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Source: Santa Barbara News-Press

If public school teachers want something done, that almost always means reaching into their own pockets to see it through. Around 94% of teachers report personally funding necessary school supplies, a 2018 Department of Education survey found. That’s $479 of their own salaries going back into the classroom ―- until now.

The Santa Barbara Education Foundation is here to settle the debt, giving teachers not what they’re owed but what they’ve earned.

On Jan. 8, SBEF presented 56 teachers with nearly $85,000 in grants at its annual award ceremony, supplying the purchase of anything from basic books and pens to solar cars and trips to New York City. Once fulfilled, these grants will impact almost 12,500 students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District.

“SBEF is here to support teachers and foster creativity,” said Katie Szopa, SBEF Programs Manager. “The District does a great job already, but our organization can fill in holes where needed. We see ourselves as advocates for the whole community.”

Since 2018, SBEF has awarded 114 grants, totaling $165,000. While this is only the grant program’s second year, the idea is a familiar one. Back in 1985, when SBEF first started, the organization primarily focused on supporting teachers any way they could manage, namely grants.

Though that focus since broadened to other programs, SBEF saw a growing need in the community.

“We were tabling at an employees’ benefit fair and noticed that a lot of teachers were spending their own pocket money on things for the classroom,” said Ms. Szopa. “We started to think about what we could do to give teachers some extra spending money for basic supplies and innovative thinking.”

After reaching out, SBEF soon found itself in the position to give back, receiving thousands from local donors. This opened a new door to SBEF and a new opportunity to teachers. Under the revitalized grant program, teachers could choose among three funding categories, ranging from $500 to $5,000.

Simply put, they were no longer limited to the size of their pockets.

“The projects are all so diverse,” said Ms. Szopa. “My favorite part is reading all the applications that come in, just seeing all the ideas that teachers have for their classrooms. We had 93 proposals this year, and it was really hard to choose.”

While SBEF couldn’t fund every request, those they could are already seeing an impact.

At Monroe Elementary School, SBEF’s support is taking the Green Team Sustainability Project farther than kindergarten teacher Ellen Hunter could have ever imagined.

“When I first started (the Sustainability Project), the only thing it required was me, my time and students willing to volunteer,” said Ms. Hunter. “SBEF has allowed me to take my vision to the next level.”

This vision dates back to the fall, when Ms. Hunter noticed the vast amount of food waste students produced everyday. To her, this had a simple fix ―-composting. Without a moment to spare, Ms. Hunter brought together a group of students, or the green team as they’re affectionately known, to make that solution the standard.

“Our goal is to create more awareness around sustainability and environmental issues, educating the student body from kindergarten to sixth grade,” said Ms. Hunter. “We want to teach them why and how they can compost, even stopping them to think about the food they eat to begin with.”

Every day, the green team rushes through their sack lunches to stand by with a yellow compost bin while other students dispose of their food. What used to need a constant reminder is now habit.

Once the project had begun, Ms. Hunter watched the student body change around her. But she still wanted more.

“I created this schedule of students, worked with the city, got everything up and running, and it wasn’t enough,” said Ms. Hunter. “I knew there was so much more I could do. That’s where the grants came in.”

Funded for $4,500, Ms. Hunter has plans to bring a long list of resources to Monroe. This will include a vermicompost, or worm composting bin, raised cedar garden beds for the kindergarten playground and sustainable play structures made out of wood. Other smaller purchases will cover gifts for volunteers, additional composting bins and last but not least, green vests for student monitors.

With the addition of these new items, the Green Team Sustainability Project stands to last long into the future. Not only that, the initiative also seeks to motivate change far beyond the lunch tables.

“Hopefully this transfers to the home,” said Ms. Hunter. “We can create an awareness that spreads to the family. Instead of blindly throwing something in the trash, they’ll think of their kids and maybe make a different choice.”

While making waves, Ms. Hunt’s project doesn’t come close to capturing SBEF’s reach. For Michael Lynch at Dos Pueblos High School, the organization’s support allowed him to pursue a dream he didn’t even think possible.

