The Park City Education Foundation wants teachers to think outside the box. As the Teacher Grants Committee begins to comb through a flood of requests, that is exactly what the nonprofit is hoping to fund, innovation in the classroom.
Every year, PCEF uses grant money to fund ideas coming straight from teachers, the riskier ideas, the ideas that test new programs at the classroom level to fetter out the next big breakthrough for students. In some cases, teacher grants have gone on to become district-wide initiatives, from technology in the classroom to interactive learning.
"If you go back and look at how teacher grants have worked in the past, this is where things can be tested, even fail," said Jennifer Billow, the PCEF communications manager. "It gives us a chance to try things on a small scale. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. But at least we are trying something unique."
The committee responsible for awarding the grants sat down for the first meeting Monday, starting the process to see what grant applications met the criteria and how funding might be divvied up. While the grants will not be officially distributed until in December when recipients are announced, committee members are already excited about this year's prospects.
"These grants set us apart," said Maura Robbins, a committee member who has served on the nonprofit's board in the past. "We have innovative classes where it's not just sitting in the classroom.
"We're seeing dual immersion program-related requests from the elementary schools film equipment special education supplies that teach kids how to do things on their own."
When the grants were first introduced, incoming requests reached roughly half a dozen in total. Now, the competition has stepped up, with $160,000 in funding requests this year alone, with individual grants ranging from $175 to $30,000. More teacher grant requests were submitted this year than any other year, from 40 last year to 42 this year.
In past years, PCEF funded projects such as a Nintendo and math program, and when it came before the committee, there was nothing like it in the school district, Billow said. That was several decades ago, and since then, technology has flooded classrooms in the Park City School District, from the one-to-one laptop initiatives to iPads in classes.
"Everyone, the whole grant committee, was like, 'What is he talking about,'" Billow said, "'playing a game to learn math? It was a very new, very scary concept, but a very successful one."
This year, PCEF received fewer technology-based grants. Several grants focused on bolstering the district dual immersion efforts, but grants also looked at every category of students, from English Language Learners to special needs.
"Differentiation is something we really love seeing," Billow said, "and this year we saw a lot of those types of grants, which is exciting. The impact is broader."
Teachers may choose from three possible grants, the Linda Singer Berrett Endowed Grant which focuses on programs that support diversity and differentiation, the Nele Needham Endowed Grant which is awarded to elementary school programs that could be expanded into all elementary schools and the Nancy DeFord Educator Initiative Program which is designed to encourage innovative and creative instruction. PCEF has a combined $8,000 to give to the Linda Singer Berrett and Nele Needham grants, and $40,000 to give to the Nancy DeFord grant requests.
"The third grant, that is the big one," Billow said. "It is all about being innovative. If a program is successful, schools might try to move the program into a site grant for the next year.
"When we talk about innovation, a lot of people think about computers and technology. But some of our favorite programs were the ones that were different, like the balance bikes for preschoolers. There is a big connection between physical skills and mental skills at that age, and the program, which was implemented with last year's grant money, has been very successful. It was very innovative, something that had not been done before."