Classroom Empowerment grants receive high marks from teachers

All too often, the news we hear about school finances isn’t good. Budgets have been cut to the bone, and teachers must spend a portion of their hard-earned money on supplies for their classrooms.

But here’s good news for a change. Help has come to many Illinois classrooms through Touchstone Energy® Classroom Empowerment grants. The grant program, created in 2006 through a statewide Touchstone Energy electric cooperative effort, has provided grants of up to $2,500 to teachers for many types of innovative projects, equipment and resources for their classrooms. To date, the program has provided more than $175,000 in funding.

Jefferson Elementary School “sleuths” study a random purse placed in their group to “uncover” any information they can about the purse’s owner. The exercise was part of a mystery science festival that was funded by a Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment grant from Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative. Pictured from left are Summer Nalley, Emilio Bautista, Aaliyah Latham, Alexia Land, Gracie Stewart, Drew Green.

Jefferson Elementary School “sleuths” study a random purse placed in their group to “uncover” any information they can about the purse’s owner. The exercise was part of a mystery science festival that was funded by a Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment grant from Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative. Pictured from left are Summer Nalley, Emilio Bautista, Aaliyah Latham, Alexia Land, Gracie Stewart, Drew Green.

When the statewide program ended in 2008, six co-ops in southern Illinois continued to provide Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment grants. Those ­participating co-ops are:

• Clinton County Electric Cooperative, Inc., Breese

• Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association, Steeleville

• Monroe County Electric Co-Operative, Inc., Waterloo

• SouthEastern Illinois Electric Cooperative, Inc., Eldorado

• Southern Illinois Electric Cooperative, Dongola

• Tri-County Electric Cooperative, Inc., Mt. Vernon

Though much of the grant money has been awarded for technology in classrooms, one teacher used her ­funding to develop a comprehensive curriculum project. Jefferson Elementary School third-grade teacher Melissa Thomasson received a $500 grant from Southern Illinois Electric for the Metropolis-based school’s second- and third-grade Mystery Science Festival called “The Case of the Missing Cookies.” Thomasson laid out a mystery ­scenario, and the students were given detective badges, notebooks and case folders for their weeklong activity.

During the week, the “junior sleuths” learned how to ­analyze details in order to draw conclusions. They learned about fingerprints and what distinguishes one from another, how to recognize handwriting patterns, about DNA and how to use a checking account. As part of the project, the ­students brought in cookies, which were sold in a bake sale. The ­proceeds were donated to the school library in memory of a former school secretary.

Thomasson said, “Words cannot begin to express what an exciting week we had thanks to the grant we received! What started out in my mind to be a one-day mystery quickly became a week of lessons, which included a full one-day ­mystery that was solved using the skills the ­students had learned in our detective lessons.”

A $500 grant from Egyptian Electric helped third-grade teacher Nell Southard at Community Consolidated School in Pinckneyville launch “Fun Science Friday.” The program is designed to help students understand and become more interested in science and the world at hand. Jim Riddle, the co-op’s executive vice president/general manager, said, “Classroom Empowerment grants provide a real boost for smaller projects that would not otherwise be funded. As your local Touchstone Energy ­cooperative, we believe in Touchstone’s four core values of integrity, accountability, innovation and commitment to community. The Classroom Empowerment grant program fits right in with our commit­ment to our communities and to the use of technology. These programs help our educators by giving them some of the tools they need for an effective learning environment.”

The $500 grant Rogers Elementary School fifth grade teacher Holly Garrett received from Monroe County Electric for her classroom in Waterloo was used to ­purchase a ­document camera system called an ELMO. Using the ELMO system with her existing whiteboard simulates a high-tech overhead projector and chalkboard, offering an instant image from a document that can be quickly shared with the entire class.

Two Germantown Grade School teachers used $500 grants they received from Clinton County Electric for ­computer equipment. First-grade teacher, Kaci Lueking, ­purchased an iPad Mini to allow her students access to virtual books, use online manipulatives to think critically about their math problems and take advantage of the wealth of infor­mation and tools available on today’s apps. Kindergarten teacher Cheri Markwell purchased an iPad to collect student data and for use in reading and math class instruction.

Bluford Grade School Title I teacher Ashley Snow’s ­students are visual learners. They need to write out words and problems in order to understand them. Computers and other equipment in Snow’s classroom were sorely out of date and it was difficult for her to teach the way they needed to learn. For instance, the dry erase board she had been using was a $15 alternative made from shower board from Lowe’s that couldn’t be completely erased, which was a distraction for the students. With help from a $500 grant from Tri-County Electric, Snow was able to purchase a white board to greatly enhance their learning experience.

Bruce Barkau, director of member services at Tri-County Electric, says he likes to present his cooperative’s Classroom Empowerment grants right before the kids break for the Christmas holiday. The teachers who have applied for the grants don’t know they have been selected to receive them until Bruce shows up. He said he loves it because it’s like delivering Christmas presents.

With a $550 grant from SouthEastern Illinois Electric, Michelle Dixon’s kindergarten class at West Side Primary School in Harrisburg purchased a listening center to improve the students’ sight word recognition and letter sound recog­nition. The listening center will enhance the students’ ­vocabulary and reading fluency due to the literature exposure they will receive on a daily basis. This grant award was doubly sweet for Dixon because she also got bragging rights at home. She and her husband had both submitted grant applications, but only hers was funded.

These projects are evidence that co-ops are about more than just providing power for homes and businesses. Co-ops believe in supporting their local schools, and the money from these grants will continue paying dividends for years to come. If your school receives power from one of the cooperatives listed above, contact them for a Classroom Empowerment grant application. The grant amount and application deadline varies by co-op.

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