With his $5,000 grant, Mr. Lynch hopes to purchase two portable EKG machines and sheep hearts to dissect for his medical biology class. This idea had been eight years in the making.

“I’ve always had this pipe dream of having a whole cardiovascular unit, ever since I piloted my medical biology course. I didn’t really believe it would happen,” said Mr. Lynch. “When our principal sent out a letter about SBEF to the staff, I thought, ‘Why not?’”

To his surprise, Mr. Lynch was funded in full.

“My brain is whirring constantly with all the interesting things that could be done in the classroom,” said Mr. Lynch. “This is one of those ideas coming to fruition.”

The new tools will allow students to see their own hearts beating in live time or learn what it’s like to dissect a heart attack. They’re opportunities for real world application seldom offered to high school students.

“A lot of them watch ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ or ‘House,’ but they may not know what’s really going on,” said Mr. Lynch. “This way they’ll know what’s happening on their screens or feel empowered if they ever need to use CPR. They’ll have the skills to look back on if any of them become doctors.”

SBEF may be funding the future doctors of the world, but sometimes even the smallest contributions leave the biggest mark. At Santa Barbara High School, Kristyne Hastie received $500 to purchase sensory regulation tools for her special education class.

For a lot of Ms. Hastie’s students, who have sensory processing disorders like autism, these tools are essential. When kids have sensory processing issues, their brains have trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. This means living in a constant flight, fight or freeze in reaction to stimuli.

“Someone can either be highly over- or underwhelmed by sensory input,” said Ms. Hastie. “If you’re underwhelmed, for example, a regular hug wouldn’t feel like anything to you. You’d need a tight, tight squeeze to feel any pressure at all.

“At the high school level, it’s important for my students to regulate sensory input on their own,” Ms. Hastie continued. “That’s really where SBEF has made a world of difference. What I bought with the grant will help students get the input they need to feel stable.”

Walk into Ms. Hastie’s classroom and you’ll find all kinds of sensory regulation tools, including two trampolines, yoga balls and a spin board, but none as expensive or effective as those purchased through SBEF.

Now students can spend all day swirling around on wobble stools, chairs with rounded bottoms perfect for rocking back and forth.

“When kids are hyperactive or fidgety, they constantly need stimulus,” said Ms. Hastie. “The wobble stools let them get the input they need without being disruptive to the rest of the class.”

Another addition includes the peapod calming station, which looks like an inflatable canoe and acts like a hug. Once in the peapod, people can wiggle down as far as they’d like, letting the nylon walls compress every muscle. This is for someone who feels agitated and might need a little extra squeeze to feel relaxed.

Others may want to work out their agitation with something a little more dynamic, like a punching bag. This is especially useful for some of Ms. Hastie’s students, who used to get their sensory input from an unwilling yoga ball.

“I had boys that would go into the sensory room, throw (the balls around) and accidentally break stuff,” said Ms. Hastie. “It wasn’t their fault, but I kept trying to think of what I could to fulfill that heavy work need.

“A punching bag is socially acceptable and age appropriate,” Ms. Hastie continued. “Plus they look really awesome hitting it.”

Above all else, these tools give Ms. Hastie’s students the autonomy they need to understand their senses on their own. If someone is feeling upset after lunch, they can just hit the punching bag a couple times, cool down for a second and go about their schoolwork.

“Watching students be able to self-initiate strategies is beautiful,” said Ms. Hastie. “There’s just been the most incredible transformation. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

Without SBEF, Ms. Hastie wouldn’t have had access to such essential supplies. In districts short of these resources, she can’t imagine how students could have the necessary support to grow into their own.

“Students can’t engage in academics without the tools to meet their needs,” said Ms. Hastie. “It’s like having glasses without the right prescription. You can’t see anything.”

Knowing this has made Ms. Hastie all the more appreciative.

“I’m so incredibly grateful to the Foundation,” said Ms. Hastie. “It’s helped me promote a level of independence I couldn’t have offered any other way. I can do so much more in an environment where teaching and learning are meant to happen.”