Biggest Threat is our Principal - Please Help!

Hello FIRST Community!

FRC Team 1584,, was founded 11 years ago. Although we have never had faculty or financial support at our small mountain school in Colorado, we have always had enough student interest to field a team. This year we had 13 students, though 6 of them were part time, splitting their time between FRC and other extracurricular activities. Three mentors from the rookie year are still fully committed, even though one mentor never had any kids, one didn’t have any kids do FRC, and another mentor’s kid did FRC for 3 years, and has been out of high school for 8 years. We obviously believe in FIRST, and we know the students appreciate and benefit from it.

So, our biggest threat ever came our new principal, who ripped up our FRC registration fee check, and tried to end our team by cutting off access to our funds. No notice or discussions with anybody. Luckily, one of our mentors is well connected to the district administration, and we got our money back. Then he tried to take the varsity letter away from robotics, which was also reversed by his bosses, but why would a principal do those things? Anyway, we did the 2015 build season for Recycle Rush, and are ready for our regional event next week.

I did confront the principal about his actions at 2 different public meetings. In the first meeting he evaded the question and then when I asked again he told me to stop bullying him. All I did was ask why he tried to end the robotics team. In the second meeting he gave the explanation for trying to end the robotics team because it cost him a coach fee out of his budget in order for someone on our team to get a key for access to the school. I since learned that fee is $600–obviously a horrible excuse to end a FRC team, and I don’t believe the real reason. If he literally didn’t have $600, we had over $14K saved from our fundraising, and could have easily paid for a coach ourselves. I don’t think we really know why he tried to end our team, yet.

The opportunity is, Boulder County passed a bond, and between the elementary school and the middle/senior high school there will be ~$13M invested over the next ~2 years. Most of that goes into expensive stuff like roofs, HVAC, facility layout, etc, but there is an estimated $4M in discretionary funds that the principals get to invest however they want. As of right now there are no considerations made for a decent workshop or any machines or tools at the high school. What the principal is lobbying for is an outdoor dome for more sports’ space. The principal has proven he does not value “applied STEM”, (which is a term I use instead of robotics when speaking with people who don’t really understand FIRST).

What I need is some hard and soft data to sell the value of FIRST to the principal, the school district, the board of education, the community, and the students. It is our team’s fantasy that we get a curriculum integrated into elementary and the middle-senior high schools, using FIRST as a key component of it. Most other schools in our district use that exact model, and they have machine shops, and teachers who are passionate about applied STEM and FIRST. This principal was a sports coach for years, so that helps to explain some of his actions. It appears legal and normal to give principals this much power, so my optimistic nature is being tested, because a principal trying to end a self-sufficient and successful FRC team just doesn’t make sense.

My questions are, what are the best online resources to sell FIRST to people who don’t know much about it and probably won’t spend more than a few minutes researching it?

I envision some teams’ websites would have what I am looking for, so are there any recommendations?

What else might motivate people to value applied STEM more than they do today?

Have any teams created surveys for their FIRST alumni, or their communities, or K - 12 students, that they would be willing to share either the form and/or the data?

In lieu of finding a survey or data that is ready to use, would the FIRST community be open to filling out a survey, the data from which will be shared with all teams?

The success stories every team has are valuable, so has anybody tried to break it down into a ROI or some other way to quantify and qualify the value?

Our team can try to do all of this from scratch, but of course the school district gave us only 2 weeks before a key deadline, which is why I am asking the larger FIRST community.

Any other ideas for how we can create that change, in light of the biggest threat our team has ever had, the principal? We would rather work with him to build and expand an applied STEM program together, because if it is a fight we won’t have a chance, and our team is doomed.

Thank you for your consideration,
Scott Jewell
Mentor, FRC Team 1584

Have you looked through what FIRST publishes? Might have some good starting points.

I personally would not confront him anymore and take it to the school board. But that’s just my opinion on the matter.

I think this would be the best course of action.

IMHO, it all comes down to: What does FIRST do for the Student?

