|Office of the Chancellor / Public Affairs||
Thursday, September 30, 2004
Sacramento Bee 9-30-04
Expanding their world: Grants let schools do what they otherwise cannot
Grace Cook spends her mornings like most first-graders: learning to sound out words, constructing basic sentences and practicing basic math skills. But it's the afternoon she looks forward to.
After lunch, 6-year-old Grace and her classmates switch classrooms at Bear Flag Elementary School and enter a Spanish-only zone for the remainder of the day.
Hers is one of two classes at the school involved in a foreign language immersion program, funded through a $600,000 grant from the United States Department of Education.
The grant is one of dozens obtained over the last several years by the Sacramento City Unified School District, which aggressively pursues such supplemental sources of money in order to offer programs and services that otherwise would be out of reach for many of its 46,000 students.
"Grants allow us to create innovative programs and reach another level of education for our students," said Linda Nava Ventriglia, director of the district's Center for Teaching Excellence.
Ventriglia applied for and oversees the federal grant that's funding the foreign language program.
"Grants allow us to do things in the classroom that are entirely different," she said.
At Bear Flag, half of the students in the immersion program are native English speakers who otherwise wouldn't receive any foreign language instruction until high school.
"It's more fun to learn in Spanish because it's different," said Grace, who spent a recent afternoon making a self-portrait out of construction paper, crayons and colored yarn.
With almost flawless Spanish diction, she pointed out the mask's elements: pelo amarillo, ojos azules, boca y nariz - yellow hair, blue eyes, mouth and nose.
This is the second year for the three-year program, which beginning next year will also feature Mandarin lessons. Sacramento City Unified officials hope that demonstrable success will lead to renewed funding and a dual-language model that can be replicated in other schools.
"We were looking for a program for the 21st century," Ventriglia said.
The district has long had some bilingual programs in place, but those are geared toward English-language learners, she said.
"Knowing a second language is really for everyone nowadays," Ventriglia said. "It's so important, and these children will be able to get better jobs if they have dual language skills."
Sacramento City Unified is one of many school districts that actively pursue and benefit from grant money. The funds come from many sources, public and private, and can differ in amount, from a $10,000 grant for library books to multimillion-dollar grants aimed at overhauling an entire educational system.
Their impact differs, too, said Donna Fernandez, a longtime grant-writer and proprietor of www.schoolgrants.org, a one-stop information center for educators seeking tips on how to secure grants.
She has seen some schools and districts squander grant money or spend it in ways different than originally intended. Others use the money judiciously, providing crucial services for their neediest kids.
"Many schools that are not in wealthy districts depend on grants to help them offer before-and after-school programs, help pay for professional development, provide additional counselors, add library services - the list is endless, really," Fernandez said.
There is no data that tracks how much grant money flows in and out of public school coffers each year, and the amount can vary tremendously among districts and even individual schools.
Some state and federal grants, such as early education, after-school and Title I funds for needy students, are awarded automatically, based on the number of students in a given class or school.
Other grants are competitive, requiring applications, detailed proposals, even site visits in some cases.
That's where Sacramento City Unified has taken an aggressive approach, landing several multimillion-dollar grants to fund elementary school literacy, high school reform and safe schools.
In 1997, the district won a $12 million reading grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Reading scores, especially at the elementary level, have climbed steadily since then, though this year's test scores showed a plateau.
In 2001, the district received a combined $12 million from the Carnegie Corp. and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement Education 2100, an ambitious plan to overhaul the city's high schools through changes like schools-within-a-school, smaller classes, longer and more flexible school days, block schedules, more counselors, career-focused courses and individual student learning plans.
In 2002, the district landed a $9 million grant from the federal departments of Education, Justice and Health and Human Services geared toward creating safer campuses and improving the communities surrounding Hiram Johnson High School.
The money has been used to hire mental health counselors, licensed clinical social workers, and family advocates in hopes of addressing problems like youth violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental and physical health problems and academic failure.
Larger urban districts, such as Sacramento City Unified, are more likely to have staff members who are dedicated to seeking out grants and applying for them, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based nonprofit group that tracks education policy.
New York City Public Schools, for example, have reaped millions from hiring a full-time veteran grant writer.
But in the wake of a sluggish economy, the majority of states and school districts are grappling with budget deficits and the competition for grants has grown stiffer, Griffith said.
Private foundations have been affected by the downturn in the stock market, so endowments are shrinking even as the competition heats up, Griffith said.
Sacramento City Unified has seen the effects of the economic downturn as well.
The Academic Mentoring Program, which targeted vulnerable foster kids, relied on an annual $100,000 state grant. When budget cuts forced to state to rescind the grant, the program closed its doors.
The outlook for other programs is just as cloudy, said Shireen Miles, a coordinator for the district's community, health and education support services division, which monitors all grant activity.
"We have been in situations where we were awarded a three-year grant, and the state put a freeze on the funds," she said. "Most of the time, the grants are renewed after a long, excruciating wait."
At the fledgling New Technology High School, administrators have taken advantage of some grants and continue to pursue others.
The small, themed high school was one of four campuses to benefit from the Gates Foundation grant, and the money helped to furnish classrooms with sleek black computers, flat-screen monitors and high-speed Internet access.
A $200,000 grant from the Beaumont Foundation helped the school buy 65 additional laptop computers and 40 digital cameras. Now, the school has as many computers as it does students.
"If you were to subtract grants, New Tech High wouldn't be here," Principal Paula Hanzel said.
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