Teachers Use Grants to Overcome Barriers

This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle during the summer of 2016.  This was my second time winning the Katy ISD Education Foundation’s Imagination Grant. 
I forgot to post it here at that time it was published. I am making a concerted effort to republish/redirect all publications/articles about me to this site.
KISD foundation funds help educators to enable students to break limitations

Updated 11:50 am, Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Encouraging a reluctant teen to pick up a book, enabling a transient student to build robots and using a school garden as a tool to help special-needs children are examples of efforts that will be the focus of foundation-funded projects in the Katy ISD.

The Katy Independent School District Education Foundation has selected 200 district teachers at 33 campuses to receive funds for the 2016-17 school year during its fourth year of “Inspiring Imagination” teacher grants.

“We received 80 grant applications and funded 55,” said Janet Theis, Katy ISD director of community partnerships. Funding for this year’s approved grants totals $206,627.

Among the team grant recipients are Sundown Elementary’s “Morning Tinker Time: MakerSpace,” led by third-grade teacher Leah Miller, and Franz Elementary’s planned “Going Green” gardening program, led by Title I science teacher Tracy John. Individual grant recipients include Mayde Creek High English IV teacher Frances Ohanenye for “Fearless Readers of Life-Changing Novels” to help students who struggle with reading.

Fostering creativity

“We’re trying to put creativity back in the classroom,” said Miller, whose school has many low-income and transient students. In 2014-15, 76 percent of the 873 Sundown students were considered economically disadvantaged, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The school had a mobility rate of 17 percent – based on the number of students who miss six or more weeks of school – compared with a 10 percent rate in the district overall.

In the 2016 Greater Houston Area Elementary School Rankings by Children at Risk, Sundown rated a “D.”

Like makerspaces for adults, the Sundown program for grades 3-5 will offer a place to design, create and improve projects for 20 minutes beginning at 7:30 a.m. before class starts. The program will start in October.

“We’ll have stations where they can explore, engage and initiate to get involved in their own learning,” said Miller, who partnered with school librarian Terry Lambert, Title I science teacher Bianca Xu and fourth-grade teacher Lisa Renee Asaro for the $5,000 grant. Xu is also the school’s coordinator for projects for the Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math program.

The makerspace will offer youngsters what they need to create craft projects and build robots, Miller said.

“It will allow kids to initiate tinkering, getting them to work together and combine efforts and make something awesome,” said Miller, who would like to apply for another grant for the program for the school year after next.

“The whole goal is to get them involved,” she said.

Garden refuge

The initial idea behind “Going Green” was to focus on the older grades at Franz Elementary, John said.

“What we found as we went on was that younger grades wanted to grow veggies and watch things grow,” she said.

A setting of native plants in a butterfly garden can benefit special-needs children, John said.

A child with autism can be overwhelmed with too much information.

“If you take them outside, it’s less confining, more peaceful, and they can focus on one thing at a time,” John said. “It’s extremely beneficial as a coping mechanism, and they’re better able to return to class.”

The school of more than 1,000 students has classes of life-skills students, an autistic unit and a behavioral unit.

Allowing a student to go to the garden can serve as a reward or an incentive for good behavior, John said.

According to the TEA, Franz Elementary enrollment in 2014-15 had 62.5 percent who were economically disadvantaged, 48.3 percent who were English language learners and 10 percent in special education. It was ranked as C& by Children at Risk in the 2016 elementary school rankings for the Houston area.

The $3,800 grant will cover materials for the project, which includes a vegetable garden and a butterfly garden. John planned to spend the summer enlisting community support. Her efforts might take the form of partnering with a local senior living center, contacting high schools where students need to perform community service or enlisting aid from Boy Scouts looking for a project to earn Eagle awards.

The gardens will incorporate a sundial, which John said fits in with a emphasis in fifth grade to explain Earth’s movement around the sun.

To plan the program, John enlisted the support of fifth-grade teacher Amanda Everett, a first-year teacher who is tech savvy, and fifth-grade teacher Leona Bernard, a gardener.

“We hope to give each and every child an opportunity to appreciate the world around them,” John said. “A lot of what kids have difficulty grasping is that everything is in cycles and seasons.”

Rush to read

Ohanenye teaches seniors who have not yet passed the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test and are in danger of not graduating.

This is her second year teaching STAAR students. The first year was difficult because of a lack of resources. The $1,000 foundation grant will make a difference, she said.

“Before students get to college or a career, they need to pass STAAR,” said Ohanenye, who has been teaching for more than two decades. “I have found in my experience as a teacher the difference between passing and not passing is reading.”

Her class is based mostly on reading and vocabulary, and she focuses on what it would take for a student who hates reading to become a book lover.

“I try to convince them reading is not that frightful and is an easy thing if you know what to do,” she said.

She focuses on finding literature with which students can identify. Students must read two novels during the semester.

One of the most popular books on her reading list is “Mexican Whiteboy” by Newbery Award-winning author Matt de la Peña about a youth’s struggle to find himself.

Ohanenye’s class can have 30 students per semester. If students pass STAAR, they move on.

One student helped by the course came back as a guest speaker, Ohanenye said.

“It was affirmation to hear from someone who had gone through program. I look forward to having them come back and talk to a new group of students,” she said.

Screening process

The foundation evaluates applications for grants by screening them through Katy ISD curriculum and technology officials. Then the foundation board and volunteers score the grants.

“Campus and teacher names are redacted from the applications to ensure scoring is based on merit alone,” Theis said.

Programs receiving grants include some that are spread over multiple campuses and relate to special education, dyslexia intervention and prekindergarten education.

In its first four years of activity, the foundation has awarded more than $725,000 in grants to district teachers.

Grants are made possible by annual pledges from business and community investors, one-time contributions and fundraising events. The foundation hosts two major fundraisers every year: Fireflies and Foodtrucks, slated for Sept. 15; and a jazz event in the spring. BP funded multiple grants.

The foundation recently established the Alton Frailey Endowment Fund honoring the retired superintendent, who played a pivotal role in the foundation’s launch, Theis said.

For more information, contact foundation@katyisd.org, 281-396-6031 or visit www.katyisdeducationfoundation.org.

Taking Stock of Half the Year: January to June 2016

This has been an incredible year so far.




Breakfast with 2015 Grant Sponsors in January 2016: I walked into the Katy ISD building to find a life-size picture of myself. That stopped me in my track. It was a humbling and profound moment.







NCTE (Texas): I was one of two teachers lucky to attend an all-expense-paid National Council of Teachers of English conference in Austin with Katy district-level coordinators. (Second from the right, bottom row.)



WHATCE: A few weeks after that, I attended the local conference of the West Houston Area Council of Teachers of English workshop.

(Dispay of Grant-funded resources and student work samples at an event)





Celebration reception for 2016 Grant Recipients: I walked into the Katy ISD Imagination Grant reception in May to find another life-size picture of me. I have come to accept these chance meetings of me sprouting in unexpected places and times. (Life-size picture of me stands on the floor of the reception hall. Picture on the right is displayed on the screen of me–with yellow feather–receiving the Grant check in May 2016.)




Houston Chronicle: I was interviewed in late June for the Community section of the Houston Chronicle newspaper. (Fourth row from the front, second from the left)

–Picture was taken with other Imagination Grant recipients for 2016/2017.



Thank you, Janet Theis!! Thanks to Dr. Steele, Lydia Dennis, Amanda Palmer, William H. Rhodes, and everyone who has helped me to get to this phase in my career with Katy ISD.

I am excited for what will unfold for the rest of the year!

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