December 13, 2012

Clearing a path forward

Teachers turn to local grant support for education innovation

By Christopher Smith

— The path from North Whitfield Middle School to Coahulla Creek is uneven, overgrown and hard to maneuver. The same could be said for public education in Georgia after years of state funding cuts. That hasn’t prevented Shell Underwood from seeking to clear a path to both.

Underwood, a seventh-grade science and math teacher at North Whitfield, received a $1,184 grant earlier this year from the Whitfield Education Foundation to purchase a weed eater, utility wagon and other outdoor care tools. Underwood got the OK this week from three property owners to trim down parts of their land so that students can more easily reach Coahulla Creek. Students will eventually test the water quality and learn about the ecosystem.

“We have been very fortunate to get the grant from the foundation,” Underwood said. “Every little bit helps us teach these kids, and saving money is good in these tough times. It’s good for everyone — parents, teachers, administration. It’s nice to know you’re doing something good and giving to the kids.”

The water tests will determine the quality of the creek for insects, fish and other creatures that depend on it; the results will be sent to Delta Laboratories, a nonprofit organization that oversees the nationwide Adopt-a-Stream program that Underwood’s class is now part of. Grant funding has also let Underwood take her students snorkeling in several local rivers to learn about life under water.

“It’s awesome because we get to go out and see nature, we get to go out into the world and see the real stuff,” said Erin Nelson, 12. “It’s better than just seeing pictures in textbooks.”

Emmi Beard, 13, agrees.

“We’re learning a lot about nature, more than most because we get to actually experience it,” Emmi said. “Our teachers probably just think it’s all about learning, but we (students) also think ‘This is so awesome, we get to go outside today.’”

Underwood says the grant — called Pioneers Assess Tributary Health, or PATH — is one example of how teachers are finding ways to fund their classes outside the regular school budget.

“PATH seeks to expose ... students from the school to on-site field and classroom experience (and) stresses the connection between humans and the quality of the environment,” the grant application reads.

Mary Ellen Kinsey, foundation director, said hearing stories from students who are excited to learn “affirms that someone is gaining from what we do.”

“Students get empowered through knowledge and they need it more than ever,” Kinsey said. “Our whole community is in the same boat and things are difficult on everyone, but we hope the grants help everyday learning. Our teachers are doing great work, but that often takes materials and resources that can’t always be budgeted. So several teachers have to pay out of pocket to bring in innovative teaching ideas. We understand the need to fund education and offer alternatives in light of budget cuts.”

But to offer funding to educators the foundation has to be funded, too, said Kinsey.

“We try to raise as much money for the kids as we can,” she said. “We hold Jeans Day a few times a year where teachers can pay $5 to wear jeans to work. There’s also Showcase of the Stars, which we just finished, and an annual golf tournament at the Dalton Golf and Country Club on April 29.”

This year, the foundation raised more than $25,000 in grant funding that went to 19 local teachers and 13 county schools.

The payoff?

“School isn’t boring,” Thomas Gibson, 13, said. “I don’t want to fall asleep in class because I’m enjoying the experience too much.”

That’s one of the reasons Kinsey hopes the foundation will continue to be able to offer opportunities that engage students.

“To be truthful, it will be a challenging year and maybe our toughest one,” she said. “But we’re looking forward to clearing a way to the future. We’re looking for more sponsorship for our events, donations — which are tax-deductible since we’re a nonprofit — and any support from the community. We’re just roll-up-your-sleeves hard-working people trying to do the best for education. We’re looking for new avenues for growth and we welcome anyone to contact us.”

For more information on the foundation, contact Kinsey at (706) 217-6756 or