Foundation 65, an independent grant-making organization, has been supporting and strengthening programs and projects in District 65 schools since 2008, but it has stepped up its efforts during the urgency of the pandemic. 

In the past two years, the not-for-profit’s grants supporting educator-led initiatives have primarily targeted projects focusing on the needs of marginalized students and educational equity through literacy and the arts. The foundation seeks to fund efforts  “that encourage teachers to have voice and agency in creating change in the classroom and beyond.” 

According to Executive Director Alecia Wartowski, the foundation awards about $200,000 each year through a variety of grants. Since 2008 it has invested almost $3 million in District 65 students and teachers. 

The foundation supports a dizzying amount of programs and initiatives; here is a snapshot of five current projects: curiosity workshops; a maker lab, an after-school better math strategies class; specially commissioned social justice music for band and orchestra students; and a book club and mentoring program for Black boys.

Create a curious classroom

“Undeniably, we’ve all – teachers included – been frustrated by the Pandemic,” Wartowski said.  “We thought a good way to start the school year last fall was to give teachers an opportunity to think about curiosity and the positive role it can play in a classroom.”  

Steve Adams, Librarian for Graduate and Postdoctoral Initiatives at Northwestern, developed and facilitated a three-part curiosity-themed workshop for educators that was offered remotely.

After teaching for 22 years as a librarian and extensively researching curiosity, Adams was motivated to develop interactive workshops on the subject. He encouraged teachers to reconnect with their own curiosities and to model curiosity with their students.  

Because stress is a hindrance to curiosity, teachers were given the challenge of finding solutions to workplace stresses, thinking big, and changing paradigms to eliminate obstacles that could limit curiosity and learning. Self-assessments, games, and collaborative problem solving were encouragement to adopt and model a growth mindset.

Thoughtful tinkering is good

With the support of Foundation 65, in January, Kingsley Elementary School launched an after-school Maker Lab – a kind of hands-on creative tinkering area where design thinking challenges actively engage students. 

Kingsley Elementary School students work on a Maker Lab project. (Photo by Judy Chiss)

But the groundwork for the multiyear incubator project started well before the after-school lab opened: There were consultations with Northwestern’s Design For America, a group of student design innovators, to get ideas for how a lab with flexible needs might look and function. Next came “previews of coming attractions,” with Maker Lab Manager and Kingsley Instructional Coach, Lisa Harries, bringing a sample design challenge into each classroom to stimulate collaborative critical and creative thinking solutions.  

Before winter break, the first group of prospective “makers” was selected, and starting in January, small groups of fourth and fifth graders began to test out the Maker Lab.

On a recent Wednesday, 12 fourth and fifth graders were seated in groups of two with each group tackling their challenge: designing and constructing a bed for their unique client, which happened to be a character from “The Extraordinaires” game.  

Student drawings, discussions about the clients’ likes and needs, consideration of suitable and available materials, feedback from peers, and possible changes to the design or build plans – this was the work accomplished for the session. The process called for constructive collaboration, reassessment and additional enjoyable tinkering, 

Each group of fourth and fifth graders, followed by second and third graders, will enjoy eight weeks in the Maker Lab, which is in the library’s multipurpose room. Students chosen to be makers this year were those thought to especially benefit from this kind of learning and opportunity to demonstrate academic achievement. Principal David Davis said that Kingsley will continue to “expand the program and provide the opportunity for all Kingsley students.”  He said in-classroom design and engineering challenges also will be provided, with more Maker Lab experiences in classrooms.   

Closing the math achievement gap

When 14-year Dawes teaching veteran Jaqueline Petrof applied for a Foundation 65 grant last spring, she felt confident the grant money would be a good educational investment.  She and the other second grade teachers at Dawes wanted to identify the students who most needed math support before they fell behind much more. 

Sophia Petrof, ETHS junior and volunteer assistant, helps second graders subtract two-digit numbers, using colored dice and snap cubes as visual aids. (Photo by Jaqueline Petrof)

“I wanted to tease out bad math strategies and replace them with better ones,” Petrof said.  “Kids benefit from seeing lots of different ways to solve a problem, and it’s exciting when they’re able to transfer a skill they learned to another problem.”

