Donors deliver $11 million in new funding to back Wisconsin educators

By Todd Finkelmeyer

Thanks to the generosity of its alumni and friends, the UW–Madison School of Education on Thursday night announced an $11 million investment to support Wisconsin educators.

These funds will extend the innovative UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge program; invest in the Early Career Teaching Institute; and bolster the vital work of the Teacher Education Center, which is being renamed the Mary T. Kellner Teacher Education Center.

Longtime UW–Madison supporters and alumni Mary and Ted Kellner are giving $7 million toward these efforts.

“The impact from these funds will be felt by educators, students, and families across Wisconsin for years to come,” said UW–Madison School of Education Dean Diana Hess, who leads the nation’s No. 1-ranked school of education. “I am so thankful for the ongoing support of the Kellners, and the generosity and vision of so many alumni and friends — including current and past members of our invaluable Board of Visitors. So much of what we do wouldn’t be possible without their support.”

Ted Kellner, Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, Dean Diana Hess and Mary Kellner
Ted Kellner (left-to-right), Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin, Dean Diana Hess, and Mary Kellner pose for a photo Thursday night at the Chazen Museum of Art. During the farewell celebration and dinner for Hess, Mnookin announced the $7 million gift from the Kellners to support educators. (Photo by Jack Ecke)

Mary Kellner, who earned her BS in elementary education from UW–Madison in 1968, started her career as a classroom teacher before pivoting to earn a master’s in guidance and counseling from UW–Milwaukee in 1978. She worked as a guidance counselor for the Grafton and the Mequon-Thiensville school districts in suburban Milwaukee, before pursuing and earning her doctor of education degree at Cardinal Stritch University in 2007.

Kellner conducted her dissertation work in a high-achieving public elementary school   in Milwaukee. She wanted to better understand the cultural aspects of leadership, collaboration, decision making, and caring and respect, and how they affected the school’s success. Kellner has spent most of the past two-plus decades volunteering and doing board work at numerous non-profit organizations such as Next Door, The Nehemiah Project, Schools That Can Milwaukee, City Forward Collective, Pathways High, and The I Have A Dream Foundation, to name a few. Additionally, she leads the Kelben Foundation, a family philanthropic organization dedicated to improving education and health outcomes, providing college scholarships, and more.

“Working with schools and children is a labor of love,” said Kellner, who noted that she first got involved helping out in the city by joining the Junior League of Milwaukee. The organization is dedicated to bringing change by empowering women and providing leadership training on how to impact communities.

“In Mequon where I live, my kids always had a great school system and great opportunities,” said Kellner. “I could see, unfortunately, the difference in what my kids were getting in school and what the kids in the city were not getting. That’s what drove me and when I decided that’s where I wanted to focus my efforts — on finding ways to provide a better education and more opportunities for children in Milwaukee and in Wisconsin. Supporting education is work that feeds my soul.”

Ted Kellner earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UW–Madison in 1969. He is co-founder (in 1980) and former chairman and chief executive officer of Fiduciary Management, Inc., of Milwaukee, an investment management firm.

The $11 million in new gifts — including the $7 million in support from the Kellners — will make a significant impact on educators in Wisconsin via:

Extending the Teacher Pledge

The UW–Madison School of Education Wisconsin Teacher Pledge, which first started supporting students in the fall of 2020, is being extended through the 2028-29 academic year thanks to $8 million in new support, including $4 million from the Kellners.

The donor-funded program is dedicated to strengthening Wisconsin’s educator workforce at a time when a nationwide teacher shortage continues to generate headlines and frustrate policymakers in search of solutions. The Teacher Pledge pays the equivalent of in-state tuition and fees, testing, and licensing costs for students who pledge to teach in any public or private school in Wisconsin for at least four years — or three years in high-need subject areas or school districts.

So far, 773 people have taken the Teacher Pledge, and during the current spring semester 354 Pledge alumni are now teaching in classrooms across 88 different Wisconsin public school districts and 14 private schools.

Tashia Morgridge
Tashia Morgridge announces the Teacher Pledge is being extended through the 2028-29 academic year during a campus farewell celebration for Hess Thursday evening at the Pyle Center. (Photo by Sarah Maughan)

Tashia Morgridge, a School of Education alumna and longtime supporter of the School and UW–Madison, along with her husband John, praised the leadership of Hess for making the Teacher Pledge a reality. Hess, who has served as dean since 2015, is stepping down from her position at the end of May.

“Diana’s mind works in creative, visionary ways and she has the great ability to bring ideas to fruition,” said Tashia Morgridge, a member of the School of Education’s Board of Visitors and one of the donors who made this Pledge extension possible. Morgridge made her comments and announced the Pledge extension during a campus farewell celebration for Hess Thursday evening at the Pyle Center.

Morgridge added: “And one of Diana’s most successful projects has been the Teacher Pledge, which falls into line with her desire to make sure everybody who wants to be a teacher can be a teacher. … One of the reasons we were able to raise these new funds was as a tribute to Diana.”

The Teacher Pledge won’t solve the teacher shortage by itself, but it is incentivizing students to enter the School’s teacher education programs; increasing the number of graduates who stay in Wisconsin to teach; and providing supports so graduates stay with teaching longer, among other goals.

