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.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.
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.