Petrof, who teaches in a dual-language classroom, assessed all of the Dawes second graders and invited 15 of those testing in the lowest percentiles to participate in her twice-a-week after-school program.  She was sure they’d accelerate their learning and have some fun too.  

With her grant money she purchased a variety of math manipulatives – things such as Cuisenaire rods, plastic cups and straws, snap cubes, counters, play money, cups, board games and more – to help students visualize abstract concepts in concrete ways. 

And for late afternoon energy renewal, Petrof also makes sure there are snacks.

Second graders like to move, so skipping or jumping in the hall – forward for addition, backward for subtraction – is an enjoyable kinesthetic activity that represents an important math concept in a way that children can visualize.

Petrof said that one of the hardest things for students is mastering word problems.

“Sometimes the students in the TWI [two-way immersion, dual language] classes get hung up in a word problem by a vocabulary word that distracts them from focusing on what the problem is really about,” she said. ”Students are taught to use the same seven steps in solving all word problems, and parts of the word problem are marked with colored shapes to help students form a kind of mental template when reading any other word problem. ”  

One of the best tools Jaqueline Petrof has in her after-school class is the hands-on assistance she receives from her high school-aged daughter, Sophia. (Sophia is her mother’s volunteer teaching assistant, who thoroughly enjoys the playful and effective strategies the second graders are learning to bolster their achievement in math. )

Social justice in band and orchestra

When District 65 Orchestra Director Alyson Berger met with her department colleagues during the long months of remote learning, she suggested they think of ways to energize their music students after the challenging pandemic. From that meeting emerged the idea to commission a piece of music that would be relevant, challenging and interesting to the eighth grade band and orchestra students. The result was a generous Foundation 65 grant to commission composer Stefan Smith to write a piece on the theme of social justice.

“The process was a team effort,” said Berger.  “We were fortunate to be able to commission this composer, and it happened perhaps in part because our colleague at King Arts, Roberto Carillo, had been a college classmate of Stefan Smith and has followed his accomplished music career. “   

Composer Stefan Smith wrote “A Letter to the Mothers” for the District 65 eighth grade band and orchestra, using instrumental music to communicate a failure of social justice. 

Smith holds degrees in composition and viola performance from DePaul University and was a full scholarship winner for graduate studies in viola performance at the University of Southern California. At 36, he has performed in more than 40 orchestras and is a tenured member of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in Los Angeles where he has lived since 2008. When he met the eighth grade District 65 music students on Zoom, he told them he’d started composing music when he was 8 or 9 – and hasn’t stopped. 

The piece of music Smith composed for them is titled “A Letter to the Mothers.” It was inspired by an act of police brutality and the subsequent death of Elijah McCain, an unarmed young Black man who was a massage therapist and a self-taught musician living in Colorado at the time three police officers restrained him. 

The “letter” in the title of the music is a tribute to the large number of mothers with Black sons who receive a knock on the door informing them of their sons’ deaths, and of the often unfair response from our justice system. Smith thought the musical theme was relevant to 13- and 14-year-olds increasingly aware of the tensions between police and Black men. He saw them as young musicians, capable of thinking about what is expressed without words in music they hear and perform.

For some time before the eighth grade orchestral and band performance of “A Letter to the Mothers” students listened to other pieces about social justice issues and wrote their personal definitions of social justice.  One eighth grader at Chute Middle School wrote:

    To me, social justice means fighting for equal rights and treatment of all kinds

    of people. Fighting for our right to live and have good lives and live in a sustainable

    world. Its about finding justice within humanity. Social justice is complicated and

    there are many different kinds.

Students also listened to some of the composer’s music and described what emotions they heard expressed. They also looked forward to their Zoom meeting with Stefan Smith, during which they were invited to ask the musician questions and learn more about the process of composing.

“I think they were intrigued by their meeting with Stefan Smith,” said Megan Smith, Band Director at Haven Middle School.  “He composes for films and TV, is on soundtracks for albums, and does songwriting for R&B – but what they were really into was that he also composed music for video games!”