While Sports helps Students to be well rounded, very few students use Sports to get ahead in life (how many kids from your school got into college because of their athletic abilities?).

Try doing this study: For the 10 years prior to having a FIRST team, where did students go to college?

Since FIRST, where have team members gone to college? What have those kids gone on to do?

Your school’s guidance office should have information on where graduates have gone onto college. Finding out what they are doing now is more difficult.

See if you can show something like: Prior to FIRST, no kids went to a top 20 STEM school. After FIRST, 10% of your team went on to top 20 STEM schools, and 60% went on to major in STEM fields. Statistics like that boosts the School’s standing, and supports continued investment in the FIRST program.

Note: Is your High School 144 Students? Almost 10% of your school participates? That fact alone should carry a lot of weight.

Has she/he seen your work. Sometimes just driving the robot around a school can really make people realize the magnitude of first. This sounds like a superintendent contact situation to me. Its funny the only admin in our district who really cares is our superintendent. One of our ap’s also supports us; but the superintendent often comes to our room to talk to us and watch us work. The principal sounds very power hungry and also sounds like someone who would rather have a winning sports team then a group of students going to mit. If you market first as sports to him he may come around more but thats a risky one.

I would speak to the superintendent and I would drive the robot around the school (preferably a 2012-2014 robot) this year was a great engineering challenge but doesnt give the wow factor those 3 games gave.

Also on another note how did you get 14k fundraising? please pm me your secrets

As far as selling first to the school or the board make an active effort to get the students to go after as many scholarships as possible. Over $16 mil is out there for the taking.

Think about it, if you have hard numbers of how robotics “pays” the school it’s hard to argue back!

It’s over $20 million now.

Invite the Principle and the Superintendent to the Colorado regional using the VIP program. If you can get the boss to go maybe you can get the Principal to go. That may help you out.

We are not too far down the road from you. Robotics netted our school $600,000 this year, not including our team’s fundraising activities to cover normal expenses. We would be happy to share with your principal and community the value of the program if you like. Send me a pm.

Invite the Principal, teachers and district administration to the Colorado Regional on Saturday. If they’ve never attended a Regional, they will be amazed at the magnitude of the event.

Also, contact your Regional Director (Dawn Lutz [email protected]) to see if a “VIP” tour can be arranged for them at the event.

Suggestion from my experience as a 17 year lead mentor, FRC Regional Planning Committee Co-Chair, and high school engineering instructor. Prepare by reading this: NCAA Study. Then download and read this Brandeis University Study

Then formulate a presentation highlighting the importance of a balance of traditional and “hands-on” education (your ‘applied STEM’) with sports. Your thoughts to work with the Principal should be kept up front as “buy-in” from this individual is a top priority. Make sure you understand what the principal’s point of view is as well, with an open mind. Ask many questions.

Seek community support from alumni, parents, sponsors, board members and make sure that they are all using a similar message - FIRST is a fantastic program for instructing students to use their minds and hands to learn tangible, transferable skills.
Best of luck! It is worth the effort!

The best answer here would have been something like “OK, if you stop bullying the team.” Maybe not the most politic, but I would have loved to been at that “Harper Valley PTA” meeting.

As a bottom line, it sounds like the team is at least financially capable of operating independently of the school. I recommend that you set yourself up to do just that in case things go further downhill, while continuing to try to make things work within the school framework.

When our team formed just a few years ago, some of the more fail-safe thinking founding mentors (NASA and NAVY employees, mostly) decided to legally create a “booster club”. This club is incorporated to be legally and financially independent of the school, apart from the statement in our charter which specifies that should we disband, any remaining funds in the club will be provided to the school; this, along with other statements in our charter and by-laws, qualifies us to be a 501 © (3) educational corporation. The great majority of our team’s donors actually contribute to the booster club; I believe that only our government-agency sponsors give directly to our school account. We have enjoyed ever-increasing support from our sports-centric school administration, and our principal has turned the corner and understands us to be a sport rather than a club. We have no intention of ever becoming separate from the school! On the other hand, we have the means to do so should the situation change. Our three biggest dependencies on the school are (in approximate decreasing order of importance):

  • “Field Trip” absence excuse for competition
  • build and practice space
  • A community in which to recruit members

We know that 1912 (whose schools are located in the same zip code as ours) managed to survive many years in a rather hostile school environment; they used sponsor-provided build space and had to recruit covertly.

