the money goes directly to the teachers, not the district.”
In North Berwick, for example, the Perloffs provided the money last year to send the school’s math and physics teachers to training to make guitars, and to buy the first batch of guitar-making kits through a National Science Foundation-backed program.
More than a dozen students and guitars later, the program is mostly self-sufficient. The school either sells the finished guitars to the students who made them or auctions them off. It uses the money to buy the next round of kits.
Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at: