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Federal grant to aid district's young readers

by The Western News
| April 10, 2012 10:11 AM

 Libby School District 4 — amid forecasts of declining enrollment and pending fiscal-year deficits — received some good news recently as it was one of 10 districts in Montana to be a recipient of the Striving Readers grant.

The district received the eighth highest grant amount — $306,310 — among Montana schools, behind Great Falls at $1.136 million; Wolf Point,  $971,774; Butte, $836,500; Hardin, $730,845; Anaconda, $496,620; Browning at $399,414 and Lone Rock, $314,998.

Rounding out the other recipients are Charlo, $299,732 and Kalispell, $140,639.

The best part about the grant is, while it will aid students as they strive to improve reading skills, the technological improvements that accompany the grants will immensely enhance the district’s technology.

“This is a great thing for our schools,” said Libby District 4 Superintendent K.W. Maki. “This will allow us to make the technological improvements we wanted to but didn’t have the money to do them.”

   The superintendent pointed out that while the grant money is earmarked for elementary- and middle-school students, the entire student body will benefit.

   “While the grant is for a specific age group, we can see this (the technology) benefiting all age groups,” Maki said.

Stretching District Funds

Maki pointed out more than 80 percent of the district’s General Fund is earmarked for salaries and insurance, leaving precious little beyond that for other items.

   As part of the grant, students at both Libby Elementary and Libby Middle School, within the high school, will receive upgraded wireless Internet technology, new portable computers on a self-charging push cart that can be strolled from classroom to classroom and teachers will have access to portable, laptop computers to aid in monitoring students’ progress.

   Libby’s portion of the $306,310 grant — $204,782 for Libby Elementary and $101,528 for Libby Middle School — represents about 4 percent of the $7.6 million federal grant allocated to Montana in improve literacy.

   In securing the grant, Libby is one of 95 school districts in the state eligible. The allocation breakdown included 15 percent pre-kindergarten, 40 percent elementary schools, 20 percent middle schools and 20 percent high schools.

   Maki was quick to credit District 4 Curriculum Specialist Dr. Jael Prezeau for securing the grant.

   “Jael did a tremendous job for us,” Maki said. “She is extremely valuable to this district,” Maki said of Prezeau. “We’re lucky to have her. She has such a great history with the district and such a great talent with words. She pulled all of this together, and she knows what the grant people are looking for,” Maki said.

Writing During the Holiday

   For her part, Prezeau, who admitted people didn’t see her much at the end of the year because she was writing the grant.

   “I don’t even remember Christmas,” Prezeau said. “For those two to three weeks in December I was busy. It was all just a blur.”

   Prezeau, who called upon teachers, department heads, principals and administrators to contribute, recalled finishing the grant on the final day and having her husband meet her at the Libby Post Office just before 5 p.m.

  “My husband was at the post office to make sure I could bring the grant proposal and still get the thing postmarked that day,” Prezeau said. “We needed to have it postmarked that day or it would be rejected.

   “When we got there, they said getting it — the postmark — was no problem,” she said of Postmaster Bruce Moog. “It was a great relief to finish it. I think we all had our fingers crossed.”

   As with many grants, especially those involving federal funding, there are strings attached, and those strings involved meeting federal guidelines for improved reading requirements.

Demands of the Grant

   Certainly, as the district prepared to apply for a grant that would, perhaps, imposed increased demands on its teachers, school officials felt the need to poll teachers to see whether they were onboard for what could be an increased workload.

   “I did a poll of teachers, making sure they understood it could mean more work for them if we got this grant,” Libby Elementary School Principal Ron Goodman said. “We got a 95 percent positive return from teachers. I think that’s pretty amazing. This comes with the understanding they probably won’t be compensated for this. I think that speaks volumes for our teachers,” Goodman said.

   That teacher commitment didn’t surprise Maki, the superintendent.

   “Educating our kids, that’s our job,” Maki said. “From my office, to the principals, down to the teachers that’s what it’s about. It isn’t about us, it’s about the kids,” Maki said.

Districtwide Benefit of Grant

   While Libby Elementary School will get the lions share of the funding — nearly 67 percent — of the funding, Rik Rewerts, principal of Libby High and Middle School, said he is excited about the improved curriculum and technology the grant will bring.

   “It is for the seventh- and eighth-graders, but the whole school will benefit,” Rewerts said. “But, it’s not just the students who will benefit. I see a lot of professional development that our teachers will gain. 

   “If you look around, this is a grand old building,” Rewerts said from his office. “This grant will allow us to make improvements to this building that we would not have otherwise been able to make.”

   As part of the grant, teachers, principals will have the opportunities to attend special training conferences to further enhance their implementation of the grant. Also, grant administrators will be on hand at each building to monitor progress. 

   “The test will be how our teachers get on board, as they’re time will be further stretched,” Rewerts said. “However, we have good people here. I’m sure they will look at this as a way to grow professionally.

   “I think we all owe Mrs. Prezeau a debt of gratitude,” Rewerts said. “She’s an excellent grant-writer. I know for a fact, other districts hired grant-writers specifically to win this grant, and they didn’t. We owe a lot to Jael.”

    One district staffer, Lenora Reckin will be most-affected by the grant, as she is the district’s kindergarten through sixth-grade reading coach.

   “I’m excited about it,” Reckin said a recent afternoon when she and LES Principal Goodman were talking about the grant in his office.

   “It will give us more technology, and that’s potentially the best part,” she said. “Technology is changing so rapidly. To be able to get even to this point where we’re considering iPads or even Google Chromes and laptops, is a big leap forward for us. We just have to decide what meets our needs,” Reckin said.

   Goodman said with the grant, LES likely will see an improvement of about 50 percent more computers, above the 90 currently in use.

Benefits for Teachers

   “We’ll see so much improvement,” Goodman said. “The big thing is the professional development for our teachers, too. That’s a side benefit after the children. The kids come first.”

   In announcing the grant to Libby Schools, State Superintendent of Public Instruction 

Denise Juneau said the grant will improve basic educational skills. 

   “Reading and writing are vital skills every child must have for their future academic and economic success. This grant will allow Montana to build on successful programs and seek out innovative strategies to improve literacy for children of all ages,” Juneau said.

   “We know that students who struggle with reading are at a higher risk of dropping out of school. This grant is going to provide us with another tool to ensure Montana students are achieving at high levels and earning their high school diploma,” she concluded.