The bottom line is that if the will and dedication are strong enough, a team business plan can be engineered to be strong in the face of adversity, just as a robot can.

I would, warn however, that schools tend to get upset when robotics teams separate, especially in some hostile situations. I’ve heard of schools taking possession of all tools and robots in the build space as well as seizing of all funds because of this. It’s just a caution to expect that kind of thing if you choose to separate.

I spoke with a teacher here in Houston who was running FLL programs and was having trouble with the school administration (probably not as bad as you are having). She did have a lot of interest from the students and parents. She was able to get the parents to organize and lobby the school and demonstrate their high level of interest. Fortunately, the message got through and the school changed it’s mind. At that time I spoke with her, she was only teaching robotics classes and was looking for a teacher to take over teaching some of those classes so she could return to her original job at the school, teaching biology. I hope your team can have a “happy ending” something like this one too.

At the end of the day it is better to make a friend than to win a war. It seems you already have an adversarial relationship. Maybe find a mutual friend that could find out what the real issues the principal has & address them?

The problem with property and separating the team for the school is the club (teams) property actually belongs to the school in many cases regardless where the funds actually came from. Public schools especially have rules they have to follow in disposing of excess property.

My recommendations, which have helped us:

1.) Start a 501©3. If you’re small-budget (<$50k) and low-scope, they’re fairly straightforward to do along the lines of a high school band. Even if there isn’t a conflict with school administration, having a self-controlled account can help remove roadblocks to things like outreach when the school is unable to deliver on time.

2.) Coming back with any kind of technical success at the Regional could help the principal see some immediate impact. Work your relationships early on Thursday and figure out what niche your team can fill which would make you a lock as a pick for elims. I definitely agree that the principal should attend.

3.) Lobby the community with hard facts on your team’s alumni: % of kids who have graduated college and have a steady job, etc. Leverage the FIRST scholarship availability vs sports. The community will back you if they see these numbers. you shouldn’t have to conflate them at all since they’re naturally a big draw.

4.) Once you’ve done 1-3, conflicting views with the principal could become inconsequential. The community will drive where the discretionary money is spent (or they’ll lobby for a new Principal) and you should have their backing. There are always parents who live vicariously through their kids (who also seem to have the loudest voices), but sheer volume of support will overcome that.

It sounds like you have gotten some good advice from the other posters. It seems like schools are usually lukewarm supporters of the robotics teams generally; but I have been fortunate to be associated with teams that were able to develop reasonable support. The main things I’ve seen that seemed to make a difference:

(1) Having the booster club as a 501©3 entity enables some flexibility. Many (maybe most) teams build out of garages and other non-school sites. The separate booster club enables you to have some independence. Some companies will only donate to the school. Still, there are several successful non-school teams that I know about - sponsored by Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and home-schoolers.

(2) If you can get the principal and other school administrators to come to a competition, that almost always turns their attitude around. In your case, it sounds like you may need to get to the real issue. Maybe it can be overcome easily, if you know what it is. It is better if you can work with the school, however. I’d also say don’t be perceived as a financial burden on the school.

(3) You can get the community on your side and get some PR for the school with some outreach activities. We do a lot of demos at companies, elementary schools, and shopping areas - featuring the school prominantly. (It also helps to win a few trophies - there are plenty of categories.)

Persuation and demonstration seem to work better than confrontation on these things.

I just want to echo something Philso said earlier: parents have a lot of power in swaying your school and school board’s opinions - their opinions probably have more weight than any FRC statistic you can pull up. Rally the troops!

You may also want to ask some of your sponsors to talk to the school board. They represent the community and I’m sure they have strong reasons from a business perspective on why they support your team. School boards usually listen to local businesses and could then nudge your principal in that direction.