Board awards $179K in ‘innovation grants’

Scott Girard

Sixth-graders at Savanna Oaks Middle School leave their Chromebooks, purchased through last year's round of "Innovation Grants," to charge at the school.

2014-15 grants
iPads for ninth-graders            $36,530
Chromebooks for GE 4/5         $31,887
iPads for GE 1/2                      $30,198
SOMS software, training          $27,000
BRMS Chromebooks, iPads    $14,450
Photography equipment          $7,695
Large Format Printer               $7,500
TAREA                                    $6,000
GE Augmented Reality           $6,000
ELL summer course               $5,000
Nurtured Heart Approach       $3,500
SP Augmented Reality           $2,072
Legos kits                               $1,600
Total                                     $179,432

Innovation grants series
Jan. 9: Technology-based grants
Jan. 16: Community-based programs
This week: District considers the next round

The Verona Area School Board is doubling down on its “Innovation Grant” investment for the 2014-15 school year.

Monday night it voted unanimously to fund nearly $180,000 in new grants, which are designed to spur “innovative, creative, entrepreneurial ideas” in district classrooms.

In the first two years of the grant program, the board had awarded a total of $137,857, so the $179,432 for 13 grants represents a significantly heavier investment. Much of it will be in the purchase of computer equipment.

However, Verona Area School District superintendent Dean Gorrell said it is well worth it based on the success of past grants.

“If you talk to the people that have received them … they’re pretty jazzed (about what they’ve done),” he said. “We don’t approach it from an ‘OK, we have X amount of dollars.’ We vet them on their own for the value of the idea.”
Technology reigns

While the district funded grants that were technology-focused and those that weren’t, the overwhelming majority of the money went to technology once again.

The five most expensive grants all focus on bringing district schools closer to the one-to-one technology ratio in order to expand the district’s “personalized learning,” totaling $140,065 on their own.

“It was really our goal to plant seeds for growth in the future with using technology as a tool to get us toward the personalized learning plans,” said board member Amy Almond, who served on the sub-committee that looked at the nearly 40 applications this year.

The most expensive grant, at a cost of $36,530, will provide 70 iPads to the high school to more than triple the 30 units science teacher Matt Austin already has in his classroom. He said that while the step toward personalized learning has been positive, he is excited to offer each student the opportunity to have their own device.

“We’re very excited about what it’s going to allow for our students to do,” Austin said. “The different ways that they’re going to learn. We’re going to allow them to have more voice and choice as far as what they want to learn and how and how they want to demonstrate that as well.”

The 100 iPads will allow Austin and the four other teachers in his ninth-grade pod to offer a one-to-one device-to-student ratio for their classes. And after the district passed a policy last fall allowing students to take technology home, it will also offer students a chance to continue their studies outside the classroom.

The two other grants over $30,000 both were awarded to Glacier Edge Elementary. Fourth- and fifth-graders will have one-to-one Chromebook access as a result of a $31,887 award, and first/second multiage students at the school will have one device per two kids from a $30,198 grant to purchase 50 iPad Airs.

“The idea of trying to get kids more engaged and motivated in education and trying to meet their needs in a more personal way is very exciting,” said GE technology coordinator Kurt Knueve. “It’s daunting … but at the same time it’s reinvigorating for someone like me who’s been in education for 15 years.”

Savanna Oaks Middle School, which last year was awarded 180 Chromebooks for all of its sixth-grade students, received another $27,000 this year to acquire more software and provide staff development to seventh-grade staff so they can be ready to work with their incoming students.

Although the Chromebook devices likely will remain with the sixth-grade classes, the seventh-graders would be able to access their online personalized learning plans from any device that can reach the Internet. In order to continue their programming, they needed new software and more staff development, SOMS associate principal Sandy Eskrich explained.

Other technology awards include:

•    $14,450 to Badger Ridge Middle School for 15 Chromebooks and 15 iPads for seventh-graders.

•    $7,695 for photography equipment to expand photography classes at VAHS

•    $6,000 for “Augmented Reality,” a type of technology that has flashcards or other in-classroom projects include a “marker” that will bring up a video or related information when seen by a certain device, at GE.

•    $2,072 for Augmented Reality at Stoner Prairie

Other programs

For the third year, the board decided to fund TAREA, or Teaching and Reaching Every Area, a program designed to reach Glacier Edge students and their families from areas that bus to school.

The program has had so much success with its consistent funding of $6,000 that Gorrell told Jenny Schultz to give up applying each year and instead expect the money to come as part of the district’s regular funding in future years.

New this year is $5,000 provided to Country View Elementary School teacher Christine Frei for a three-week summer reading program for English-language learner (ELL) students.

Frei said she ran a 10-person program last summer and “the students enjoyed it and got a lot out of it,” specifically helping them feel more confident in speaking up in the classrooms when they got back to school in the fall.

“We have a big ELL population, and we need to start better meeting their needs,” she said, adding that she hopes to expand the program to 20 first- and second-graders for the upcoming summer.

While Frei will look to help her students get ready to go back to school at the end of summer, Country View counselor Tammy

Holtan Arnol hopes to help teachers understand how impactful their words can be to students.

She applied to send five teachers to a conference on the “Nurtured Heart Approach,” which focuses on how a teacher’s words, positive or negative, can affect a student’s self-esteem in the long term. The board awarded $3,500 to send one teacher.

“Whatever we say to kids is building their portfolio of whether they see themselves as successful or unsuccessful,” Holtan Arnol said.

VAHS educational technology coordinator Rita Mortenson, who has applied for and been awarded more grants than any other district teacher, was awarded $7,500 for a large format printer, which she hopes to use for both student and district needs.

“(Students) could print on posters, canvas, vinyl, photography paper,” she said. “I really hope to use it as a way that students can not only print out their work and showcase it, but also it’s a great communication piece for the district.”

Glacier Edge teacher Joyce Pfeiffer received the final grant for a Lego kit to help reluctant writers learn to be creative and express themselves. The kit cost $1,600.


Gorrell said the funding for the grants comes from other revenues, including open enrollment, regular enrollment and this year in particular, a larger-than-expected TIF fund closing out.

With open enrollment being capped at a much lower level next year, some of that funding may tighten up.

While that may change the number of grants the district can give out, Gorrell hopes the program can continue into the future to keep teachers and administrators around the district thinking outside of the box.

“At some point (personalized learning) will be part of what we do and part of who we are,” he said. “But I’d like to think at some form there’ll be innovation grants because innovation isn’t going to stop once we have a personalized learning plan for every kid.”

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