Park City Education Foundation’s school grants pack bang for the buck | ParkRecord.com

Park City Education Foundation’s school grants pack bang for the buck

Variety of programs aim to impact every student in district

Jen Billow is the associate director of the Park City Education Foundation, which recently doled out more than $150,000 in grants to schools in Park City. She says the annual school grants program improves the educational experience for every student in the district.

The Park City Education Foundation ended the school year with a bang — about 160,000 of them, actually.

The nonprofit recently awarded its annual school grants, doling out $160,820 to the Park City School District's seven schools to fund a range of programs, both established and new, that aim to expand the educational experience for students. Jen Billow, associate director over communications and development for the foundation, said the initiative is one of the most important efforts the nonprofit undertakes each year.

"It is a great feeling," she said. "But we couldn't do it without the generosity of the community. It really is amazing how people step up for public education. A lot of times you think, 'Well, my taxes pay for that,' but as we know, Utah is (last) in per-pupil funding, so it's important that people are willing to step up and invest privately into public schools."

The list of programs the grants fund is varied, but they all have one thing in common: School administrators and teachers generate the ideas from their personal experience in classrooms. Emily Sutherland, principal of Treasure Mountain Junior High School, said that's an important element of the grants because it allows educators to utilize their creativity and real-world experience.

"It's very satisfying for teachers to be able to take a risk and be able to have some funding to do that," she said. "That's not something educators in a lot of districts and a lot of states are able to do. It makes being an educator a lot more rewarding."

This year, the foundation funded 33 programs, ranging in cost from $250 to $25,000. Some are new, such as an initiative at Ecker Hill Middle School that will pay for 12 teachers to receive training about how to implement mindfulness practices in their classrooms to help students deal with stress. Another, at McPolin Elementary School, will provide money to hire substitute teachers so full-time teachers can spend some days learning by observing other classrooms.

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Other programs, however, are ones the foundation has supported for years. SmartMusic at Ecker Hill Middle School, for instance, allows students to use web-based software to learn music, which Billow said has ultimately paid large dividends for the music programs at Treasure Mountain and Park City High School. Another longtime effort is Latinos in Action, a leadership group for Latino students, which has flourished with the support of the foundation.

"It's grown from just eight kids at the high school to about 40 kids at the high school, all the way down to sixth grade at Ecker," Billow said. "These kids are the leaders in their community. How can you not feel good about helping kids achieve their dreams?"

One of the goals of the foundation's grant initiatives — it also provides district-wide and individual teacher grants — is to make a difference in the lives of as many students as possible. Billow said that, after years of growth for the foundation, it would be difficult to find a student in the district who hasn't benefited from at least one of the grants.

"It means we're relevant, and it also means parents and community members want to support us because they see that it's going to help all kids," she said. "This community is really generous in thinking beyond their own student. They really see the benefit of public education being the great equalizer and lifting everybody up."

Sutherland added that the community's support of the grants and investment in education makes a tangible difference within the schools.

"When you've worked in the district for a long time, it just becomes part of the culture that we have this funding and these grants from the community," she said. "Sometimes it's easy to forget that it's not commonplace around the country and how special that really is. In my opinion, it's one of the main advantages and benefits to working in this district, is the amount of support we receive from the community."