“Running Wild With Ideas.” How Small-Scale, Teacher-Led Grants Can Change Classrooms

photo: Chris Howey/shutterstock

photo: Chris Howey/shutterstock

The Chicago Foundation for Education has been committed to helping Chicago public school teachers become more effective educators since 1985, with a continuing focus on providing them with financial support, resources, training and technical assistance. For example, it aims to make sure teachers have adequate supplies, brings together groups of teachers into study and mentoring groups, and funds diverse professional development opportunities.

In an era when so many prominent K-12 grantmakers are focused on structural reforms to public school systems, CFE’s approach is a reminder that there are still local funders—lots, in fact—that meet educators where they are and try to help them do their jobs better, often with small grants.

As we’ve reported, so-called “mini-grants”—like many of the awards CFE provides—can play a crucial role in the funding world because they are often locally focused, easier to apply for, and intended to supply sometimes neglected necessities like direct support and equipment funding for individuals and small groups.

Sarah Hoppe Knight, CFE’s interim executive director and director of programs, tells us:

The organization recognizes public urban educators face a wide range of challenges, among them diminishing budgets, resources, and morale. To that end, CFE’s grants, leadership support and professional learning opportunities help lift the burden of these challenges and aim to ensure high-quality teachers are retained and well-resourced.

CFE strictly funds teachers, which Hoppe Knight says recognizes a body of research that links teacher quality to student performance. Who are some of the teachers CFE is listening to and funding in hopes of driving educational progress in the nation's third-largest school district?

One is special education teacher Kylie Benson, who works at McAuliffe Elementary School in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, where about 80 percent of student families identify Spanish as their primary language. Hoppe Knight says Benson only speaks basic Spanish and came to CFE, which accepts unsolicited grant applications, with two goals: to improve her command of Spanish in order to better communicate with families, and to gain a deeper knowledge of alternative ways students with physical disabilities can participate in recreation.

Benson was awarded a CFE Fund for Teachers Fellowship to travel to Barcelona this summer, where, along with taking a language program and immersing herself in a Spanish-speaking culture, she also volunteered with a local organization to learn about adaptive equipment for recreational sports for individuals with physical impairments.

”The entire experience has my mind running wild with ideas. I’m filled with gratefulness and can’t wait to bring back everything I’m learning to my school and classroom. I cannot wait to implement my new and exciting ideas,” Benson wrote on social media.

Another example Hoppe Knight shares is of Jessica Fong—an early education teacher who wanted to explore how nature-based play could influence her student’s language development, partially in response to her concerns about a growing overly-academic focus in K-3 classrooms. Fong received a CFE Action Research Leadership Institute Fellowship and used it to explore existing nature-play research, which she discovered focused primarily on white students, and not the urban, low-income, and Latino and black youth she teaches.

“Urban, low-income children have the least access to nature play and green spaces,” Hoppe Knight tells us. Fong took her students to the Jardincito Nature Play Garden in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, where they could play on and with an earthen mound, balancing logs, boulders, a pebble pool, a play deck, and play huts. Fong observed her students engaging in “spontaneous social language, cooperative play, and exploration,” and she presented her research findings on the positive effects of nature play to the foundation, Hoppe Knight says.

CFE offers five grant-based programs in total along with an annual teacher workshop. It works with hundreds of teachers like Ms. Benson and Ms. Fong each year—in 2017, it granted $330,000 to 751 educators and through its range of programs, impacted more than 64,000 students.

Most of its awards fall between $100 and $1,000, with some teacher partnership grants as high as $10,000. The next teacher workshop is in November. Hoppe Knight says it is one of the only citywide events facilitated by and for Chicago-area teachers. She says it brings together about 300 Pre-K through 12 educators, giving them “the opportunity to share effective, innovative teaching practices, and collaborate with colleagues.”

Hoppe Knight also says CFE is “always aiming to reach educators new to the CFE community and new to teaching, as well as those working in particularly high-needs environments.”

Related: Direct Support: Why a Tech Giver is Helping Fuel the Rapid Growth of a Top K-12 Nonprofit