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“Wind in our sails”: The (not-so-mini) impacts of mini-grants to Vermont public schools

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As any parent of a school-age child knows firsthand, COVID-19 forced drastic operational changes upon Vermont’s K-12 schools since spring 2020. Educating students while keeping them and school staff safe took different shapes from one district to the next, but a common denominator was additional costs. Whether remote, in-person, or a mixture of both, adapting to the pandemic has meant a lot of unforeseen budget items—creating significant challenges for many school systems already under stress. 

The scale of need across the state was enormous, and by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year, the scope of additional public support was not yet clear.

Drawing on its belief in the power of coordinated philanthropy to make an impact at scale, the Vermont Community Foundation launched a mini-grant program to Vermont K-12 public schools in partnership with the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA). Since May 2020, over 81 Vermont schools have received more than $300,000 in grants with funding pooled from the Community Foundation’s VT COVID-19 Response Fund, two Community Foundation fundholders, the Barr Foundation, and National Life Group.

To the administrators and educators at the 81 schools that received mini-grants, the grant checks—although small in comparison to school budgets and needs—were received as affirmations that people cared about their school community and trusted them to know how to put the funds to best use. “It was wind in our sails,” said one Vermont administrator.

Most mini-grant recipient schools used the funding to enhance student wellness, outdoor learning, and access to technology. Examples include:

  • Orleans Elementary School purchased colorful outdoor gear so students could comfortably play outside regardless of the weather

    Orleans Elementary School

     
  • Braintree Elementary School built an outdoor classroom so students could maintain physical distance while learning. “As a small, rural school, the addition of this outdoor learning space will have a huge impact on our school,” says Braintree Elementary Principal Pat Miller. “Teachers and students were so excited to be able to be outside learning and to have a more formal space to do that learning in.” 

    Braintree Elementary School

  • Newport City Elementary School upgraded aging technology for student use at school and at home
  • Rutland Northwest Primary School sent books to students’ homes to help build literacy connections, joy, and confidence
  • Barre City Middle & Elementary School provided wellness materials and art supplies for students experiencing social and emotional distress
  • Richford Elementary School expanded its outdoor classroom space to provide opportunities for students to learn in a natural environment while maintaining social distancing
  • Central Vermont Career Center provided self-care toolkits for students and families that included educational materials to recognize and respond to mental health needs
  • Cold Hollow Career Center in Franklin County enhanced a program for grades 6-10 that provides food to Enosburg and Richford Middle and High Schools and educates students on the importance of local food systems

The mini-grant program and partnership with the Vermont Principals’ Association affirmed and surfaced key lessons for philanthropy during a crisis. Among them:

  • Partnering with trusted statewide organizations enabled the Community Foundation to put COVID-19 Fund dollars to work quickly and locally.
    The VPA and their partners in this work, the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Counselors Association, have deep relationships with and insights into school communities across the state, which allowed them to quickly develop an efficient grant program built on grassroots grantmaking best practices: a short grant request form, a quick decision timeline, and a “blind” evaluation process in which schools’ identifying information was removed. The process was designed with equity in mind: schools with a high percentage of students who qualify for free/reduced lunch were prioritized.
  • Although these grants were very small in the context of school budgets, they sparked outsized positivity and hope.
    Many became emblematic of schools’ COVID-19 response: creating outdoor classrooms, buying fun gear that help kids spend more time outside, sending food and kits and other supports home to students and families. VPA reports the grants were a “psychological boost” because they demonstrated to school staff that people care about their school and their students—and that as school staff, they’re trusted to know how best to meet the needs of their school community.
  • We continue to see significant remaining/unmet need among schools and students.
    Over 150 viable school requests were not funded because of the limits of available grant funds, including over 35 viable school requests as part of the latest round of grants. Even in the context of significant federal funds to public schools through the American Rescue Plan, there remain clear roles for philanthropy to support local needs.

If you would like to learn more about how philanthropy can support public schools, students, and systems, please contact Jane Kimble at jkimble@vermontcf.org or 802-388-3355 ext. 286.