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Neighbors of DuPage

Small grants help teachers launch big ideas

Jul 11, 2016 11:31AM ● By Neighbors Magazines

by David May

They’re called mini-grants, but for teachers in Darien District 61 schools, the relatively small sums of money are having a large impact in the classroom.

Since October 2014, the Darien District 61 Educational Foundation has been awarding multiple quarterly mini-grants of $500 or less throughout each school year, helping teachers bring innovative ideas to life. To date, the foundation has awarded more than $7,500 in mini-grants to fund 17 projects, including seven this past school year. That’s all part of the more than $47,000 the foundation has awarded in teacher grants and direct aid to students since 2010.

Ideas to advance literacy—to help students become better readers and find joy in reading—are a favorite curriculum target for many of the mini-grants. And the ideas often extend to activities far beyond the classroom.

One program that tipped off this year, funded by a $500 mini-grant, was dubbed “March Madness Tournament of Books,” loosely based on the hugely popular college basketball tournament. The competition at Lace School started with “brackets” totaling 16 books. Over several weeks, students in each grade read books or listened to books being read to them, and then voted on their favorites. The winners were narrowed to a “Final Four,” with an eventual champion chosen based on the students’ votes.

At Eisenhower Junior High, another $500 mini-grant allowed teachers to start a lunch-time program called “Reading with the General.” Each month, a “general” is recruited—it could be the principal, a teacher, a Darien police officer, a parent—who reads the first chapter of a popular teen book as students eat lunch in the library. One copy of the book is raffled off among students attending the reading sessions and four copies are placed in the school library for all to share.

Previously, two mini-grants were awarded for “Books Come Alive!” reducing ticket prices to provide a live theater experience for third-graders at Lace School. The students read and discussed a novel in class and then experienced the same story being performed at a local theater. Words on a page became live action on stage.

Of course mini-grants also have focused on programs outside of reading. Others included funding the purchase of musical instruments, “math stations” offering hands-on activities to help younger students with their math-facts fluency, and special “tools” to help students with sensory-processing issues stay focused and attentive during class.

To learn more about all the mini-grants awarded—as well as the Foundation’s larger annual grants—please visit the “Grants Awarded” section of the Foundation’s website at