April 30, 2010

Pepsi Grant Winner: Mitchell Middle School's Wendt teaches an empowering lesson

Mitchell Middle School science teacher Kim Wendt sees her school just won a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh grant. Wendt led efforts at the school to secure the money, which will be used to remodel science rooms built in 1974.

Kim Wendt heard "No" many times over the past three months. The Mitchell Middle School science teacher ignored every one of them.

No, she couldn't convince her colleagues to tear down the walls between their classrooms. No, the construction work wasn't possible. No, she couldn't enter the Pepsi Refresh Project to compete for $50,000. No, she couldn't raise the money needed to organize a campaign. No, she couldn't get enough votes to win the grant.

All those "No's" made for an emphatic "Yes!" Friday night as the competition ended and Mitchell Middle School won $50,000 to remodel science rooms built in 1974. The project, first imagined by Wendt in February, finished third in the voting for the Pepsi Refresh contest; the Top 10 projects received money.

Friday night's contest deadline brought to end a frantic marketing and voting campaign led by Wendt, her colleagues and students, Racine area residents and even people around the country and across the world.

Wendt got started when she heard that Pepsi had decided to skip placing Super Bowl ads this year and spend the $20 million on a social media campaign that would award grants to nonprofit organizations that compete for money throughout the year. Anyone could enter a project, which would be voted on by visitors to the Pepsi Refresh website.

Wendt immediately saw the contest as a marketing challenge. Already a creative designer -- she painted her science classroom lime green and her students' chairs bright pink -- Wendt knew how she wanted to rework Mitchell's science department. She just needed to convince others it was a good idea.

One of Mitchell Middle School's science rooms. Wendt's plan is to knock down the far wall and 
create an open space for classrooms and a student laboratory. 

Some were initially skeptical of tearing down walls between their classrooms and replacing them with glass cubes. But they, like most people associated with the project, came around to Wendt's idea. 

Her vision is to create a modern science learning center at Mitchell with space for students to conduct experiments, work on computers and hone reading and writing skills. The plan, as drawn, will require expensive structural changes. A cash-strapped Racine Unified doesn't have money to spend on projects like this, and even if they did, Mitchell would have to compete with the needs at other district schools. Instead, of waiting for the district, Wendt decided to raise the money herself. 

She got Racine Unified's facilities manager to go along with the plan with a passionate plea that even included a few tears. After initially saying, "No way," the manager changed his mind and promised her it would happen.  

Students voting after school on Friday in the Mitchell Middle School computer lab. 

With a plan in place, Wendt launched a nonstop, all-out marketing campaign that rallied students, teachers and plain old school supporters in favor of the project. Wendt, who titled the project "Construction for Instruction," started by distributing postcards, pencils and T-shirts to everyone she could think of. A school dance fundraiser helped pay for the supplies, but Wendt also bought the supplies out of her own pocket.

The message was simple: Mitchell had a chance to win $50,000 to rebuild its science rooms, and all people had to do was visit a website and click to vote. It was free, quick and easy - she just had to let people know.

Wendt's plan was to submit the proposal to compete in March, but projects from all over the country overwhelmed the Pepsi Refresh website and prevented her from entering. Wendt took her project straight to the Pepsi Refresh officials and pleaded with them to include the project. They relented and personally entered the project for April.

Word spread as marketing materials got around. Mitchell staff and students started to vote, and soon families and teachers in other Racine schools joined in. Wendt and her students sent a three-minute DVD explaining the project to 50 area businesses, and businesses responded by encouraging employees to vote. The project's Facebook page took off and people all over the country joined in.

Wendt was the driving force. She relentlessly sold the project to anyone who would listen. She even convinced the flight attendants on her flights to and from Los Angeles to let her make a mid-air pitch for remodeling the science rooms. While in Los Angeles, a friend scored tickets to American Idol and Wendt spent the entire show handing out pencils to people in the crowd and trying to convince family members of the performers to get the performers to mention the project on the show.

The only downturn in support for the Mitchell project came during Spring Break when students were away from their school computers. They stopped voting for nine days, and the project slipped to eighth place. Once the students, and Wendt, were back in school, they regained momentum and avoided slipping out of the Top 10.

On Friday, the final day of the April competition, Wendt's project sat in third place. Students rallied after school to make their last votes. Excitement crackled through the computer lab and lunch room, where sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders sat at computers and tracked the results. Other students met during lunch hours and voted at home. Their efforts are inspiring because they're empowering. At a time when schools are out of money, here was a group of teachers and students doing more than complaining. Following Wendt's lead, they weren't accepting no. 

Friday evening, Wendt stared at her iBook waiting for the competition's 11 p.m. deadline. She refreshed her browser and the screen flipped - voting was done. Mitchell finished in third place and won the $50,000 grant. Wendt now has to fill out paperwork, finalize plans for construction, which will happen this summer.  

And Wendt isn't done. She has a binder full of grant opportunities for schools and teachers, and she's thinking about pursuing another Pepsi Refresh grant (there's no limit on how many a school or school district can win) in August to do more work on Mitchell's science rooms. 

Here's some background on the project: 

In other rounds of the competition, a project to fund an alternative cancer treatment with no side effects,  and one to rebuild an elementary school destroyed by mine subsidence in rural Illinois were each on track to receive $250,000 awards. In all, Pepsi is giving away $1.3 million each month. A new round of project competition will begin Saturday. For a quick look at all the winners, go here.

