The Next Level

By Gretchen Eichenberg & Kevin Tankersley

Three educators use grant funds to enhance the classroom experience

Attending a professional art exhibit is not part of the typical elementary school student’s experience — and it’s certainly not in most schools’ budgets. But last year, Waco ISD kids got to see artwork close up and learn about the artists who created it when an art exhibit arrived on their campuses.

Larry Carpenter, Waco ISD director of fine arts, received a $7,500 grant that allowed him to partner with Art Center Waco to bring a mobile art exhibit to each of the elementary campuses. While taking that many students to a professional art gallery may have proved difficult, the grant — funded by the Waco ISD Education Foundation — allowed Carpenter to bring the art directly to the students to enhance their art education.

An education foundation is a not-for-profit partnership between a school district and its community to provide funding and support for special enrichment programs and opportunities.

“Education foundations exist to fill the gaps left between traditional school funding and the multitude of ways teachers and districts want to enrich the educational experiences of their students,” said Lara Robertson, director of the Waco ISD Education Foundation. “While the traditional funding covers the basics necessary to provide an education, education foundations, through community and donor support, are able to fund projects, programs and initiatives that go above and beyond.”

Local companies, organizations and even individuals pledge money to the foundations each year, and that money is then allocated to deserving teachers and administrators who go through an extensive grant proposal application process in hopes of earning the funds to bring their ideas to fruition.

“Each year, we continue to be impressed with the creativity and innovation our teachers exhibit through their grant proposals,” Robertson said. “They demonstrate a true desire to provide opportunities for their students to engage and learn in new ways that are exciting and go beyond the traditional. We see their passions come through, which then translates into providing enriching and inspiring experiences for their students, while engaging with the material and content in new and innovative ways.”

The Wacoan spoke with teachers at three area school districts to find out how they utilized education foundation funding to take learning to the next level.

Morgan Castillo
Fifth Grade Science Teacher, Woodgate Intermediate School

Only 28% of the science and engineering workforce is made up of women, according to the National Science Foundation. And that’s not OK with Woodgate Intermediate science teacher Morgan Castillo and her colleagues Lora Tepe, Keron Thomas, Amanda Endsley and Katy McConal.

“I wanted to do our part to increase that percentage,” Castillo said.

The team set out to find ways to encourage girls’ interest in STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and math — and to help build the future workforce by creating leadership opportunities for female students on campus. After a lot of research, the teachers found a curriculum led by Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau.

“What was particularly important about this curriculum was the leadership component for the girls,” Castillo said. “Our plan was for the STEM Club to host a districtwide STEM Night in which the girls were the experts, sharing the knowledge learned with the community, providing the girls a meaningful experience of fostering STEM citizenship in others and impacting their world.”

Castillo and her team turned to the Midway ISD Education Foundation for funding for the curriculum and supplies to reach 1,000 girls.

“We needed over $20,000 to implement our plan,” she said, “and it was really the relationship the Midway Education Foundation has with corporate partners, such as Howmet Aerospace Waco, that made it all possible.”

They wrote the grant proposal in the spring of 2020 with hopes for a face-to-face STEM Night, but COVID-19 prevented them from the event they had planned.

“I was amazed by the ingenuity, creativity and sheer drive of my colleagues as we worked together to create a meaningful experience for our STEM Club girls in such a challenging year,” Castillo said. “The girls STEM Club ended up hosting a campuswide virtual STEM night.”

The girls put together more than 150 take-home kits for participants, including all the materials they needed to follow along with live demonstrations and donated samples of nontoxic household cleaners.

“I was in awe of how the girls shined,” Castillo said. “For most of them, this was their first experience with public speaking and leadership. They were amazing, and I’m so excited for how this experience will impact them in the future.”

Castillo said she encourages anyone with an idea and a passion to apply for a grant.

“Just do it,” she said. “If you are waiting for the right time, stop waiting, stop dreaming, and make it happen. If the process seems daunting, find a colleague — or four — to join you. Grants don’t have to be for something huge or expensive. What’s most important is taking advantage of every opportunity to give your students the best experiences you can imagine.”

Peter Holmstrom
Fourth Grade Math & Science Teacher, Alta Vista Elementary School

Peter Holmstrom loves escape rooms. He’s done “a ton” of them, and he knows his students are fans as well. So when a teacher friend at Cesar Chavez Middle School raved about escape room-type kits that can be used in the classroom, Holmstrom knew he needed them for his fourth grade math and science class at Alta Vista Elementary School.

He applied for and received a grant last year of $3,000 from Waco ISD Education Foundation to purchase 12 Breakout EDU kits.

“The kits are basically different sets of locks, whether it be a color lock, letter lock, all kinds of different combinations and different boxes,” Holmstrom said. “Students look for different clues around the classroom, then try to figure out whatever the code was for that lock, unlock it and then progress on to the next block.”

It works kind of like an escape room, he said, “where everybody’s stuck in the room, and they’re all kind of trying to figure out the clues and work together” to solve a puzzle or clue or problem. And because students work in groups, that’s why the grant was just for 12 kits, since each student does not need an individual kit.

Breakout EDU has more than 1,600 games and activities for all subject areas and all grades, and students can even create their own games and submit them to the Breakout platform to allow other schools to have access. The grant was also used to purchase a campuswide digital license so that all teachers have access to Breakout’s content.

In math, for example, Holmstrom said he uses a variety of number problems and word problems when creating projects for his students.

Holmstrom’s most recent successful grant application was for $8,500 and it allowed the school to purchase virtual reality headsets.

“In fourth grade, we go over phases of the moon, and we can’t really go out at night, all of our classes, and look at the moon over [the course of] a month and talk about it,” he said. With the VR headsets, “we can put [the students virtually] up in space and do a time-lapse of the phases of the moon. It’s much more immersive than just watching a video about the phases of the moon. That’s why I’m really excited about this for our campus.”

Rachel Stolle
Eighth Grade Science Teacher, China Spring Middle School

Rachel Stolle is an inspiring teacher. When she told her students at China Spring Middle School that she was hoping to get a grant to buy a bunch of Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality devices, one of her students went home, used money he had been saving and bought his own. He then started exploring how the device could be used in Stolle’s eighth grade science classes.

“He has become my point man,” Stolle said. “I’ll say, ‘What does this do? What does that do?’ And he’ll go home, and he will research it and figure it out and come back to me. The kids really are owning this.”

Stolle received a grant from the China Spring ISD Education Foundation to buy 25 of the Oculus 2, at about $300 each.

At first, she just had the idea that her students could use the VR devices to draw posters in a virtual space, something they usually do on poster board at the conclusion of each unit in her class.

“So that was really the lens I was looking through,” Stolle said, “but the more the kids started digging, we realized there was app after app after app after app that was free, and they actually correspond to what we learn during the year.”

The Oculus 2 allows students to go on a simulated mission on the International Space Station, for example, which Stolle tried, using a student’s device.

“I put that thing on, and it is the most bizarre sensation in the world,” she said. “I guess because it’s tricking all of your senses. I felt like I was floating.”

Though Stolle teaches science, the devices will be available to teachers in other subjects.

“They will be available to everyone on campus,” she said. “They’re not just mine. I want to share the love because there’s so many things that we can do with them outside of just science.”