On March 8, at the ETHS Winter Band Concert, the eighth grade music students were invited onto the huge stage to premier “A Letter to the Mothers” in front of a large audience. More than 80 students as well as teachers in the instrumental music program performed with feeling and confidence. If he could have been present, no doubt the composer would have been impressed.

Reading is powerful

When Ashley Stanley and a group of Dewey Elementary teachers applied for a Foundation 65 grant in 2020 to fund a book club and mentoring program for Black boys in grades three to five, it was largely because there were no Black male teachers at Dewey who could serve as role models for students. “There’s a strong focus on mentorship in this book club,” said Stanley. “We had the idea for this grant after seeing how impactful it was when our amazing Books and Breakfast staff would bring in mentors for some of our boys to talk to in the morning before school.”  

When the grant was awarded and planning began, all of the male students in grades three through five who identified as Black were invited to join the after-school program through letters sent to the parents. The six-week program, launched during the pandemic, was named Represent, because the boys will be able to see themselves and identify with the protagonists of the books and stories, and also with the Black mentors who attend sessions and join in discussions. The boys will also be able to see parts of themselves in the Black authors who’ve written the literature they are reading and discussing as a group. 

The book club met remotely one afternoon a week during the pandemic last spring and appeared to be a hit with students, even those who had shone only a modest interest in school. The boys, as hoped, joined in discussions and acted as though they were in a safe environment for discussions and friendship. Now the Represent Book Club and Mentoring Program is about to begin its second year. It will be an in-person club at Dewey, starting the week after spring recess.

Emeric Mazibuko is returning for the second year as the weekly facilitator of Represent. He’s a Nichols parent and longtime mentor to young people in Evanston. From the start he was enthusiastic about the book club and mentoring concept as a way to improve experiences and outcomes for Black students in our school district. He has worked with young people at Y.O.U., Evanston Public Library, Connections for the Homeless and other local organizations; and he’s an active part of the community that he wants the students to identify with and excel in.

Mazibuko will likely again start Monday afternoons with a short game, something fun to set the tone and strengthen connections between the boys and himself. Then he’ll announce the day’s theme and dive into the book or story the boys will read and discuss. One book they read last spring was a graphic novel, “New Kid” by Jerry Craft, packed full of topics that stimulated discussion: being an outsider, busing to a new neighborhood, micro aggressions, friendships and racism.  

Dewey Special Education teacher Cynthia Larios said, “The boys loved that guest mentors joined the meetings, and they bonded with several of them. They were very interested when a book illustrator came and talked to them about drawing and painting pictures for books.”

Larios recalled that the boys especially liked when an ETHS student athlete was a guest mentor and answered their many questions about high school and being a teenager.  Although they all weren’t quite sure what it meant to be a school superintendent, they knew it was special that Devon Horton came and joined a group discussion one of the Monday afternoons.

At the end of the six-week program this year, students will again get to select books to take home for summer reading. The teachers and Emeric Mazibuko will evaluate this second year’s program – and perhaps talk about the potential of it being expanded, thus able to fill more cracks in academic achievement while nurturing friendships and pride in Black identity.

Quick support for urgent needs

During the pandemic, Foundation 65 accelerated the schedule of awarding grants and helped teachers whose students were most affected by remote learning.  

Knowing that COVID-19 has had a disproportionately negative affect on communities of color, grant applicants were asked to prioritize educational equity and racial justice in their proposals.

Since 2020, in addition to many other grants funded, the foundation selected 20 proposals for Critical Response Grants that will address challenges through literacy and the arts.

It also partnered with Bernie’s Book Bank, Young, Black and Lit, and District 65 to distribute 20,000 books to low-income students during the pandemic. The foundation bridges gaps and operates by its commitment that “our schools will continue to serve as a beacon of hope, equity, and stability for our students, staff, and families.”

This story has updated to correct details about composer Stefan Smith.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....

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  1. These are great projects! The question is: why isn’t the District funding them?

    With the reckless decision to spend money building schools that aren’t needed the money for instruction is going to take a hit in the next few years.

    So let’s hope Foundation 65 can step up until we elect a more fiscally responsible school board more concerned with the educational experience of Evanston’s kids than building monuments to themselves.