Money for the Asking
Annabel Crites made a discovery: She noticed that the same Spanish-speaking preschoolers in her bilingual kindergarten class who stared blankly at the alphabet could read boldly colored American signs that said "Dairy Queen'' and "McDonald's.'' Crites wanted those logos in her classroom. But where in the district budget would she find funds to purchase restaurant signs? Instead of taking her rather odd request to her school system, Crites applied for, and received, a grant from the Educational Enrichment Foundation in Tucson, Ariz. With $162 in hand to pay for the services of a photographer, she hit the local haunts and got blown-up pictures of the signs. "The pictures were the groundwork for literacy for my students,'' says Crites, who teaches at Tucson's Borton Primary Magnet School. "My students began recognizing the letter 'K' from 'Circle K.' Some kids even taught their parents words from signs that they learned in school.''
Over the next two years, Crites went back to the foundation with two other project proposals--and both times she came away with grants. News of her success with the foundation and with her students spread through her school. Following Crites's lead, a 3rd grade teacher at Borton wrote a successful proposal to get calculators for her math class, the school librarian received funds for students to act out fairy tales, and the art teacher got money so students could make colorful cutouts for Matisselike collages.
"It changed the school environment,'' Crites says. "We were all excited for each other, so we shared more. Teachers were talking and learning with each other. It was not like one teacher was a superstar, but rather there was more of an attitude like 'I got a grant and you can, too.'
Crites and her colleagues tapped into a source of money that thousands of other teachers have also discovered: local education funds. There are now 57 such funds nationwide, and they are an excellent source for small grants for classroom or schoolwide projects. Most LEFs are located in cities with at least 250,000 residents and a significant low-income and minority student population. (Local, regional, and national foundations also give grants to teachers. See "Foundations: A Beginner's Guide'' on page 39.)
These funds are independent, community-based organizations that draw local businesses and citizens into public education and help increase the flow of private funding and materials into public schools. On a purely financial level, this boils down to dollars for schools--and teachers. "The community puts up money for things that teachers want,'' says Lucy Murphy, executive director of the LEF in Decatur, Ill. "The money from LEFs can be used more freely than money that comes from the usual channels; there are so many constraints on school money.''
But LEFs offer more than money. They also sponsor conferences, workshops, and forums designed to help teachers grow professionally and bring the talents and skills of local citizens into the schools. "The primary interest is in making schools be all they can be so students can learn,'' says Gerri Kay, executive director of PEFNet, the Public Education Fund Network, which coordinates the efforts of LEFs nationwide. "Toward that end, the local education funds focus on elements that go into successful schools, making the environment conducive to learning and improving working conditions for teachers. One role of LEFs is to expand opportunities available to the school district; most of these have to do with teachers.'' When a community first launches an LEF, it typically captures the attention of schools and area businesses by awarding minigrants--grants of $100 to $900--to local teachers. The minigrants enable teachers to explore new teaching techniques, design innovative classroom projects, or increase parental involvement. (The San Francisco Education Fund alone doled out $225,000 in minigrants last year.) LEFs also award grants to teams of teachers, administrators, and parents for schoolwide or districtwide projects. The LEFs often write checks directly to recipients and hold periodic receptions to announce their grants and honor their grantees.
These occasions can greatly enhance a teacher's morale. "When I got the first grant, it felt like getting an Academy Award,'' Tucson's Crites recalls. "Teachers are always making other teachers feel good, but this was different. People in the community were there, including businesspeople and the superintendent.''
To get a grant, teachers must write a proposal that will be evaluated by a committee of educators and local citizens. Typically, teachers are sent a one- to three-page application that asks them to describe the project, how the money will be spent, what teaching methods will be used, how the community will be involved, and how students will benefit. They are also asked how they plan to evaluate the project's success.
Nola Wilkinson, a 5th grade teacher who has received six grants from Partners in Education, the Decatur LEF, says the application process forces her to think carefully through her ideas. She has approached other foundations and found their application procedures to be more difficult. "They were either very specific on what they wanted or it was not clear what they would fund,'' says Wilkinson. "At Partners, if it is a good idea and will benefit the students and involve the community, they will probably fund it.''
Wilkinson also discovered that LEFs can be a valuable resource, money aside. One of the grants she received enabled her to buy rocket kits for her students for a science unit on space. But Wilkinson also wanted to give her class a taste of the real world of space exploration. So, she approached Partners and, with the help of Lucy Murphy at the LEF, was able to find a local business that would let her students use its phones for a conference call to the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
To help Wilkinson find the phones, Murphy tapped into a network common to LEFs: a resource clearinghouse. These clearinghouses act as conduits through which communities can contribute materials and manpower to schools and teachers. Although the term "clearinghouse'' brings to mind an orderly network that efficiently matches needs with resources, Murphy insists that the process is, in fact, quite haphazard. Teachers and businesses alike must be patient and flexible. For example, when a local business wanted to get rid of an old switchboard system, it had to wait patiently while Murphy called around to see if any school could use it. She eventually discovered a school district that was leasing the same switchboard from Illinois Bell for $2,000 a month.
