Teachers find big help in small bucks
Nonprofit's microgrants enable East Palo Alto students to learn
With $500, Sarah Milo was able to buy a projector. Lisa Jordan purchased hands-on educational science supplies. Other teachers have taken their classes on field trips.
A little apparently goes a long way when it's in the hands of the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation.
At least, that's the opinion of teachers who have received microgrants from the Palo Alto nonprofit organization, which has been funding field trips, basic classroom supplies and more for East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park schools since 1993.
Jordan, a kindergarten/first-grade teacher at East Palo Alto Charter School, said students have gained a deeper understanding of science through the foundation-funded science supplies. The materials have also helped her integrate science into the students' writing and reading lessons, she said.
East Palo Alto Kids Foundation is "fabulous," Jordan said. "They've allowed so many opportunities for my students and for me."
The microgrant program, according to foundation President Laura Roberts, rests upon the notion that teachers are the ones who know best what their students, and classrooms, need.
"We have a committee that reviews the grants and approves upwards of 95 percent of the applications that come in," Roberts said of the twice-yearly process.
"Teachers are true role models here in this area. They're the ones that instill the love of learning in the kids and show them that college is possible," Roberts said.
East Palo Alto Charter School is one of 14 schools that benefit from the microgrants. This past year, the foundation itself received a $7,500 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.
For many teachers, working in a school district that serves underprivileged children is an undertaking driven by passion. But after working in wealthier school districts, some teachers find the move takes adjustments due to the relative lack of resources.
"When I got here I had to rethink how I was going to teach," said Milo, a fourth-grade East Palo Alto Charter School teacher. "I was using the whiteboard and making posters in a way that was more familiar to how I had learned as a student."
Milo asked for a grant to purchase a projector, which she then hooked up to a document camera — a device similar to an overhead projector. The combination allows students to show their work in front of other students and get immediate feedback, she said.
"Oftentimes the student presenting their work will find a 'fix-it' (a mistake). ... To say, 'Fix-its are a way to learn how to do it better; it's not a big deal' ... and learn from it ... and knowing we're always improving helps them as learners," Milo said.
Lou Pelosi has volunteered with the foundation for four years and is the liaison to East Palo Alto Charter School. Over the years, he's seen the disparity between the "well-funded, well-organized PTAs" in wealthier communities versus those in East Palo Alto, where the average household income was $53,500 in 2009, according to Bay Area Economics.
"There's a major funding gap," Pelosi said. "We fund what PTAs would in other communities."
So in a school district where science experiments are uncommon due to lack of materials and field trips depend upon teachers applying for outside monies, the East Palo Alto Kids Foundation ends up funding chemistry beakers, outings to Stanford University's Green Library, musical instruments and lots of books, reaching about 4,500 students in grades K-12, according to the foundation.
A $500 grant may not seem like much, but the teachers say the support enables much more than tangible items.
"East Palo Alto Kids Foundation grants make dreaming big possible," Milo said in a video interview posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Roberts said support from the Weekly Holiday Fund helps the foundation to continue its mission in a time of budget cuts.
"The Palo Alto Weekly support has been incredibly important to us. ... Because we're an all-volunteer organization, you know, it's hard for us to spend a lot of time doing fundraising. And fundraising has become more and more involved," she said. "So for us, it's been wonderful to have a supporter in the community that we can count on year after year."
Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
WATCH IT ONLINE
Hear from a teacher who has received microgrants; watch the video posted on Palo Alto Online.
Through the financial contributions of community members, the Weekly Holiday Fund supports programs for youth and families in the Palo Alto area. To read more about the campaign and make a contribution, please see the ad on page XX.