Here are the ten winning projects in Mitchell's category:
1. Preservation of a one-screen movie theater in Rosendale, NY.

2. Buy Smart Boards for the Lone Star School in Sapulpa, OK.

3. Redesign and revamp science classrooms built in 1974 at the Mitchell Middle School in Racine.

4. Give 100 children with disabilities AmTryke therapeutic tricycles.

5. Save one of the nation's first Cub Scout camps from being shut down. Anthony DiNicola, who suffers from cerebral palsy, attended Camp Tadma in Bozrah, CT, as a child, and says, "I am now trying to save the camp that saved me."

6. Install multiple wind turbines in the Waukee, IA, School District.

7. Provide 200 music scholarships to the Hudson Valley Youth Wind Ensembles in Poughkeepsie, NY.

8. Engage thousands of high school teachers in teen suicide prevention.

9. Open the KIDDS Center for Youth Development and Performing Arts for elementary and middle school children in Lithonia, GA.

10. Provide an after-school program in foreign language instruction for disadvantaged public school students in New York City.
And, just in case you were wondering: The project that just missed getting funding, winding up in 11th place, was one to save lemurs by by building a new tour path, at the Duke Lemur Center in Southern Pines, NC.


  1. Congratulations! Go get em.

  2. How inspiring! Can't wait to see it finished

  3. THANK YOU to everyone who made this possible, Racine Post, Racine Journal Times, Channel 12 & 4, WRJN, PTA, staff, students, friends and family. A big thank you to my parents for their unending love and dedication and my husband for his patience. A final shout out to all you Chi Omegas out there from ALL over the nation (especially at Carthage College!!) who voted for us each day. Ben Gil, Big House, Golightly, & White Bluffs, your unending support was appreciated and CONGRATS TO YOU TOOO!! WE DID IT!!

  4. Congratulations Kim and Mitchell School! Very proud of you guys for all the work it took to win this. You're an inspiration to everyone.

  5. It teaches crowd sourcing and how social media can be used.
    Something that the PIO should be using vs helping take over CAR 25

  6. We work with Kim and we know first hand how amazing she is. RUSD, Mitchell Middle, and the city of Racine are so lucky to have her as a teacher.
    Thanks Kim for a great job.
    Bill and Joan Ticha

  7. Rex Rukavina5/01/2010 7:06 AM

    Kim is one of many amazing teachers at Mitchell Middle School where great things are happening every day! It has been a joy to support her and see, once again, another fine example of the dedication and drive from a teacher who cares about her students and school. I can only imagine the amount of time and energy this took on her part behind the scenes - what a fantastic job well done! Congrats, Kim!! You are making a difference!

  8. Can anyone tell me what the status of the Solar Panels are at Walden School? Is the money from selling the power going to the Green School as we were told it would or to the black hole called RUSD?

  9. Leslie Jensen5/01/2010 8:18 AM

    Congratulations Kim! We know who to count on when things need to get done. This accomplishment is amazing and inspirational to all the students and staff at Mitchell Middle School. We are truly luck to have such great teachers that go above and beyond.

  10. Congrats. Your students, co-workers and maybe even some on this blog have all learned something from you. Dedication, hard work and passion are the keys to success. There are no short cuts to winning. Great job!

    Curt Foreman

  11. Congratulations Kim and Mitchell students - i am SO excited for you.

  12. Congrats to Kim and the school. To all the negative people in Racine I hope you see that good things are happening here. While the bad things get most of the press coverage there are a lot of good things that gets over looked by the press but still happen.

  13. Heather in Caledonia5/01/2010 1:04 PM

    Way to go! Looking forward to seeing updates on the project in the Post.

  14. Thank you Kim for taking this project on and doing something to improve one of RUSD's schools. This is a fantastic idea and a great way to get the students involved in improving their school and giving them an opportunity to rally the community for support. I'd love to see pics of the construction and finished classrooms on Racine Post throughout the summer. Thanks again Kim - this is awesome!

  15. paul & kathy waitzman5/01/2010 5:13 PM

    hurray, hurrah. way to go kim. especially liked the pic. at buckets! lol yea! yea! kathy & paul

  16. Awesome job Kim5/01/2010 11:31 PM

    congrats Kim and Mitchel. Now lets hope the Union doesn't screw this up. Remember this is for the kids. However it needs to get done, union or non-union employees get it done.

  17. Congratulations. I came in late on the voting but after I noticed it I made a point of voting every day. Good thing I look at the Post to keep track of what is going on in Racine from Indiana.

  18. It's weird to me that Kim doesn't even MENTION Pepsi for making this happen!!!

  19. I'm sorry that I forgot to mention them. I have a teacher's brain, my thoughts are always on my students and what I can do for them. The rest of my train of thought has been thanking all the staff, families and the community who helped make this happen. Pepsi is offering a great opportunity and I in addition to many are appreciative, but the true thanks goes to those who voted. Pepsi didn't just hand over the money- countless days, nights and hours were spent campaigning, calling and emailing to make this a reality and Pepsi was the core of all of it. This process taught me just how powerful social marketing can be. I can guarantee Pepsi benefited from the marketing they received not only from me all month but the many other people working 24/7 promoting both Pepsi and their project. I should also thank GlobalGiving as they are the organization, as I learned, that are a behind the scenes part of this program. I tell you one thing I can't see myself buying a Coke anytime soon.

  20. Congrats from the Walden III PTSA

  21. Now get back to teaching!