In another case, Crystal Wilson, a 6th grade teacher at Decatur's Muffley Elementary School, didn't get the grant money she'd requested from Partners, but she did receive in-kind support for her classroom. Last spring, Wilson had applied for a minigrant to purchase hands-on science material. Although the request was not approved, Partners did use its clearinghouse to track down 30 lab coats from Decatur Memorial Hospital for Wilson's students. "We bring community resources to teachers wherever and whenever we can,'' says Murphy.
Partners doesn't publish a catalog of surplus supplies, but it often puts the word out to schools, usually in a memo, when a local business makes materials--such as file folders or drums of paint-- available. By the same token, if the LEF has been inundated with requests from schools for particular items, it might issue a "wish list'' to area businesses. Murphy encourages teachers to call when they need something and businesses to call when they have surpluses.
Since one of the main goals of local education funds is to bring the community and the school closer together, they broker more than just materials. "The clearinghouse is also for human resources,'' Murphy says. "There are many businesspeople who want to do things in schools like give presentations on banking concerns and let students know what courses to take to prepare for different careers.''
Recently, Murphy has been working to beef up the "human'' aspects of the clearinghouse. Since Decatur is smack in the middle of the farm belt and agriculture is a key part of the school curricula, Murphy has been trying to put teachers in contact with the local farm bureau, which offers films, field trips, and, most importantly, speakers on farming, crops, and agribusiness. The LEF also has arranged for people associated with local church groups and organizations like the NAACP to visit classrooms so that students can become more familiar with racial and religious groups. "Sometimes I don't know what is going on in the next school or even on a different floor,'' laments Julia Latessa, a special-needs teacher in Providence, R.I. "I often feel so isolated in the classroom.'' Latessa's cry is a familiar one; feelings of isolation plague teachers of all levels in almost every community in the nation. It is a problem that local education funds in many cities are trying to address, primarily by working with local businesses to sponsor forums that bring teachers together to talk with each other.
For example, in Providence, R.I., the Bank of New England, with the help of the Public Education Fund, sponsors an annual two-week Teacher Fellowship Institute. The bank brings in outside speakers from around the country and invites 30 Providence teachers to roll up their sleeves and thrash out issues around a chosen theme.
Latessa, a teacher at George J. West Elementary School, felt lucky to be part of last year's institute on collaborative writing. The bank gave her and the other participating teachers a $250 stipend and paid for the speakers, but Latessa insists that the money was of secondary importance. "What is really stunning,'' she says, "is that business wants to get 30 teachers together to work and learn. It brings polish and ironing to a badly wrinkled suit: the teaching profession.''
LEFs often make grant money available after such institutes so that teachers can implement what they discussed during the sessions. Latessa received a grant for her students to make books and autobiographical film strips, which they presented to their parents, the principal, and the school's guidance counselor.
Many older, more established LEFs have shifted their focus in recent years from small grants and occasional seminars to projects aimed at broader, systemwide reform. The Los Angeles Educational Partnership, one of the oldest and largest LEFs, with an annual budget of more than $2 million, is a good example. In addition to the more than $750,000 in minigrants LAEP has made available to Los Angeles-area teachers over the last six years, it sponsors three huge professional-development programs, directed by teachers for teachers. The year-round programs on mathematics, the humanities, and the sciences involve hundreds of teachers in workshops, conferences, and forums of varying length; in paid work experiences in related industries; and in college and university study. The purpose is to get participants to think about ways to change their teaching. The Partnership defrays teachers' expenses related to its programs; it offers stipends, picks up the tab for workshops and conferences, and awards small grants so teachers can buy materials to apply what they have learned.
"We've changed the way teacher development happens in the district,'' says Peggy Funkhouser, executive director of the Los Angeles partnership. "Most of our programs have to do with school reform. We've realized that we can reform and restructure all we want, but if we don't address the condition of teachers, there's little hope of progress.''
For biology teacher Todd Ullah, the fund's commitment to teachers' professional development has meant a change in his classroom life. Last year, the school coordinator for LAEP's Humanitas--an ongoing project to strengthen high school humanities teaching--invited him to attend a twoweek academy on thematic and interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. He came out of the academy with a year-long curriculum, which he developed with the help of art, math, and English teachers from Thomas Jefferson High School, where he teaches.
Ullah and his collaborators approached the administrators in their school, told them about their plans, and asked to work with at-risk students--an easy request to honor in a school with a dropout rate of 66 percent. The school officials arranged for the teachers to have common conference periods to refine their curriculum. Then, for a year, the education of 60 students revolved around a common theme, taught by the same four teachers every day.
Humanitas provided the team with money for special projects like growing a garden. "Stuff like that is hard to come by,'' notes Ullah. "It's like pulling teeth to get that kind of money from the district.''
Ullah has seen concrete results. "The Partnership had an enormous impact on the classroom,'' he explains. "Last year, I had 10th graders who were reading just over the 2nd grade level. Their average reading level went up about five grade levels. And in a school where two out of three students drop out, we lost only two out of 60.''