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Kort retires for third time after building up HPS Foundation

November 8, 2018

During her career as an educator, Betty Kort developed the art of connecting with people and using knowledge to help build a belief in something special.

Kort, who was born and raised in Blue Hill, has educated hundreds of students in Hastings and been instrumental in the growth of two area foundations.

Now, Kort is stepping down as development director of the Hastings Public Schools Foundation, a position she has held for the last seven years.

That position with the HPS Foundation is something Kort was preparing for her entire life even though she didn’t know it.

Kort grew up in Webster County attending a one-room school house while in elementary school before graduating from Blue Hill High School in 1960.

“I’m from Blue Hill. I’m a farm girl,” she said. “I never got far away from home.”

She spent 25 years teaching both art and English at Hastings middle and senior high schools where she both inspired students and earned several major awards including the 1992 Nebraska Teacher of the Year.

It was in those years Kort began taking her students to Red Cloud to study the place where Pulitzer Prize-winning author Willa Cather spent her formative years.

Kort later was invited to serve on the board of governors for the Willa Cather Foundation in 1990.

It was at that time the foundation decided it wanted to restore the Red Cloud Opera House so Kort soon found herself immersed in the work of a major fundraising project with consultants.

Kort took early retirement from teaching in 2003 and the same year took over as interim and later as permanent executive director of the Cather Foundation.

“The local people in Red Cloud with whom I had raised most of that money really encouraged that,” she said of taking the position. “I don’t know how the board felt about that but that was a fit for me. I’m really proud of what happened in Red Cloud.”

During her tenure in Red Cloud, the foundation acquired what today is known as the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, restored the Harling House and continued raising funds for the foundation, including receiving $1.1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“We did an awful lot of good things and we stabilized the financial end of the Cather Foundation,” she said.

Kort said she loved her job at the Cather Foundation but she got tired of the commute and retired, staying home for four years before again leaving retirement for another foundation.

“My husband thought I needed a job,” Kort said, laughingly.

She said he saw an advertisement for the position with the Hastings Public Schools Foundation in the newspaper but Kort didn’t apply.

Not long after, she received a phone call from foundation board member Honey Lou Bonar asking if Kort would be interested in the position.

It wasn’t until Kort agreed to a lunch meeting with Superintendent Craig Kautz that she finally took an interest in and a chance on the position.

“We had lunch and we started dreaming. That was very clever of him because he knows I like to do that,” Kort said.

Kort took those dreams seriously so when she walked into the first meeting of the foundation, she presented her ideas to a board that at the time, she said, wasn’t all that excited.

“I think they thought this would be impossible,” she said. “I told them if we started a membership program in very short order we would have an operating budget. When I started we had nothing.”

When Kort started at the foundation in fall 2011, the foundation was giving out about $8,000-9,000 in scholarships each year. In 2018, the foundation gave out about $85,000 in scholarships along with $18,000 in Staff Idea Grants. That doesn’t include the gifts given to the Educator of the Year recipients and other contributions made to the district.

“The success of the foundation is the success of the community,” Kort said.

While the development director is an important position, she said the key is to help create a belief that the foundation is vital to the community.

Her first job was to speak with key community members and convince them to make significant donations to the foundation. That, she said, was important to let the Hastings community and alumni across the country know this was a successful foundation and something worth investing in.

“I was hired to find ways to start the process of supporting students and the classroom and this community just wrapped its arms around the foundation,” Kort said. “So I won’t say I had very much in my own mind to do with this.”

Kort said in recent years, she spent little time asking for money. She said the newsletter did that by the stories it told and the successes it shared with members.

“You have to let people know there are those in the community that believe the public schools are essential to a successful community and once you have that going people are incredibly generous and you don’t have to twist arms,” she said.

The foundation has a membership program where people can give as little as $50 to join. It gives community members and alumni across the country a way to financially support the foundation. Today, Kort said the foundation is able to track all of its donors and support which will only help to grow the foundation in the future.

Kort said while the foundation has grown in the last seven years, it has taken the whole seven years to do it.

“We’ve added scholarships every year it has gone up,” she said. “It’s not that it suddenly jumped. Every year it’s gotten bigger.”

One area where she hopes to see more work continue in the future is in programming for high-ability learners.

“We have done an incredibly good job raising kids up to proficiency in our school,” she said.

But when it comes to those students who already know the material, Kort said sometimes teachers don’t have the tools or knowledge to continue to challenge them.

That’s why the foundation paid for the entire educational staff — kindergarten to 12th grade — to hear from speakers to talk about differentiated instruction to help students on their level. The foundation also paid to send 10 staff members to a conference in Omaha and two teachers to a national conference.

“Some people are already getting it and some people are in the middle and wherever a child is we want that child to move from there,” Kort said.

She said the goal is to get every child to move at his or her pace and succeed at their level. And bringing in those speakers helped give teachers the tools to do that.

“I was pleased the foundation was able to do that and that’s all because people believe in the foundation,” Kort said.

Kort mentioned the Educator of the Year program and the new award first awarded in 2018 to the Young Educator of the Year as a way to honor some of those teachers in the first years of their careers.

“I can’t cover everything the foundation has done. I’m overwhelmed at what we are able to do,” Kort said. “I have to say this community has wrapped its arms around the foundation and the support we get nationally is pretty incredible too.”

As she is now in her first days of retirement from the position, Kort said the foundation will continue on and succeed now that she’s gone. She is comforted that the foundation is in such a strong position to succeed with new director Jessica McAndrew.

“The foundation is in really good health so it is a good time to make a change,” Kort said. “While that person is getting up to speed, the foundation will hold that person up. I think there’s tremendous potential for the foundation to really grow.”

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