School receives $572,500 grant


Medora Principal Austin Absher recently received a phone call that nearly made her burst into tears — but in a good way.

In mid-December, the Indiana Department of Education called to inform her Medora Elementary School was among the recipients of a 1003(g) school improvement grant.

The multi-year competitive grant is awarded to schools that show a strong commitment to building capacity within a school to improve teaching and learning.

The grant is for $572,500 spread out over four years. Absher said at least six schools in the state received funding.

“Once you get over just the general excitement, it’s also just a huge relief because you know how many hours you’ve put into these different initiatives, looking at your school improvement plan and listening to teachers and students and researching what are some of the trends or the things that are doing well in schools, just those initiatives that we know are going to drive student outcomes,” Absher said.

She applied for the grant in October and found out Medora made it to the final round Dec. 1.

A week later, state officials conducted a 30-minute phone interview with school administration, a school board member, some teachers and other stakeholders.

Last year, Medora applied for a school improvement grant but didn’t receive it. This time, Absher said quite a few things were changed in the application process in hopes of landing the competitive grant.

“There were tons of schools in the mix for it, and the fact that we made it through to the final round and then eventually got it, we were really excited,” she said. “Just knowing that we had received it, all of that hard work and everything that we want to do with the kids, it’s finally going to come to fruition over the next few years.”

The overall goal of the grant is to increase student outcomes for the 75 kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, Absher said. The planning phase will start in the spring.

In the school’s improvement plan, one goal is to show a 5 percent increase in both the English/language arts and math achievements on the ISTEP+ test in the spring. Another goal is for student attendance for the lowest 7 percent of students to improve at least 2 percent by the spring.

Both will be addressed by building a STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — framework.

The revised curriculum will incorporate student engagement, high expectations and collaboration and ultimately give students multiple opportunities to enhance their experience of learning at school, Absher said.

“We’re really going to be able to foster a passion for learning with a lot of our kids and not focus so much on the numbers and start to look at what are some alternate ways that our students can learn and discover and question how do we foster collaboration with our kids and inquiry-based learning instead of always having to go back to that test or assessment,” Absher said.

The school will use a portion of the grant funding to hire a STEM facilitator. Part of that person’s job will be to set up a makerspace lab, which is space dedicated to hands-on learning that allows students to share resources and knowledge, work on projects, network, build and create.

The facilitator also will support teachers in their STEM activities and knowledge, and teachers will visit other schools with makerspace labs to see them in action.

Absher said the lab may be in an old kindergarten room, and the school already has quite a bit of technology that will go in there.

“That’s something that we’re super-pumped about,” she said.

Why focus on STEM? Absher said a report from Change the Equation found that Indiana is in desperate need of providing students with STEM-focused teaching and learning.

The organization also reported demand for STEM-related jobs will be twice as high between 2017 and 2027.

“That just shows that we’ve got to ensure that we’re providing our students with the skills that will allow them to be successful when they leave here,” Absher said.

“We want them to leave here and be engaged and capable citizens and be able to go into a field where they will thrive,” she said. “If the need for STEM jobs will be twice as high within that 10-year period, we’ve got to make sure that they are ready to tackle all that comes with those jobs.”

After-school remediation also will be offered to Medora Elementary School students with a focus on individualized learning plans.

“Whether a kid is struggling or whether they are excelling, it would really give these kids an opportunity to grow no matter where they are,” Absher said. “Just because they’ve got all A’s in class doesn’t mean that they are getting what they need. We could give them enrichment activities after school. It’s just really about finding a way to grow everyone’s skills and content knowledge.”

Summer school also will be offered. Absher said she envisions two certified teachers leading that four days a week for about five hours.

One idea tossed around is conducting a STEM camp, allowing the kids to utilize the makerspace lab and building excitement around STEM.

“Those kids who really struggled on ISTEP or once we really look at the data, we’re going to be able to identify the kids who might need those extra interventions,” Absher said. “Even though the kids who are excelling, that might be an opportunity for us to offer some enrichment in the summer and just grow them.”

Absher hopes all of the offerings will prevent attendance issues.

“If we can get kids excited about their learning and about what they are doing, who would want to miss?” she said. “If they know that today, they are going into the makerspace lab and they are going to be working with a robotics kit, I don’t know many kids that would say, ‘Oh, no, I’m going to pass.’ I think at least we’re creating an opportunity that we have not been able to create in the past.”

As part of the grant, the school will hire a parent outreach coordinator to build relationships with parents and the community over the next few years.

“I want this to be more than just a dissemination of information but really creating opportunities with the community and parents to interface with the school in planning and supporting student learning,” she said. “I think that’s going to be necessary for the students’ success is to have that involvement from parents and the community, as well.”

A data facilitator will be hired, too.

“Basically, their job will be to collect and analyze data, developing processes to sustain data-driven decision-making, just making sure that we are doing what we need to be doing with the data that we’re getting,” Absher said.

The grant money also would cover professional development for staff members, whether it’s done in-house or they have to travel somewhere for it.

There are STEM certifications and conferences available, but Absher said they are extremely pricey because they are in high demand.

“This is what schools are doing now,” she said. “If we can take that burden of paying for professional development off of teachers, then that’s awesome.”

The school leadership team, which was developed this school year to be the “eyes and ears” for the corporation, will continue to review the school improvement plan and other initiatives.

The seven people include Absher, the school counselor, a special education teacher and junior-senior high school and elementary teachers.

They will work on improving formative assessment techniques, create a professional learning community and develop literacy skills, and administrators will conduct non-evaluative walkthroughs to provide them with rich feedback on their instruction, Absher said.