STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
MARBLE FALLS — As the Marble Falls Education Foundation Prize Posse presented check after check after check from the Grants for Great Ideas program to Marble Falls Independent School District teachers, there was loud cheering, plenty of hugs, and even tears.
Marble Falls Education Foundation Executive Director Pam Parkman explained that the grant money gives teachers an opportunity to create safe, innovative, and challenging learning spaces that will encourage youngsters to expand their minds.
“They want to have their students engaged in new ways to learn,” she said.
The Prize Posse visited six MFISD campuses May 21 to hand out grants, ranging from just under $400 up to $5,000.
Officials handed out 17 grants totaling $50,177 to round out the foundation’s first year. Falls Career High School and Marble Falls Elementary School each had two projects funded, while Colt and Spicewood elementary schools each had three. Marble Falls Middle School had five, and the new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics Academy had one.
The grant money came from several community sources. The Kiwanis Club of Marble Falls donated $4,000; the MFISD employee campaign contributed $26,596; and donations from local businesses, civic organizations, and individuals added up to the remaining $19,581.
The grant will open new worlds to many students such as the outdoors at Spicewood Elementary School. Third-grade teacher Lori Rempe is using funds for the campus’s Schoolyard Habitat and Outdoor Classroom.
“I, myself, have grown up loving nature, and now sharing it with students is a bonus,” she said. “This program has always inspired me as a teacher. This is a space I hope students will remember forever. So many projects and quality time collaborating with peers will be spent. I want them to look back and think about how they enjoyed the Schoolyard Habitat activities. Possibly inspire them to grow a garden to help their community one day. I want to instill the love of nature in each student where they enjoy being outdoors, looking for critters, planting plants, identifying species, etcetera. Above all, this space will make learning more fun, and being outside with nature is memories to last a lifetime.”
The outdoor learning will allow students to take a closer look at nature and have real-world applications with classroom objectives. The Schoolyard Habitat will have a butterfly and hummingbird garden, a sensory area, outdoor seating and collaborative areas, an herb garden, a weather station, and stations for math and writing concepts.
Colt Elementary School teacher Laura Powell submitted a grant request for Eye Wonder, which will give many pre-kindergarten students access to a USB microscope, a low-powered digital microscope that connects to a computer, as well as simple machines. Powell realized many of the pre-k students found learning about simple machines challenging. The grant covers a construction center that will give hands-on opportunities for understanding how machines work
The three pre-k teachers will develop lesson plans to increase students’ understanding of scientific concepts and the world around them using the items.
“Science is a passion of mine, and I love seeing the children explore new learning through hands-on activities,” Powell said. “I feel that an early interest in the natural world and an interest in how things work could influence the future career plans for our students. At the very least, I want to instill a lifelong love of learning in each and every student who passes through my door.
Marble Falls Middle School Gifted and Talented coordinator Lindsey Todesco got the idea for Break Out of the Routine after attending a conference last year. It consists of physical and digital puzzle elements that students must solve in a set amount of time. Similar to an escape room, players are challenged to open a locked box using critical thinking skills, communication skills, collaboration, and creativity.
Todesco said she was immediately inspired by what she learned at the conference.
“Kids will learn a lot about team collaboration, time management, critical thinking, and communication, which are traits that they can take with them for the rest of their lives,” Tedesco said. “The project is also very engaging and fun. A lot of times, the kids don’t even realize they are learning.”
Before teachers submitted applications and received the grants, they first learned what the education foundation was looking for during a workshop.
Parkman said teachers were encouraged to think of projects that were creative and innovative.
“If it’s not innovative and creative, we wouldn’t consider it,” she said. “We want to pay for things that inspire students.”
In all, the foundation received 30 applications requesting a total of $103,000.
Once the applications were reviewed, some were immediately removed because they were being funded through the MFISD budget.
Officials encouraged all MFISD employees to think of ways to improve student academics and submit an application.
The curriculum and instruction department reviewed the applications before they were sent to the review committee, which included three retired educators, a parent, and a business owner.
“They spent four-and-a-half hours going over grants,” Parkman said.
MFISD Superintendent Chris Allen said the grants help in different ways. First, the grants encourage teachers to think of innovative ways to teach their students to help morale. Second, the projects allow the teachers to implement best instructional practices for 21st century learning. And third, they help create and deepen partnerships between the school district, the education foundation, and business and community leaders because they are joined together in a common goal of educating students to help them become productive members of society.
“It allows us to grow and better our school district each and every day,” he said.
Parkman said the goal is to fund more projects.
“We hope that, each year, we can increase that with support of individuals and civic support,” she said. “The board of directors is a huge part. They understand the need. My role is to help bring generous donors who want to help teachers and students and meet the desire to help. It’s very rewarding to see projects funded that will affect students for generations to come.”
Parkman said the foundation will organize a Projects in Action day during which individuals can go to each campus and observe students participating in the funded projects.