Grassroots creativity: NEF grants continue to enrich learning in Northampton schools

  • Leeds School third grade parent and volunteer Alissa Imre Geis, works with third graders Alex Bajracharya, left, Rosie Tauer and Rob Smith-Sullivan to help build a glass and ceramic tile mosaic for the lobby of the school on June 5, 2018, a project funded by the Northampton Education Foundation. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 7/1/2021 11:38:58 PM

NORTHAMPTON – Lisa Papademetriou, president of the nonprofit Northampton Education Foundation (NEF), was searching for salamanders in her backyard a couple of years ago. Her daughter, then in third grade, had insisted upon it after conducting salamander research at school. They only found salamander eggs, but Papademetriou was ecstatic.

The salamander research was funded by NEF’s small grant program, which awards grants twice a year of up to $3,000 for creative and enhancing educational programs that teachers, staff or community members would like to pursue inside and outside the classroom.

Papademetriou’s daughter’s new interest in salamanders is exactly the kind of learning experience the nonprofit wants to encourage.

“The NEF is trying to give room for all of these things we say we love about education. We want education to be creative, and we want it to spark a passion for learning,” Papademetriou said.

This past spring, seven grants totaling $19,050 were awarded for projects in the upcoming academic year. The grants, Papademetriou said, “serve as an incubator for great ideas that the teachers have. This is about as grassroots as creativity in the schools can get.”

One of the grant-funded projects includes students working with art teachers from JFK middle school and Northampton High School to learn about expressing their identity through art, and then designing a public art project together to be painted on a sidewalk wall. Another program will introduce elementary and middle school students to STEM principles through labs, projects and mentorships with students from the high school.

These programs are both being funded for the first time, but Papademetriou said that the grants are designed to be an opportunity for teachers to test the seeds of new ideas which can then “grow and spread and be used by other classrooms in other schools, in the district and beyond.”

An example of a program being funded for a second year at Jackson Street School is called, “Empowering Youth: How to be Anti Racist.” The program is now being implemented for the first time at Bridge Street School as well, showing how a successful project can be taken up by other educators.

Dale Melcher, the chairperson of NEF’s small grants committee, which is made up of teachers, former school committee members and even students, is excited about this program since NEF takes particular interest in proposals concerning social and racial justice issues.

“It’s exciting to watch, and to fund something that really does what the grantees want it to do, and is contagious, ” she said. The program will bring in Tiffany Jewell, a Black biracial writer, anti-racist educator and consultant, to speak with students of all grades and spark educational dialogue and learning.

Since the small grants can only be awarded for up to three years, successful programs can apply for endowment grants which are longer term, and can offer greater funding. Mary Bates, a former teacher of 18 years at Jackson Street School, began with a small grant for an outdoor garden classroom in 2008. After the project was funded for three consecutive years, the school received a much larger $75,000 endowment grant, allowing the program to be implemented district-wide at four schools. The garden partners with Grow Food Northampton and School Sprouts Educational Garden, and is now being funded by the school district.

Bates said that without those initial grants, the garden program would not exist today.

“The NEF has been a real partner to the schools,” she said. “I think that their funding has contributed directly to the enrichment of Northampton public school students and … for the teachers, it’s been helpful to have that support as well.”

In addition to the small grants, NEF has awarded three endowment grants for the 2021-22 school year totaling $61,640. The grants include $36,640 for an outdoors education program for elementary school student through the Hitchcock Center; $20,000 for educational programming with Grow Food Northampton; and $5,000 for a resource library project serving high school students.

Although COVID-19 presented many challenges for NEF this past year, the organization was still able to fund enriching virtual programs such as a jazz concert series, Lindy Hop classes connecting the dance to the Harlem Renaissance and Black culture, and the printing of a book of artwork and writing from both students and staff at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. A grant awarded in the spring is funding a book group for any Northampton public school teacher who’d like to discuss their personal burnout from COVID-19 while also exploring resilience and ways to be emotionally available for their students, according to Melcher.

After a year of online learning, as teachers and students begin making their way off the screen and back into the classroom, Papademetriou said she is “expecting an explosion of creativity” in the grant proposals this coming fall. Melcher said she is also excited for a year of new ideas and compelling projects from teachers.

“In times where budgets are tight and things are cut in the schools, to be able to give money to teachers to do creative and innovative teaching and learning in their classrooms is a gift. It’s the best thing I do,” Melcher said.

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