Don’t Let Your Projects Die When Grant Funding Runs Out

Personalized Learning

Don’t Let Your Projects Die When Grant Funding Runs Out

By Victoria Flint     Oct 25, 2017

Don’t Let Your Projects Die When Grant Funding Runs Out

Many teachers across the country are working tirelessly to personalize learning for their students. Their efforts are often part of initiatives that are funded by grants which vary in size, length, applicant type, application process and evidence required to demonstrate success.

There is one thing that all of these grants have in common: they run out. And when they do, it can derail programs that are working.

At Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, which serves students in one of the fastest-growing regions of Alaska, we use grant funding to support a number of initiatives. Over the years, we’ve learned some tough lessons. We’ve seen programs lose momentum and vanish, devices break and practitioners lose their jobs because funding expired.

In what seems like never-ending times of financial crunch, practicing financially scrappy habits has become the norm for all of us. Our school district is encouraging teachers to be scrappy and sustainable when it comes to seeking alternative approaches to keeping successful programs afloat.

We’re also constantly thinking about what issues we should consider when applying for a grant, to ensure that the work can be maintained after the initial funding runs out. Here are five questions we always ask ourselves when we're deciding whether to pursue a grant opportunity.

Our district has applied for a variety of grant types in the past, including large state-level grants, funding from nonprofit organizations, and funding from private companies. Some grants are specific to a particular student population, such as English Language Learners or students who receive free and reduced lunch; others support the entire student body. In addition to the grants we’ve applied for as a district, we also see individual schools and teachers apply for smaller funding opportunities through crowd-funding platforms such as Donors Choose.

These grants serve a number of efforts such as improved WiFi, increased devices, new curricular programs and new staff roles. Our district has had the most experience learning about grants that support instructional tools and new jobs.

Grant-Funded Curricular Tools

Schools are starved for digital learning resources that are data-driven and support teachers in personalizing curriculum for their students. The market of viable tools is overwhelming and it’s continuously growing as current research expands—but the tools are often expensive.

The student license cost continues to rise as companies continually update and refine their products. Many companies offer “grandfathered in” rates for those who have been with them from the get-go, enticing continued use at reasonable rates. Others offer free professional development or coaching time when subscriptions are renewed.

Some schools take advantage of grants that will allow them year-long access to resources at no cost, although they are fully aware of the financial challenges associated in maintaining its long-term use. There is a mantra: “If it’s worth it, we’ll find a way to pay for it later on.” But that’s not always how it pans out.

Grant-Funded Jobs

Whenever we receive a grant, our initial reaction includes gratitude and excitement. We envision all the ways in which we can use the funds to increase student engagement and improve learning outcomes—and the possibilities seem endless. In many cases though, when we sit down to outline the necessary steps involved with reaching these goals, we realize that we don’t have the human capital.

Grants rarely come with no strings attached. Typically, they require careful planning, project management, design, implementation and review of the new endeavors. Too often, these tasks fall into the lap of someone who already has a full schedule, so sometimes we need to create new roles to make the magic happen.

But creating jobs with grant funds can be risky for many of the individuals involved.

Engaging community participation, planning and leading trainings, tracking purchases, ensuring strong implementation and reporting progress to the funder are just a few of the responsibilities that are typically needed to execute a grant project effectively. It’s tough to find someone with the necessary experience who is willing to take on a benefited, full-time position expected to last 60 months, because it is funded by a five-year federal grant. Even more daunting is the question of who will assume all these duties once funding is exhausted?

A recent job advertisement for a five-year grant funded position in our state clearly outlines the responsibility to “coordinate sustainability efforts.” How can we expect an individual to do this when the position is only expected to funded for five years? It’s incredibly challenging to convince someone to take on such a major role under the pretense that no matter how well they do, we can only guarantee work for a limited period of time.

What Happens When Grants Run Dry?

So what does it look like when grant money runs out? In the worst-case scenario, a program dies, good people lose their jobs and the kids lose out. But sometimes the impact is less dramatic—devices start to break down one at a time, or a teacher needs to drop a lesson because there aren’t enough materials for the whole class.

Classroom expenses can become black holes when it comes to materials, supplies, technology, and books; there is no escape from the ongoing costs involved with creating and maintaining engaging, organized, modern environments for learning. Many dedicated teachers take on these expenses themselves—but that isn’t a sustainable solution.

Asdis Derouen, a veteran second-grade teacher at Swanson Elementary, is all too familiar with this problem. The time, energy and money she invests in making her classroom a fun, safe and successful learning environment is evident upon entering her classroom. The walls are decorated with student-directed goal charts, small group assignments, and artwork created by her current and former students. Her efforts have led to high academic gains and low behavior incidences for students, and strong relationships with families.

Though Derouen is a skilled expert, she still faces the same challenges many other educators do—a wide span of student abilities, an overwhelming teacher-to-student ratio and a classroom that is just too small. But for Derouen, the biggest barrier to improving student outcomes further is budget constraints.

Derouen believes that providing personalized learning opportunities for students is critical. But she also realizes that implementing a project-based learning model, gathering enough materials to provide students with choices, and using a range of high-quality digital and analog curricular tools can get expensive. Securing funding is not only time consuming, but quite unpredictable, which makes planning difficult. Recently, she invested hours of her time applying for a local grant to personalize and digitize STEM instruction. She was one of the top five finalists but in the end was not awarded the funds.

Over the years, Derouen has applied, been awarded, and been denied a slew of grants. She can point to a number of tools and materials in her classroom that she was able to purchase with grant money, but she says most of those grants were awarded years ago so she uses her own money to keep her classroom stocked and up-to-date.

Scrappy and Sustainable Solutions

While there are many challenges involved with using grants to fuel educational objectives, there are some scrappy solutions. Teachers can supplement limited grant funds with crowd-sourced funding opportunities using online platforms such as Donors Choose. They can also consider enlisting their peers or grade-level teams in researching, writing and applying for grants.

For issues with devices or infrastructure, schools can implement “digital first responders” in an effort to cut repair costs. In our school district, digital first responders are already working in schools in defined teaching roles, but have developed strong technical skills to support their building staff. This type of capacity-building not only saves time for many teachers and IT staff, but it also empowers teachers to learn, grow and share their knowledge with peers.

Though a scrappy approach can be quite helpful, the most important lesson we’ve learned is that we need to ask the right questions prior to applying for a grant so we don’t get blind-sided.

Victoria Flint is an educational technology coordinator at Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District in Alaska.

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