Grants from community improve teaching

By Alissa Groeninger

Mary Anne Jusko, teacher at Robeson Elementary School in Champaign found a way to add fun into the school day.

Brian “Fox” Ellis, an international storyteller, gave Jusko’s fifth grade class a writing workshop in which the kids wrote fables based on stories in their lives. They then performed these fables for each other and will perform them for younger children at Robeson. Prior to the writing workshop, Ellis performed at two assemblies. For children in kindergarten through third grade, Ellis performed a play about Abraham Lincoln, honoring the president’s 175th birthday. For students in grades four and five, Ellis told stories in his performance, “Speaking Truth to Power,” about courageous individuals involved in historical struggles, such as World War II and the Underground Railroad.

Jusko said she and Robeson’s other fifth grade teachers saw Ellis perform over the summer and thought their students would love him.

“When he’s actually here and in costume, he really inspired them,” Jusko said.

The fifth grade teachers paid for Ellis’ performances through a grant given by Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation, a group that gives money to Champaign and Urbana schools.

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    Beginning July 1, teachers in the Champaign and Urbana school districts started receiving grants from community donations, called Splash Grants. A partnership between the community leaders and the schools generated the grants.

    People looking to help the districts looked for a way they could immediately help the teachers, and thus, the students.

    “I think because it’s a local (grant) there’s a sense of connectedness, accountability,” said Lou Sitch, teacher at Central High School in Champaign.

    The grants help compensate for the money teachers pay out of their own pockets, said Gail Rost, executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation.

    “It enriches the base curriculum to bump it one step up into a higher level,” Jusko said.

    Every year the program has $200,000 available for teachers. Every accepted applicant receives $500 or less, meaning around 400 teachers could receive Splash Grants this year. The program is set to last for three years.

    Rost said she does not know of another program similar to Splash Grants that exists.

    Most of the grants are spent on technology and reading materials for the classroom, such as projectors and books. Other areas include field trips and health orientated learning materials.

    “New teachers who are just entering the field have nothing in their classrooms,” Rost said.

    Before school started, Sitch received a Splash Grant. He bought a laptop computer and an LCD projector. Sitch said that as a driver’s education teacher this allows him to expand upon his curriculum ideas and help students learn in other ways.

    “(The grant) allows me to do more interactive hands-on projects with kids, rather than route memorization of a book,” he said.

    Patricia Mathews, librarian at Doctor Howard Elementary in Champaign, said her grant will be used to buy book sets in order to hold book clubs. She said the grants help teachers be innovative in the classroom.

    The more community support the schools receive, the more successful they can be, Mathews said.

    “I just think there’s a greater outreach on both sides of the fence (from the donors) to the teachers that touch the kids,” Sitch said.