Katie Swope, a first-generation college student who graduated in spring 2023, is now a Teacher Pledge alumna. Prior to graduating lasts spring she shared: “The Teacher Pledge has helped me in many different ways, but the financial assistance is incredibly helpful for someone who is supporting herself. … All the supports through the School of Education, including the Teacher Pledge, have made things much easier.” (Photo by Sarah Maughan)

“The Teacher Pledge is a dynamic program that will have a lasting impact on Wisconsin’s teacher workforce,” said alumna Susan Shannon Engeleiter, who has been a generous supporter of the School of Education, including the Teacher Pledge.

“The UW–Madison School of Education provided me with an exceptional education, and opened doors I couldn’t have even imagined as an undergraduate,” added Engeleiter, who holds degrees from both the School of Education (BS, 1974) and University of Wisconsin Law School (JD, 1981). “I am the product of a public education from K-12 through post-secondary, all in the state of Wisconsin. It is vital we continue to invest in our students, university, and state.”

To date, $33.3 million has been donated to support the Teacher Pledge, including a $5 million gift last spring from Susan and James Patterson that previously allowed the School to extend the program through the 2026-27 academic year and get a jumpstart on further extensions. In addition, all members of the School’s Board of Visitors have contributed to the Teacher Pledge.

These investments are already paying off as Teacher Pledge takers are reporting benefits from the program that include: a reduced need for outside work so they can focus on full-time student teaching; less student debt; and improved mental health due to decreased financial stress.

UW–Madison Professor Nick Hillman, who directs the university’s Student Success Through Applied Research (SSTAR) lab, is leading efforts to evaluate and research this pilot of the Teacher Pledge to see if it can help aid efforts around Wisconsin and across the nation in building a stronger teacher workforce.

Supporting the Early Career Teaching Institute

The School of Education is committed to supporting educators  — and for its alumni, that extends well beyond students’ time at UW–Madison. This summer, from July 29 to Aug. 1, the School is hosting its third annual Early Career Teaching Institute (ECTI) — a professional development opportunity on campus that’s specifically for alumni with at least one year of teaching experience.

The institute provides a $500 stipend and also pays for room expenses up to three nights so that all of the early career teachers can easily return to UW–Madison to take part in this special event. 

Participants in the multi-day program engage with educators in similar roles and subject areas, take part in enriching group learning experiences, learn from nationally renowned keynote speakers, and take time to connect or reconnect with faculty, staff, and fellow alumni through meals and social events. 

Participants at 2023 ECTI event
Participants at the 2023 Early Career Teaching Institute pose for a group photo. (Photo: Andy Manis)

A new report released April 11 by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction found Wisconsin educators continue to leave the state’s workforce “at an alarming rate” and that a “significant issue that needs to be addressed is the retention of new teachers.” Opportunities like ECTI are essential because research shows when beginning teachers are well-supported through strong coaching and mentorship opportunities — and are connected to robust  professional communities for young teachers — they stay in the profession longer. ECTI in 2023 drew more than 100 attendees, with more than half of those Teacher Pledge alumni.

ECTI is made possible by the generosity of the Kellners and Propel, and is hosted by the School of Education’s Mary T. Kellner Teacher Education Center and the office of Professional Learning and Community Education (PLACE).

Bolstering the work of the Teacher Education Center

Of the new support from the Kellners, $2 million is going to honor Mary and her remarkable career with the renaming of the existing Teacher Education Center to the Mary T. Kellner Teacher Education Center. These endowed funds will be used to strengthen the center’s larger purpose of furthering the Wisconsin Idea and elevating the teaching profession.

To this end, the Mary T. Kellner Teacher Education Center will serve as a home for developing and implementing research-based and high-quality teacher education practices and policies. The center will also continue to provide leadership and support for the School of Education’s 15 teacher preparation programs, coordinate partnerships with local school districts, and serve as a liaison to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, among other state and national partners.  

“An important part of what we do is connecting research with practice and I’m excited for this new support that will help our center continue to uplift and innovate in the realm of teacher education,” said Tom Owenby, the School of Education’s associate dean for teacher education and the director of the Mary T. Kellner Teacher Education Center. “This center is a home for developing research-based best practices that we can share with educators in the field. This support from the Kellners will help everyone from faculty and staff, to our students, alumni, and school- and community-based partners conduct this important work.”

These efforts align with Mary Kellner’s longtime focus on finding ways to bring high-quality education to as many children as possible.

“It’s essential for Wisconsin to have a strong teacher workforce so that all children can succeed,” said Kellner. “Preparing future teachers and helping provide them with ongoing learning opportunities and professional development is critical. We must also continue to look for new and better methods of teaching and helping students — and study what’s working and what’s not. All of this is important and that’s why we’re supporting the School of Education.”

Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced the $7 million gift from the Kellners during a farewell celebration and dinner for Hess Thursday night at the Chazen Museum of Art.
Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin announced the $7 million gift from the Kellners during a farewell celebration and dinner for Hess Thursday night at the Chazen Museum of Art. (Photo by Jack Ecke)

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