Jesse Kuntz describes herself as a proud product of Montana’s public education system.
Kuntz, a Whitefish resident and the mother of two elementary school students, was born and raised in Colstrip, where she was educated in the local public schools. Over the past 14 years, she has developed a portfolio of skills in nonprofit management, working for a number of organizations and earning her master’s degree in public relations.
Now, with the 2023-24 school year ahead, Kuntz is taking the helm of the Whitefish Education Foundation (WEF), becoming the organization’s first ever full-time executive director.
“[The job] just combined my passions of nonprofit work and supporting the schools, so it was a no-brainer to jump on it,” Kuntz told the Beacon on Sept. 20. “I’m just thrilled to be here.”
WEF is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to “enhance the quality and scope of educational opportunities for all students of the Whitefish Public Schools.” While Montana’s public schools are funded by a combination of federal, state and local sources, school budgets often fall short when it comes to classroom supplies, supplemental academic help and out-of-the-classroom experiences.
“We all know the stories of teachers who are paying for things out-of-pocket for their classrooms. We see that that’s an issue. It creates inequities in classrooms on who’s able to provide those things in their own pockets,” Kuntz said.
“I think it happens in a lot of sectors that are supported by government. There’s just going to be gaps,” the WEF executive director added. “We want to make sure that our teachers have the tools they need to do the job that they want to do and do it well.”
WEF strives to address funding gaps in the Whitefish School District, helping teachers and students alike feel supported in the classroom. Last fall, the nonprofit awarded more than $19,000 in grants to purchase interactive learning tools, musical instruments and new books, among other supplies. WEF supports student trips and staff development programs that cannot be fully covered by the district’s budget. Since its inception, the organization has paid to send students to the eighth grade Montana History Trip, the University of Montana Thespian Conference, speech and debate team events and daylong ski trips on Big Mountain. Teachers have used WEF funding to attend conferences on literacy, math and science, and to bring in professionals to train educators.
In addition to grant funding, WEF facilitates the Writing Coaches and Math Mentors programs in the Whitefish schools, which offer additional support to students beyond regular instructional time.
Writing Coaches — a volunteer-driven program — offers students one-on-one coaching sessions with mentors to help them “think critically about their writing, so they can become more competent and confident writers.” In the 2022-23 school year alone, Writing Coaches held 951 sessions, and 44 local volunteers offered 317 hours of service to the program.
WEF even seeks to support Whitefish students after they leave the school system, doling out tens of thousands of dollars in college scholarship money each year. Last academic year, the organization administered more than $15,000 in financial scholarships to the Whitefish High School graduating class.
For Kuntz and Lisa Calaway, the new chair of the WEF Board, one of the most important components of WEF is its Family Involvement Team (FIT). Calaway joined the Whitefish Parent Teacher Association — the precursor to FIT — when her two sons first enrolled in the district. Now, 14 years later, she is helping to lead WEF and continue the work of FIT to engage students and parents alike. FIT hosts events and programs to help bring parents into the classroom, and connects families with their children’s teachers and administrators.
Calaway said that while she’s proud of the work that WEF and FIT have done over the past 14 years, she is excited to have Kuntz on board to help amplify the impact of the organization.
“We were really looking for somebody for longevity, because a lot of us that initially started with the PTA that went into WEF, we don’t even have kids in the school system anymore,” Calaway said, speaking about herself and other volunteers. “Now with Jesse coming on board — we were just a bunch of parents who were volunteering and trying to make it work, and I think we did a pretty good job — but now we’re like, ‘Hey, let’s really make this work.’”
As they look ahead to the coming year, Kuntz and Calaway know there will be both opportunities and challenges. The Whitefish School District this fall saw record-breaking enrollment, just as it seeks to pass a $33.7 million bond to expand its high school campus and adjacent athletic complex.
“Seeing that growth in the schools, we have to keep up with that if we want to continue to create the impact that we were creating,” Kuntz said, adding that bringing herself on a full-time executive director for WEF will help the organization grow alongside the school district.
“We’re really just working on looking at our structure, our organization as a whole, making sure that our boat is sound as we’re growing and moving forward,” she said. “We really just want to work with our schools, work with our teachers, and our administrators to figure out how we can increase our impact and benefit the students in the schools.”