Whitfield Education Foundation sets record for most grant money awarded

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Oct. 15—A potter's wheel, a solar telescope and a MakerSpace are just some of the items Whitfield County Schools students will be able to benefit from because of grants from the Whitfield Education Foundation.

The foundation awarded more than $80,000 to teachers in the form of innovative teaching grants as the school system prepared to begin the 2021-22 school year, the largest amount in the foundation's history, and this is "the culmination of several community collaborations to offer more to our students," said Smitty Barnett, the foundation's executive director. "These teachers have gone the extra mile to show initiative and innovation in their classrooms."

This year, every grant recommended by the foundation's grant committee was fully or partially funded, a total of 50 grants. During the foundation's three decades, nearly $1 million has been awarded in grants to teachers.

Alice Hardin, an English to Speakers of Other Languages teacher at Antioch Elementary School, was among the grant recipients, provided funds to add more adaptive switch devices to Andy's Playroom, a multipurpose, multifaceted therapy room at the school that memorializes her special-needs son, Andy.

Children like Andy struggle with complex devices, like turning a knob, but they can push buttons, Hardin said. The grant will add more of these to the room, which will provide "precious opportunities for other children just like Andy."

Valley Point Elementary School is using a grant to bolster its sensory room, "a safe place" available to all students to "learn calming techniques," said teacher Airagee Hamby. It helps students "with emotional, behavioral and sensory challenges."

Valley Point Elementary School will use its second grant to build a MakerSpace for students, which will foster creativity and a growth mindset, said Principal Alison Finley. The "Idea Factory" will lend itself to problem-solving, critical thinking and collaboration, which will "help them with exploring, engineering and investigating."

New Hope Middle School will use one of its grants for an after-school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Club.

Students attend the club weekly for 12 weeks, then give way to a new cohort, said teacher Ronette Oller. "We'll show them a different side of technology and (various) STEM careers."

Students will select a certain career, then explore it in depth, she said. They'll also learn skills like computer coding, as well as research and collaboration.

North Whitfield Middle School art teacher Gregory Johnson "fell in love" with clay in college, so he teaches ceramics, but he never had a potter's wheel for students to use, he said. However, "now, in my 18th year teaching, I can say, 'We have it'" thanks to a grant from the foundation.

Not only could he purchase a new potter's wheel, he was able to repair an old one that didn't work, and purchase "new kiln furniture that will maximize efficiency on firing days," he said. The fruits of this grant will benefit students at the school "long after I retire."

"I love math and art, so this is a perfect combination for me," said North Whitfield Middle School eighth-grade teacher Penny Turso. Her grant is for materials that allow students to pair math and art.

Students use coordinated graphs, find equations with lines, examine where pairs of equations cross on graphs and "justify those solutions algebraically, which is a lot of math, but they don't care because they get to produce an image on glass," she said. Each eighth-grader will create an image through this math-art project they'll be able to keep.

Coahulla Creek High School French teacher Josh Millican will use his grant to help his students create podcasts in French, which will give them additional practice speaking and reading the language, he said. Students will also gain more digital experience, which is "becoming more and more important," and the podcasts will be housed in a Google document that students can access as part of their portfolios as they advance in their French studies beyond high school.

Eastbrook Middle School science teacher Ed Whittenburg will use his grant for a solar telescope for sixth-grade science students during their astronomy studies.

The telescope, based on a 400-year-old design by German astronomer, mathematician and astrologer Johannes Kepler, will be set up in the school's courtyard so students can see images of the sun, track how the sun moves day to day and record sun spots in their notebooks, Whittenburg said.

"Our students are very curious, (and) we're very appreciative of this (grant)."

Ben Hunt, Eastside Elementary School's principal, is using his school's grant to redesign family involvement nights, as "we'll provide a meal and model (learning) strategies they can use at home," he said. "We know one of the most important factors in student success is a strong relationship between home and school."

Beginning next summer, Westside Elementary School will provide backpacks of books and activities to students in grades one and two to promote literacy during the summer, thanks to one of the school's grants from the foundation, said media specialist Regina Adams. The first summer's theme will be "superheroes" to "get them excited about the program."

Westside Middle School received several grants, one of which will be used for a couple of sewing machines and kits, said Jennifier Akers, the school's drama teacher. This will "take tech theater to another level, because we design costumes for characters."

Her final goal is to sew a quilt with pieces from student masks when those are no longer necessary to protect against COVID-19 spread as "a reminder of what we've been through," Akers said. "Plus, (sewing) is just a skill they need."

It's "interesting to hear all the different facets of learning" impacted by grants this year, said Barnett, who taught for three decades in Whitfield County Schools. "We can all think back to teachers who inspired learning in us, (and) when (students) are engaged is when they really develop from children into people."

In Whitfield County Schools, "we have no shortage of dedication or innovation, but resources are where we sometimes run short," said Superintendent Mike Ewton. "That is where (organizations like) the Whitfield Education Foundation come in, (and) we're very grateful for that."

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