Finding Innovation: A Look at Education Funding in the Plymouth Area

While the classroom is already a space for creativity, teachers sometimes find there isn’t always the support for projects that go above and beyond the typical learning experience. For schools in the Wayzata and Robbinsdale districts, that’s where education foundations have stepped in.

The non-profit organizations fill the gap for projects that typically wouldn’t be financed through the district and school budget, parent-teacher associations or other existing resources. The grants have allowed teachers to bring in new learning techniques and expand the career potential of their students.

Seven Dreams Education Foundation

Robbinsdale Area Schools is home to the Seven Dreams Education Foundation, which serves the Robbinsdale, Crystal, New Hope, Golden Valley, Plymouth, Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center communities. Since its inception in 2003, Seven Dreams has funded 165 grants, totaling more than $331,000 for hands-on learning initiatives.

“It’s not just focused on the school students, but preschool and adult education as well,” board president Peter Zbaracki says. “We’re developing all of those students into that fold.”

To that end, Seven Dreams has funded updated media centers in both Armstrong and Cooper high schools, as well as an initiative called Windows and Mirrors in third grade classrooms across the district. With this initiative, students can “see themselves in books and within the community and greater world.”  Staff appreciation and an orchestra rock concert are other examples of the diverse projects the fund can influence.

Most importantly perhaps is understanding the needs of the teachers in order to help the students.

“[Seven Dreams] is so supportive of teachers,” says Kris Haagenson, a technology integration specialist for Robbinsdale Area Schools. “What I’m doing right now with the kids and virtual reality, it’s engaging them with science learning and giving them a different way to look at it.”

Haagenson’s first grant from Seven Dreams, around 15 years ago, was a proposal for a newspaper. When she wanted to do something for students who loved writing, Haagenson got the idea for a school newspaper. Today the project is still happening and having an impact on kids every year.

“The day they announce the grants, it’s like a prize patrol,” Haagenson says. “It’s very empowering for teachers.”

Life science teacher Kristine Browers at Plymouth Middle School has been able to purchase science equipment with grant funds. “The new equipment has transformed pre-lab days into additional hands-on lab days,” says Browers, who says the equipment has also introduced students to science-related career fields.

Students have been able to “perform hands-on self-designed experiments related to heart rate and grip strength” with one of the new pieces of equipment from last year’s grant, the Vernier LabQuest2, in Browers’ classroom.

A portion of the funding is made possible by the Bird Bash, an event that directly benefits the fund. Attendees can donate and bid on auction items. Smaller fundraisers like Give to the Max day also benefit the fund, while more specific funds like Instruments for Kids allow students to dabble in the arts. Community members can donate their old instruments so they can be refurbished and used by elementary students who otherwise couldn’t afford them. If you’re unable to attend the Bird Bash, donations are accepted year-round on the Seven Dreams website.

Wayzata Education Fund

 “When I give people an elevator pitch about it, I talk a lot about giving teachers the chance to do things when they don’t have the budget,” says Adam Hannemann, chair of the Wayzata Education Fund.

Hannemann has worked in IT about 20 years and his fascination with the technology began at an early age. “I didn’t cut grass for my neighbors, I fixed computers,” he says.

That enthusiasm for learning is what the fund encourages, and more than $200,000 in grants has been distributed since it began in 2003. Up to $50,000 in one time grants spread across single or multiple projects will be provided for this upcoming school year.

Students in Dawn Duwenhoegger’s 3D design class at Wayzata High School have been taking full advantage of their access to a 3D printer funded by the education fund.

“They’ve talked about going into some kind of design with 3D printers or product design,” Duwenhoegger says. One student  printed an intricate knot for their first project.

“The students have been really excited to watch their sculptures come to life through the printer, and seeing the final product has been awesome. We would have never been able to do it without the grant,” she says.

Second grade teacher Samantha Exsted’s class at Meadow Ridge Elementary was able to learn and grow with a tower garden because of the fund. The garden grows indoors without soil, expanding on the students’ plant unit from the grade before.

The garden has been a conversation-starter for the class. Exsted credits the fund for inspiring the kids, helping them to develop critical thinking skills.

“They’re asking these deep questions,” says Exsted. “It has pushed them further.”

While these two examples show how the fund has had an impact on learning on a smaller scale, Hannenman points to getting a virtual reality kit from Google as an important milestone. With two schools co-sponsoring the grant, the fund helped make it possible to share the virtual reality goggles  between the two schools.

“We try to give teachers and staff the chance to step out of the box a little bit,” says Hannenman. “It pushes things one idea further and makes things that much better for the students.”

While the almost half of the supported projects are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) related, language arts, reading and music are also priorities. In the last few years, projects included an all-district choir and having a composer work with the middle and high school orchestras.

The board will announce the recipients of new grants next month. Hannenman says they’re looking for proposals to meet their “criteria for innovation, scope and number of students served.”

The fund holds a Drive for Excellence golf tournament to raise money, but donations can be made throughout the year on their website.