POWHATAN – For many Powhatan educators, the shock hasn’t quite worn off.
Last week, Powhatan County Public Schools was rocked by the announcement that a local couple planned to donate more than $400,000 to be used for scholarships, programming, and giving $1,000 to every PCPS teacher and school counselor this school year.
Even as educators were readying their classrooms for the start of the 2019-2020 school year, which started Tuesday, they were also still overwhelmed by the generosity of Bob and Karla Curtis, the Powhatan couple sharing some of the profits from the sale of their company, PIEtech Inc.
Karla Curtis visited all five public schools in the district to share the news directly with each building’s staff. Every time she unveiled another step in their plan, the staff members became more excited and shocked.
Michelle Clark couldn’t wrap her brain around the news. The first and second grade special education teacher at Flat Rock Elementary School said she looked at her teammates in disbelief (in a good way).
“As Mrs. Curtis went in greater detail, I became shocked; I was at a loss for words. I had an overwhelming feeling of joy and happiness. I even had goose bumps all over my arms. I couldn’t believe such kind human beings would do such a remarkable thing,” Clark said.
Some of the teachers who responded to questions about their reactions to the announcement said they haven’t decided what they will do with their $1,000 grant. Some seem overwhelmed by the possibilities now open to them. At the same time, where the money goes might be influenced by the ways the teachers say they have already been spending out of pocket for years, often to the tune of several hundred dollars.
Clark said several different ideas went through her head as she absorbed the amazing news. She said she already spends her own money on items ranging from school supplies to classroom incentives, but this “grant has inspired me to think outside the box.”
“I have a few items in mind that I would like to purchase for my classroom that will meet the needs of my students (sensory items, incentive prizes, and social stories). By being blessed with this money, I will be able to buy things that my students and I will need throughout the school year without second guessing my order due to money restraints,” she said. “There are endless possibilities this money has opened up for me, and I can’t wait to explore my options.”
Claudia Stocker and Sophia Bastaich co-teach seventh grade math at Powhatan Middle School. They estimated they probably spend a combined $800 per year of their own funds for everything from candy or small gifts to reward their students to classroom supplies to items they can use in creative activities.
The two teachers have discussed plans for their individual grants and agreed a big factor will be clothing, food, and hygiene products students need but are not getting at home. They have talked about using the money on resources that can be used to celebrate the successes of their students; amping up their real-life lessons, as well as saving some for student issues that pop up unexpectedly.
Jessica Miller, a second grade teacher at Pocahontas Elementary, said the possibilities for how she will spend her money feel endless, but as an avid reader, she knows she is going to invest in books for her students.
“I will be purchasing books that can be put in the hands of my students. I would like to have more classroom library books, read-aloud picture books, instructional books for guided reading, and take home reading books. I love to gift students with books that get them excited about reading,” she said.
In a normal school year, Miller also purchases general school supplies, items to enhance her instruction, and personal items that her students need. For instance, there are students in need of snacks, winter jackets, gloves, and Christmas presents.
“As teachers, we are compelled to help families in any way we can because we don't want to see a child go without. I want to provide the most positive school experience for all my students,” she said.
English teacher Corbin Wright is new to PCPS this year as she prepares for her first year at Powhatan High School but her 16th year of teaching in Virginia. In all that time, she said she has “never experienced such an overwhelming show of support and gratitude to educators. It made me feel thankful to be part of a county where the community truly believes in and advocates for quality public education.”
Wright said she spends anywhere from $200 to $500 a year out of pocket on her classroom, depending on the needs of her students. Usually, these funds go toward basic, operable classroom supplies such as pens, paper, tissues, or books to expand the classroom library. Other years, she invested a bit more in order to broaden student exposure to meaningful technology by purchasing items like Spheros or iPod Touches from which the students could run a variety of educational, collaborative learning apps.
Wright added that she hasn’t made definite plans for her $1,000 yet. She wants to get to know her students and “make sure the investment I make is one from which all students will benefit.”
Jill Dewey, a first grade teacher at Powhatan Elementary School, also said she is also waiting to meet her new students and look for ways that she can best use the funds to enhance their learning.
Dewey said she spends an average of $750, or $50 to $70 a month, of her own money for classroom needs. Usually the money is allotted for new books, supplies for crafts or STEM activities, snacks or treats, and school supplies for the students. Providing a classroom library with new and engaging material allows her students to find topics that will begin their love of reading. She added that “any teacher will tell you that keeping a stash of snacks or treats are important.”
While she doesn’t have definite plans, Dewey said she feels “freed in knowing that cost will not be a restriction to the needs that need to be met. My ideas are nearly limitless and the students within my classroom will benefit tremendously.”
Rebecca Lendyak-McMahon, eighth grade school counselor at Powhatan Middle School, said she was already shocked by the idea of all the teachers getting an individual grant when it sank in that counselors were being included as well.
The middle school’s counseling department has been dreaming of creating a "mindfulness room" so students have easy access to calming strategies and tools that include visual, audio and tactical elements.
“However, we have been struggling with how to create this space in an authentic manner without the funds or with very limited funds to do so,” she said. “This grant will allow us to create this authentic space for students to take a moment to decompress while learning self-calming strategies so that they can return to their task feeling settled and stronger.”
Grants for programs
In addition to the $1,000 individual grants, part of the Bob and Karla Curtis’ donation is a $45,000 grant that will be split between the school district’s music program, the career and technical education (CTE) program, and the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program. Money can be used for any activities or supplies for each of the programs at the discretion of their program coordinators.
Libbey Kitten, K-12 science/STEM specialist, said she feels like the program has won the Virginia STEM lottery. The STEM program will use its portion of the award to “provide high impact experiences/opportunities for students who show an interest in STEM.”
Educators are currently generating a list of ideas, and the STEM Steering Committee will convene in the near future to decide how we allocate funds.
The grant money awarded to the CTE program will be used for the purchase of new industry standard equipment and resources that will be utilized by multiple content areas, said Dr. Jason Tibbs, CTE director. The money will also help support additional program requirements that are necessary for industry credentials and certifications.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.