Granting an education: Schools across county rely on grant funding for everything from food to books
Educators around the county agree: There's not a single student in Berkshire County whose school life is not affected in some way by grant funding.
Grant funding can come from a wide variety of sources to achieve a wide variety of goals. And it can comprise a significant portion of a district's resources. In Pittsfield schools last year, there was $7.6 million in grant funding in a roughly $55 million operating budget. At the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, grant funding makes up roughly 2.5 percent of the overall operating budget.
Because of grant funding, class sizes are smaller, teachers are continually trained in new skills and curriculums, academic disciplines are more coordinated and target the same goals, kids from families of modest means eat breakfast and lunch every school day, students from other countries are learning English, the technology is better, the textbooks are newer and there are more resources in the libraries. Those are just a few examples. Grant funding can also pay for after-school programs, preschool programs, some staffing, analyses, equipment, vehicles, and widespread training programs for faculty and administrators. In Pittsfield, students can attend summer school for free due to grant funding.
Most grant funding comes from state and federal sources and normally targets specific educational goals.
Then there is grant funding from foundations, corporations and other private sector entities.
Many grants are competitive, meaning applicants for the funds compete against each other with the most deserving applicants receiving funds.
On the downside, applying for grants can be a frustrating, complicated, time-consuming, long-term process with no guarantee of success.
Kathleen Latham, who coordinates Title I programs at Pittsfield Public Schools, said government grants come with "a tremendous amount of reporting requirements, both for quarterly results and for comparability to other districts and other budget years."
But many smaller school districts don't qualify for many grants, which tend to target larger school districts with larger poverty and special education challenges. Some just don't have the staffing or the resources to devote to researching and applying for many grants.
And some grants expire with no commitment of further funding, meaning that a program initiated with grant funding, such as the popular after-school program in North Adams, could come to an end if that source of revenue goes away, leaving educators, students and families in a lurch.
A few years back, according to James Montepare, superintendent of North Adams Public Schools, the district initiated an after-school program in several elementary schools. It became quite popular for families with working parents. But a decrease in the amount of grant funding forced the school district to curtail the program to just one location. If that funding continues to dwindle, the program could disappear, unless the school district can find another source of funding.
Nevertheless, grant funding significantly impacts every student's education every day.
One way to avoid the pitfalls of starting a program with grant funding, said Tracy Crowe, deputy superintendent at Pittsfield Public Schools, is to use the funds to build in capacity that will allow the program to continue. And grant funding for professional development -- teaching teachers new skills or how to initiate new educational tactics -- allows the teachers to sustain the program or teach the new skills to other educators in the district, which then stay with the district.
Occasionally, when grant funding for a specific program disappears, community groups pick up the slack with local grants, such as the United Way, or local foundations, like the Berkshire Bank Foundation.
Other sources of local funding include the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Community-based grant funding can provide some much-needed resources for essential needs, administrators explained, but generally is smaller in nature than the state and federal grant funding.
Because most grants require complicated and extensive application procedures, some grants are not pursued, especially competitive grants that hold little promise of approval.
"There are a lot of good programs that don't get funding," said Liz Baker, Pittsfield Schools' 21st Century Community Learning Centers coordinator. "It used to be easier, but now, with less money, it is much more competitive. So we try to parlay any grant into as much bang for the buck as we can. We talk to each other every day and get as creative as we can."
"We figure out how to blend funding streams; some programs have several funding sources," added Tammy Gage, student services facilitator at Pittsfield Schools.
In fact, with tax revenues decreasing and spending budgets slashed at the federal, state and local levels, educators at all levels are continually on the prowl for new sources of revenue, and grant funding can rescue a successful program that might have been bound for the scrap heap.
At MCLA, staff and faculty apply for grants from a wide variety of charitable foundations, and from state and federal sources of grant revenue as well.
"We are very thoughtful in how we seek our grant funding," said James Stakenas, vice president of administration and finance. He said the idea is to secure grant funding that will help strengthen the institution and support the education process.
"Grant funding can be a lever to generate innovative thinking and ways to implement those innovations," said Lisa Donovan, associate professor of fine and performing arts at MCLA. This semester, Donovan is teaching a class on how to apply for and procure grant funding for the arts.
Grant funding recently allowed some of the MCLA arts students to attend the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference in New York City for six days.
They had the opportunity to design their own show season, complete with budgets and marketing plans.
"We met agents and performers, with people already in the field," said theater student Veronica Gibson. "It was immersive."
Even when the college applies for a grant and does not get it, a relationship has been established providing possibilities for grant funding from the same source in the future.
"It's about building relationships," said Marianne Drake, chief advancement officer at MCLA. "You may not get funding at first, but now both parties are learning about each other. You need to always have the long view."
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