Local teachers put grant money to innovative use

By: Kristyne E. Demske | St. Clair Shores Sentinel | Published December 8, 2015

 Camp T-shirts and other items were paid for by a grant from the Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union.

Camp T-shirts and other items were paid for by a grant from the Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union.

Photo by Kristyne E. Demske

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Even though public school is funded through taxpayer dollars, there are often plenty of things on a teacher’s wish list that don’t fit in the budget.

New technology, innovative furniture, new applications for students to use to further their learning: All of these things might help students get to the top, but might not be affordable for a school district to provide.

That’s where the annual grant program from the Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union comes in.

“We were founded by a handful of educators 60 years ago, and so education and classroom teachers are an important group of members,” said Lorie Dietz, vice president of marketing and business development for the credit union. “Budgets have been cut year after year, and so the teachers can apply for a grant.”

The Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union gave away $45,000 in grants this year, including $32,000 in Macomb County alone. 

The program has been in place for more than a decade and is open to member and nonmember teachers alike. Participants upload a proposal and photograph of the project, and the projects are put up to public vote online. The awards, up to $750, are granted based on public vote. Ninety-five projects were submitted this year and 61 were awarded grants. 

“We see many of the same teachers apply year after year which we think is cool,” Dietz said. “The grants range from a tornado machine for a science classroom to physics experiments to, there’s a teacher in Southfield that works with autistic young adults and they run a business, so the grant is to help them print their invoices.”

Six teachers in Lakeview Public Schools won grant money this year: Julie McHugh and Michelle Rossi at Ardmore Elementary, Jennifer Ferri and Kerri Olsson at the Wheat Early Childhood Center, and Katherine Greig and Michelle McLennan at Princeton Elementary.

Greig, a third-grade teacher, said she uses the grant money to help send her students to Camp Keyboard for a week.

But although they write letters telling their parents they will be attending camp, get special T-shirts and sing camp songs, they don’t actually have to leave their school, but instead devote an entire week to working on keyboard skills daily in a fun environment.

“The kids go to the computer lab for 45 minutes (a day). We use a typing program, and they use correct keyboarding skills. We use an online, web-based program for camp, and they’ll use it all year long,” Greig said. “This is our big kickoff.”

But even though the online program is free, the special things like T-shirts and having a tent outside every third-grade classroom help make it more exciting for the students. Those are the extras that the grant helps pay for, she said. 

“We try to really pump it up and make it a fun and exciting thing to start keyboarding,” she said. “When we do our state assessment now on the computer and they actually have to type, hunting and pecking is just so slow. They lose their train of thought. 

“If you can take away the challenge of typing and be able to think clearly ... the hope would be they get more accurate at what they do.”

Greig said she appreciates the help from the grant, which she has used in past years to purchase keyboard skins to prevent the students from looking at the letters while they are typing.

“I could do camp, but I couldn’t do all the fun stuff,” she said. 

At Ardmore Elementary, Rossi used grant money to help her kindergartners lose the wiggles.

“I got a grant from the credit union four years ago for stability ball chairs,” she said. “It engages your core muscles. That improves posture.

“Some kids are kinesthetic learners. It allows for them to move while they’re learning.”

In 2014, Rossi won a grant to purchase some wiggle stools, which are similar but won’t roll out from under her students. And this year, she is using the grant money to buy more short stools for her shorter students. Rossi’s kindergarteners now have a choice of how to sit: on a ball, on a wiggle stool or in a chair.

“I love the movement they allow for the kids,” she said. “I have a stability ball chair. You can’t slouch, you can’t cross your legs you have to have good posture.”

At the Wheat Early Childhood Education Center, Olsson is a special education teacher who teaches early childhood special education students in the morning and hearing-impaired preschoolers in the afternoon. The grant is helping her connect with her students more through technology.

“Technology is just such an important part of school for me,” she said. 

The classroom currently has a smartboard, which is a large whiteboard that the students can sit in front of that also has apps on it, like an iPad. 

“They can touch the icons, but the entire class can see it,” she said, explaining that she’s planning to use her grant money to buy more programs for the smartboard and also some iPads for the students to use to learn independently.

“It’s just an addition to what you’re already doing in the classroom,” Olsson said. “Being able to have the hands-on variety of ways of learning is wonderful.”

Dietz said it’s not uncommon for credit unions to give back to the community, and the grants are just how the Michigan Schools and Government Credit Union does that. In the first quarter of 2016, the credit union will host an “innovation celebration” to honor all the winners.

“It’s such an amazing thing to get these teachers together and to hear them share their passion for what they’re sharing in the classroom,” she said.

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