“This funding has changed the way we can innovate in the classroom.”

$120,000 in grants from the Looser-Flake Charitable Foundation provides new technology to three school districts in rural Illinois

Vanessa Witherell imagines a school library where students are not only engrossed in books but immersed in making, building and coding.  

That is now possible, said Witherell, a technology and library teacher at United North Elementary School in Alexis, Illinois, thanks to a technology education grant to the United #304 School District from the Looser-Flake Charitable Foundation. The Quad Cities Community Foundation administers the Looser-Flake Foundation. 

Two other school districts—Sherrard School District and Mercer County School District—were also provided technology grants, for a total of more than $120,000. Each of the school districts will use the funds to further technology in the classroom, from smart boards in elementary schools to digital access for high school students preparing for college.  

“As students head back to school, this is an exciting time for each of these districts as they can follow through on their dreams of innovation in the classroom,” said Kelly Thompson, vice president of grantmaking and community initiatives at the Quad Cities Community Foundation. “These grants are a wonderful example of how philanthropy can support and inspire a new generation of people.” 

Witherell said students at her elementary school would soon be able to create with non-digital tools like KEVA planks or attaching cardboard pieces with Makedos to build anything from a castle to the setting of an in-class story. On the digital end, students will work with Sphero robots and circuit kits to learn about circuitry and coding while incorporating math, recording data, or programming a robot to illustrate the feelings of a character from a novel. It wouldn’t be possible without the grant, she said.

“These resources from the Looser-Flake Foundation are a critical component of our efforts to give students hands-on experiences that allow them to pursue their interests technology,” she said. “Without this grant, our maker spaces would operate solely on recycled materials.”

The Mercer County School District will purchase software designed to provide kindergarten through eighth-grade interventions for students that may be struggling in language arts or mathematics. It is an investment in the preparation of seniors as they move into post-secondary institutions, according to Superintendent Scott Petrie.  

The district has received multiple grants from the Looser-Flake Foundation in the past. This year's award allows the school district to transition to a digital curriculum that students and teachers can access anytime, anywhere with an internet connection. The school district was halfway through the process, he said, and the grant has expedited the process.

“We had the resources to purchase hardware across grades second through 12 to begin, but without the generous gifts provided by the foundation, the timeline for providing the software and training for teachers and students would be much longer,” he said.

The Mercer County school district is small and rural, and the grants have helped them keep pace. “They’ve allowed us to provide our staff and students many of the opportunities available only in larger or more affluent districts,” Petrie said. 

At Sherrard, Instructional Technology Coach Steve Miller feels the same. With the help of the grant, the district will create an innovation lab to teach advanced coding to fifth and sixth graders. They will also install interactive touch boards in every classroom at Matherville Intermediate School and additional interactive boards in junior and high school classrooms. The high school auditorium will receive two large monitors for presentations, theater, and concerts. 

The funding does much more than fill in the gap for the technology they are missing. “It truly changes the educational experience for students. You wouldn't believe how much innovation is happening here, and we are proud to offer experiences for students as they prepare for ‘future-ready’ careers,” Miller said.

The district is focused on preparing students for the next chapters of their lives. “No matter what careers students choose to have, they will be problem-solving and using technology, whether it's welding, agriculture, office work, accounting, manufacturing,” he said. “As a community, we benefit by teaching kids to be ‘future-ready.’”

Sherrard’s school district received a technology grant last year from the Looser-Flake Foundation as well.

“I have always planned to take our technology to the next level, but because of school budgets, it made it nearly impossible to do that because of the scale that’s needed to complete such projects,” Miller added. "This funding has changed all of that. We can see this now become a reality, and very quickly. It’s truly a blessing, and we will make sure that it's the students who benefit most. It’s all about them.”

Ted Stephens III