20 years ago, two families and the Michigan City Chamber of Commerce took a bold step and supported teachers where they needed it the most…in the classroom. They wanted to support local education, but didn’t want to duplicate what they felt tax dollars should do. They each invested seed money and started the Michigan City Education Foundation (MCEF.)They asked the Unity Foundation of La Porte County to provide the vehicle for making $350 grants or less for classroom projects in grades kindergarten through 8th.
The Unity Foundation stepped up. It was a great way to foster innovation and creativity in the classroom and provide a more exciting, hands-on learning experience for the students. The founders didn’t want to start a separate organization and more significantly, they made the fund permanent, so it will provide grants year after year. Their generous and visionary act created lasting and meaningful impact on the local public and parochial schools.
During its first twenty years, MCEF has granted $192,269 to 906 teachers and has touched at least 60,000 students! All this from a simple idea to get money into the hands of teachers for ideas they wanted to implement in their classrooms.
A volunteer committee reviews and then recommends its picks to the Unity Foundation board of directors. Once a year, the volunteers visit the classrooms to see the ideas in action. The schools really look forward to the visits from “The Ladies” as they are fondly referred to. The projects are often reusable or are eagerly shared between teachers and so many more students benefit.
In May of each year, a reception is held at the historic Barker Mansion in Michigan City. Teachers come on their own time to tell about their projects and how they worked (or didn’t work) and how it engaged and inspired their students. A very popular project is dissecting owl pellets. The kids dissect them to see first-hand what the owls ate. It’s not as gross as it sounds and the kids love doing it. Unfortunately, owl pellets cannot be reused. One teacher shared how her butterfly kit failed to produce any live butterflies and how they creatively dealt with the set-back. The reception is uplifting and connects us to teachers and teachers to each other. We get a peek into what the students are learning. It’s often much different than when we were in school.
After one reception, Michigan City Area Schools Superintendent, Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins and then Michigan City Mayor Chuck Oberlie wanted the same opportunities for high school and career and technical education professionals. So they wrote their own checks to start the Teacher Innovation Fund. They’ve joined others who started their own teacher grant funds. They too are permanently endowed and will support teachers year after year.
Teacher grant funds are just one of many examples of how people with good ideas can impact education right in their own neighborhoods. For more examples, click here. Community foundations, like Unity can support our teacher innovation, now and for the long haul.