Students from Bruns Academy, a public school, and Providence Day, a private school, are partnering on a peer diversity program that takes students out of their respective “bubbles.” (Photo courtesy of Barry Sherman)

Since 2014, an innovative grant program has provided CMS educators new opportunities to stretch the boundaries of the classroom.

The Teacher Innovation Fund has awarded 49 grants at 39 CMS schools for projects in science, math, literacy, arts, fitness and more, thanks in part to the resurgent CMS Foundation, which seeks private investment to fund initiatives, services the grants, and provides guidance and feedback.

Foundation staff spend a lot of time talking to educators, and “they are listening,” said Charlotte Fletcher, Experiential Science Curriculum Assistant at Park Road Montessori.

Qcitymetro talked with Fletcher and Bruns Academy social worker Barry Sherman about their projects, the impact on students and their experiences working with the foundation.

Partnership takes eighth-graders out of comfort zones

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For the third year, students from vastly different socio-economic and racial realities will come together in sessions that elicit themes, such as teamwork, leadership principles, collaboration, design-thinking (a solutions-based process for innovating), problem-solving and more.

About 60 eighth-graders from Bruns Academy, a low-income, predominately black CMS school, and Providence Day, a predominantly white private school, will connect through a series of interactions that allow the students “access and exposure to life and experiences beyond their immediate surroundings,” Sherman said.

“The overarching goal is to bring them into varying levels of intimacy so they can connect and begin to understand a bit about each others’ worlds.”

An empathy exercise

Last year, in one exercise aimed at creative thinking and innovation, small groups created a $10,000 backpack. In another, aimed at empathy, students from each school paired off and sketched each others’ eyes.

Notably, Sherman said, one Bruns student’s feedback on the empathy exercise led to a startling conclusion among his students — there is a lack of peer support at their school.

Bruns kids are “not well-versed and well-skilled in knowing how to create a peer culture that’s very supportive of excellence,” he said. “They get a taste of that when they go somewhere else.”

This year, Sherman and Providence Day Middle School Dean Michael Magno are extending the partnership to some alumni of the eighth-grade program. Bruns students who go on to West Charlotte High will continue relationships with their ninth-grade Providence Day partners.

The goal would be for the students to stay in contact throughout high school, said Magno. He hopes to one day expand the partnership to include teachers.

Magno lauds what Sherman is doing at Bruns with limited financial resources. Sherman is creating a design-thinking classroom, a group of “empathetic problem-solvers” — the kind of kids that will go on to make positive change in the Charlotte community, he said.

“I would love for him to be able to do more,” said Magno, “but he needs help with it.”

Sherman called the $5,000 innovation grant an “amazing blessing” and “vital.”  “There is no line item in the school budget for this.”

In the first year of the partnership, Providence Day helped tremendously with the costs of coming together, even sending their bus to transport Bruns students to outings. The grant, which was awarded in the second year of this partnership, allows Bruns to be more of an equal partner financially in the partnership, said Sherman.

“I’m very excited about the resurgence of CMS Foundation, Sherman said. “Through the innovation process, (Executive Director) Sonja Grant offered very enthusiastic support and guidance. I am really grateful that she is at the helm of CMS Foundation.”

[Read More:  CMS Foundation wants to tap into your school spirit]

Outdoor classroom connects kids with wonders of nature

Master Naturalist Fletcher had long wanted to use the 23-acre campus at Park Road Montessori as an outdoor classroom to share her love of nature with students, to build their interests and environmental stewardship.

A $5,000 innovation grant paved the way for a rebuilt pond and access to the woods on campus, which is already paying dividends, Fletcher said.

“Hands-on experience has piqued their sense of wonder and awe about nature.

Revamped pond and natural areas at Park Road Montessori allow for hands-on science lessons outside. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Fletcher)

“I may go outside with a plan, but as soon as they see some insect or some frog or some snake, they become interested, and then they go back to the classroom and the Montessori philosophy follows them in,” said Fletcher. “If they’re interested in snakes, then they go back to the classroom and that’s what they do their language, their reading in.

“Students go back into the classroom full of enthusiasm to learn more about what they’ve directly encountered and are better able to focus because they’ve let off some of that fidgety energy.”

As the emphasis on testing has grown, along with seemingly endless paperwork, Fletcher sees less focus on creativity and passion. The grant “allows me to support classroom teachers and follow my passions and be creative,” she said. “If I teach what I love, they catch that enthusiasm, which carries over. They will take care of what they love and become responsible citizens of the environment. They have to find it interesting before they can care about it.”

Fletcher said she is grateful to the foundation and those that are reaching out to make this commitment. “This relationship between the foundation and CMS is an excellent move. And Sonja Gantt and (Foundation Manager) Ashelyn James are amazing. They are the right people to do that job.”

By the numbers:
Initiated from a $250,000 donation from the Hornets Foundation in 2014; additional funding from Lowe’s and Fox Sports Southeast
Total number of grants awarded: 49
Total number of schools impacted: 39
Total amount awarded: $218,000

More teacher feedback

“The grant was more than just a financial contribution, more than a financial investment. It really, really spoke volumes to the value of the children’s lives and they understood that. They felt valued and they felt valuable because of this experience.” — West Meck High English teacher Eboné Lockett, who was awarded a grant to revitalize West Mecklenburg High School’s theater guild

Presented by Foundation For The Carolinas

Foundation for the Carolinas provides fund management, endowment and fundraising support for CMS Foundation, which allows CMS Foundation staff to focus on the start-up programming and direct fundraising work.