Oct 12 2006

How Educators Use Grants to Secure Funding for Their Technology Projects

To get the best technology, school administrators must master the art of the grant process.

Got pressure?

You do if you’re coping with a budget squeeze that’s a constant in a high-poverty urban school district, while also trying to ensure that your K-12 students stay in school and aren’t left out of the digital age. Yet some educators are managing that seemingly impossible feat.

Take Suzanne DeWald, development officer for the Schenectady City Schools in New York. She pumps up her schools’ learning resources through federal and state technology grants. During the past 10 years, she has secured more than $20 million dollars for technology and, overall, about $45 million in grants for the school system, which operates 16 schools with more than 8,700 students.

“We made a commitment to students that they will not wind up left behind and become part of the digital divide,” says De Wald. “Many of these students face enormous challenges, and it’s essential to get them more engaged in learning.”

Improvement in student performance is also paramount at the 119 schools served by the Area 5 Learning Technology Center in southwestern Illinois, says Vicki De Witt, the center’s director. Some of the schools are among the poorest in the state, with typical funding levels hovering between $3,500 and $4,500 per student per year for instructional costs. That contrasts with $8,000 to $9,000 per student at some of the most affluent districts in the state, she notes. For the poorer schools, grants are essential to providing a solid 21st-century education.

At the Beaufort County School District in Beaufort County, S.C., strengthening the foundation for a solid education meant closing the technology gap among the district’s teachers. Many did not have the computer skills or training necessary to effectively integrate technology into the curriculum, says Barbara Catenaci, educational technology development specialist. To fund the more holistic approach that the district needed, she went after—and won—a range of grants.

For many districts, grants represent the only way to provide the educational resources students need. But finding funding for technology in these lean times isn’t a task for the faint of heart.

“Grants are an extremely valuable tool, but they are not easy to come by,” says Barry Sweeny, president of Best Practice Resources, a Wheaton, Ill., consulting and grant-writing firm.

With funding for grants on the decline, school districts face keen competition for the remaining funds. To be successful, schools must develop a strong case based on solid facts and information, advises Sara Fitzgerald, a vice president at Funds For Learning, an Arlington, Va., educational technology consulting firm.

“It’s important to define your goals, know why you’re pursuing technology and understand how you can apply it successfully,” Fitzgerald says. “Otherwise, it can be viewed as just another expensive frill.”

Making the Grade

Laying a solid technology foundation is one of the key goals at the Beaufort County School District. Operating 26 schools in urban and rural areas, Beaufort County is a demographic smorgasbord. About 57 percent of the students get free or reduced-price lunches.

Bond measures in 1995 and 2000 enabled the district to begin building a technology infrastructure, including local and wide area networks and wireless capabilities. However, in order to make the infrastructure effective, the district had to find ways to connect teachers and students and provide them with the skills necessary to make the best possible use of resources. Early on, many teachers did not have computers, and only a few had training in how to use them effectively, Catenaci recalls.

Four years ago, the district won a $1.8 million Technology Innovation Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant allowed the district to expand the use of notebook computers. It also received several smaller grants from other programs. Beaufort County used that grant money to get teachers up to speed on PC use and to improve the integration of technology tools and resources with learning.

The district also set up a payroll deduction program that lets teachers who need a desktop or notebook PC defer any interest on the purchase for two years. “Today, more than 90 percent of our teachers have a computer at home, and 100 percent have access at school,” Catenaci says.

Beaufort County is now documenting the link between technology use and student performance. It has already seen an improvement in student attendance and test scores.

To get grants, a school district must devote considerable time and resources to the project. “Without putting a good deal of energy into the process, the chances for success are not great,” says Fitzgerald of Funds For Learning.

The grant application process also must include an examination of potential grant sources. The grant writer will need to make a strong case for how the grant can create change in the school, Fitzgerald points out. “The grant-making organization wants to be associated with people who are going to execute well and sustain the project once the funding dries up. They want recipients who are accountable for results.”

Class Struggles

Schenectady City Schools used a federal Technology Innovation Challenge Grant and state-sponsored Title III (Technology for Education Act of 1994) and Title IID (Enhancing Education Through Technology Act of 2001) grants to implement computers and wireless and broadband technologies, plus an interactive curriculum using videoconferencing.

One of the biggest selling points for the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant was a proposed interactive videoconferencing initiative. “We were intent on evolving beyond an electronic school bus and creating an experience that changes the way young people learn,” says Schenectady’s De Wald.

The district has linked students via videoconferencing to actors at the Globe Theatre in London, curators at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and scientists at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Students also use the videoconferencing system to view the environment and to ask questions. Lesson plans reflect the integrated learning approach.

Schenectady is not alone. Thanks to a $10 million Technology Innovation Challenge Grant and a $3.3 million No Child Left Behind Grant, Area 5 added PCs, handheld computers, wireless networking and other tech tools to its schools. It also assisted schools in revamping their curricula in a significant way by integrating IT in both the teaching and learning experiences.

“The goal is to get kids wrapped around authentic problem solving and help them learn how to gather information and put it to use,” Area 5’s DeWitt says. “We have to find a way to reach kids and push graduation rates up.”

However, even if a grant applicant’s goals are admirable, that does not ensure success. Effective grant writing remains as much an art as a science, cautions Sweeny of Best Practice Resources.

“Too often, the grant proposal centers on what the applicant desires rather than on showing an understanding of what the grant provider offers and demonstrating a match,” he says.

“A well-written grant grabs the grant reader’s attention, creating alignment between the proposal and the granter’s goals. It demonstrates how technology can help a school achieve better student results.”

Samuel Greengard is a Burbank, Calif.-based business and technology journalist.

Funding Levels for the Enhancing Education Through Technology Program

Fiscal Year 2004............$691,840,913

Fiscal Year 2003............$695,946,750

Fiscal Year 2002............$700,500,000

Fiscal Year 2001............$450,000,000

Fiscal Year 2000............$425,000,000

Funding Levels for the Technology Innovation Challenge Grant

Fiscal Year 2003............$29,508,375

Fiscal Year 2002............$61,877,968

Fiscal Year 2001............$136,328,000

Fiscal Year 2000............$146,255,000

Source: U. S. Department of Education