Edward Albert is in his third year as executive director of Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools (PARSS). The former superintendent of the Tulpehocken Area School District in Berks County took a decidedly hands-on approach to his new job and embarked on road trips to personally visit all of the PARSS member districts.
“Getting around the entire state, I was seeing just how poor rural school districts are,” Albert related. “I thought, ‘if we could give some of the teachers even a hundred dollars for materials or a project, that’s like giving them a million dollars in making a difference in the lives of kids.’”
Albert found willing partners among two companies involved in the natural gas industry, in large part due to their commitment to education and support of STEM (science technology engineering and math) studies.
Cabot Oil & Gas and Williams donated $2,500 each toward $5,000 in grants to be awarded to teachers submitting 500-word essays explaining how relatively small amounts of money could enhance the learning experience for their students. Applications were emailed to the 147 member district superintendents, who in turn alerted teachers to the opportunity.
Albert was impressed to see 130 applications rolling in which, after a third-party review, resulted in 12 grants awarded to nine districts. “We got some great proposals,” he stated. Funding ranged from aiding teachers purchasing reading books for elementary students to a program for a speech class, which touched Albert personally as he had overcome a severe speech impediment as a child.
William Doll, a kindergarten teacher in the Greencastle Antrim School District, used a PARSS grant to purchase literature that promotes STEM thinking and other items for STEM-based activities. In particular, the students were challenged to build a zoo using blocks, play dough and animal figurines with the stipulation that they must keep certain animals apart for their safety – no alligators next to monkeys or lions next to elephants, for example.
“Children love to be creative, but they also do an amazing job of explaining their thinking and reasoning,” Doll remarked. “Kindergarten is such an impressionable time. Students are learning how to be thinkers, and these STEM activities and literature help to expand their thinking and learning.”
“By collaborating with industry partners, we are able to help teachers deliver a greater educational impact for a larger number of students,” said Mike Atchie, Williams’ manager of public outreach. “Williams places a high priority on supporting STEM education, and we are pleased to support the initiative.”
At Wyalusing Valley Elementary School, life skills teacher Sue Kilmer purchased an iPad on which she could load apps that fit various learning levels, as well as DOJO, a program with a social media-like appearance that allows her students to post photos of their classroom achievements that their parents can view on their phones and make comments.
Some of the apps Kilmer uses are more specific to reading and fine motor skills like grasping and handwriting at the suggestion of occupational therapists.
“It’s highly motivating to them,” Kilmer said of the reaction of her pupils, some of whom are challenged by significant disabilities. “The biggest thing for me is that it allows them to work on skills independently at their ability level that are highly engaging.”
Across the campus, Wyalusing Valley High School teacher Dave Holdredge used a PARSS grant to purchase an Apple TV program. “It opened up a whole different set of avenues for tech education in the classroom,” he related. Some students struggling with vocabulary are now having fun learning terms and making iMovies in the classroom. Other students are able to do taped presentations for poetry. Holdredge employs the program for a test prep class by writing his own text book that students can access on the television.
One of the biggest advantages that Holdredge sees in the Apple TV system is that students who are shy or introverted and don’t like to share can still participate and share by using ‘exit ticket,” commenting on a lesson-related series of questions before leaving classroom.
“I can turn it into a Google sheet and post their answers onto the screen, and their answers get shared with their peers and can be discussed anonymously,” Holdredge explained. “This way, everyone gets involved rather than just those who raise their hands.”
Albert is proposing one change to the grant program this year. In an effort to spread out the available funds to a greater number of schools, he is asking that teachers try to keep their funding requests below $500. Next year, he intends to approach more local businesses to help him increase the total amount available.
Cabot director of external affairs George Stark is proud that his company got in on the ground floor of this educational venture. “It’s important that Cabot help provide PARSS teachers with the training, tools, and support they need to provide a strong STEM-based curriculum to students who are eager to learn,” he remarked.
Additional recipients last year included St. Mary’s Area, Cameron County, Valley Grove, Central Fulton, Bradford Area, and Everette Area school districts.
Grant applications for 2019 are currently being accepted. They will be sent to member district superintendents and are also available through the PARSS office in Lebanon and can be requested via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Applications are due by Friday, Nov. 16, and winners will be announced by Thursday, Dec. 6.
Albert encourages teachers who were not successful in their bid grants last year to resubmit their ideas, perhaps modifying their applications to better adhere to a few simple guidelines that are included in the application packet.