Brzoznowski gifts $1 million to WIC
IRON RIVER — On March 11, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closure of Michigan’s public, private and boarding schools as she declared a state of emergency to try to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the state.
Meanwhile at his home in Ann Arbor, Toby Brzoznowski, a former Iron River resident and co-founder and current chief strategy officer of the software company LLamasoft, pondered what was going to become of his seventh-grade daughter Ava’s education for the rest of the school year.
As it turned out, nothing drastic happened to Ava’s education at her private school at all.
“She didn’t miss a beat,” Brzoznowski said during an interview when he visited Iron River and spoke at the West Iron County High School class of 2020 graduation on June 12. “She had classes every day online from 8:30 to 2:30 and every teacher and all of the students were online doing classes.”
Meanwhile back in the school district Brzoznowski graduated from 32 years ago, West Iron County administrators and teachers scrambled to develop a plan to address their students’ educational needs as it became clear that in-person education for the remaining 2 ½ months of the academic year was likely going to be cancelled.
Clearly, the technological resources available at a private school in Ann Arbor differed widely from a small rural public school in the U.P. The students at Ava’s school could just pick up where they left off. Not so much with a sizable portion of West Iron County students.
“We figured that 88 percent of the students had internet access, but that does not mean they have a device beside their phone,” WIC middle school/high school principal Mike Berutti explained. “So, some of the kids have a phone, but to do some of the schoolwork was difficult.”
So the teachers assembled homework for the week and sent it to their students – some directly through online distance learning and others with Berutti hand-delivering homework packets to the homes.
“We found a hole in our system,” superintendent Chris Thomson said. “Mike’s up there packing manilla folders with homework because some kids just did not have the connectivity, their phone was not useful.”
In recent months, Thomson had held discussions with Brzoznowski, who has done significant behind-the-scenes charitable work with the district in recent years.
Well this spring, circumstances and opportunity met need. With the difference between his daughter’s experience in Ann Arbor and students’ experience in his hometown in mind, Brzoznowski decided to offer an enormous two-part donation to West Iron.
Brzoznowki and his wife Kathy opted to donate $1 million to the Foundation for Educational Opportunities at West Iron County Schools - $500,000 for scholarships and $500,000 as a technology endowment.
Brzoznowski explained the thinking behind both parts of the gift in a prepared statement.