Game changer in education

Irvine Public Schools Foundation CEO and president, Neda Eaton, says her job is to unite the community to support education.

Since taking the reins of the Irvine Public Schools Foundation in 2009, President and CEO Neda Eaton has transformed it into the No. 1 educational foundation in California.

Its mission: enrich the education of each child in every school by providing programs, raising funds and uniting the community to support Irvine educational excellence.

We recently spoke to Eaton, the mother of two teenagers, about IPSF and her role as CEO and president.

Q. Tell us a little about yourself.

A. I am a product of Irvine schools. I graduated from University High School. I left for college and graduate school, and then, after getting married, we moved back to Irvine to raise our kids here. It was important to me that they go to public schools in Irvine.

Q. What drew you into the nonprofit world?

A. My family moved here from the Middle East when I was 10. I didn’t speak English, so it was hard for me to make friends the first couple of years. I always valued the support system that schools provide. That drew me toward helping children and social services.

Q. How did you get started at IPSF?

A. While working at Boys Town USA in 2009, I was approached about this position. I fell in love with the mission. It’s so focused on the kids and the schools and this great master-planned community that was built around our schools.

Q. How has IPSF grown since you took the reins?

A. Back in 2009, the foundation was in its infancy. Fundraising wasn’t a huge part of what we did. So we focused on that, specifically from businesses and corporations. At the time, Irvine Company was the only corporation supporting the foundation. We now have about 300 corporate supporters. And we’ve become the largest, most successful educational foundation in the state of California.

Q. What exactly does IPSF do?

A. We raise money for the Irvine Unified School District, unite the community in supporting educational excellence, and we provide over 500 summer classes – from cooking to coding to robotics. We also provide hundreds of after-school programs, from basketball to mobile-app development to speech-and-debate.

Q. You also provide $10,000 innovation grants to teachers. What have those produced?

A. Our Cubesat satellite program started as a small idea at one school and then it blew up to what it is. We were the first school district in the country to partner with NASA and launch a satellite into space. We’ve launched two, and our third should be launched in 2022. This program is now a model for other schools across the country.

Q. How does the foundation’s work benefit the city?

A. We get well-rounded children who grow up to become leaders in the workforce. It makes our community a healthier, more positive environment to live in. The stories we hear from our alumni is that their success is a result of their education in Irvine schools. You can’t put a price on that.

Q. What have you learned about Irvine families?

A. They are smart and savvy. They do their research. I cannot tell you a single donor or parent that hasn’t told me, ‘Oh, we wanted to make sure that once we had kids, we raised them in a community that was safe’ – safety comes up a lot – ‘with great public schools.’ These are families that believe in the power of public education.

Q. Are your programs available to all students?

A. Yes. From our inception 25 years ago, providing access to all students, regardless of their ability to pay, has been our mission. So we always have a built-in scholarship component for all of our programs and services.

Q. What do you do during your time off?

A. We like to hike. The Quail Hill Loop Trail has been a thing in our family for a long time. We also like going to the restaurants at Irvine Spectrum. Habana is my favorite. Their roasted chicken is so good that I order it every time.

Q. What percentage of students participate in IPSF programs?

A. I bet it’s close to 100% for those who attend all 12 years in Irvine.

Q. How does that make you feel?

A. It’s a beautiful feeling knowing that you’re making things better. We work with the city, with businesses and corporations, with parents and teachers and students – and bring all these entities together to make things better. That’s fulfilling.