As Mike Abrams watches his students sit in front of a colorful computer screen filled with brightly colored cartoon objects, he doesn't see a blue book, a red apple or a yellow pencil like they do.

All he sees is success.

As a special education teacher for kindergarten through third grade at Knappa's Hilda Lahti Elementary, Abrams knows some children just won't be able to learn to read by breaking each word down into sounds and then blending them together. 

 "I have students who have gone through struggles and tears and frustration. For them, it just really doesn't work," he said.

Sight-reading - memorizing a word's meaning by seeing it repeatedly next to its picture - can be another way to help those students learn. So when Abrams wanted to upgrade from using sight-reading worksheets to an interactive computer program, he knew the upgrade was a no-brainer. Cost, he said, was the only hurdle.

So he applied for a $900 minigrant with the Knappa Schools Foundation to pay for the software. 

Last month, the funds came through when the Knappa Schools Foundation awarded over $10,000 in minigrants to Knappa teachers, paying for instructional materials and curriculum that the district wouldn't have otherwise been able to support. 

At roughly the same time, the Northwest Regional Education Service District's Foundation also awarded $4,325 in its own minigrants to Clatsop County teachers, giving special priority to classrooms that serve underprivileged and special needs youth, in all five districts in the county.

Knappa Schools Foundation board member Eileen Cheuvront is proud to see what the foundation has accomplished since it was founded in 1997. Since they began awarding the grants in 1999, $115,000 has been spent to supplement student's educational opportunities in Knappa classrooms.

"Our goal was to fund things the school district couldn't fund. The foundation would help buy these things and scholarships too," Cheauvront said. Athletics always seemed to be able to come up with the money for the things they needed, but other programs struggled, she said.

"Music, science and other things weren't getting that support, so the goal was to support those things," Cheauvront said.

Knappa's Interim Superintendent Jim Carlile, who has worked with more than 70 school districts in his 30 years in the field, is impressed with the foundation's effectiveness and level of support from the community.

"It's way out of proportion to its size. That's pretty extraordinary," Carlile said. If larger districts' foundations were as effective as Knappa's, they'd have considerably more money to work with, he said. 

"And that success is truly significant when it comes to student achievement," Carlile said. 

The foundation supported over a dozen requests from Hilda Lahti Elementary and Knappa High School teachers, from a $4,750 Weatherbug weather gathering and reporting system to be used by all grades to a $5,000 renovation of a former band room into a theater space. Some proposals were paid for using a mixture of district funds, foundation funds and even stimulus and Title I funds. 

Abrams is just thrilled to be able to better prepare his students for fourth grade, when the focus shifts from reading itself to retaining the content of the materials. Research has shown that the year is a critical milestone in students' development, he said.

"If they're not reading by fourth grade, then they'll be behind forever," Abrams said.

G.A.P.S. grant funds go to Clatsop County schoolsAt Seaside High School, science and math teacher Luke Robbins has just secured $1,000 for an alternative energy course to be offered to juniors and seniors for the first time this spring.

Robbins and seven other Clatsop County teachers applied for and received over $4,000 in grant money from the Northwest Regional Educational Service District's Generating Assistance for Public Schools, or G.A.P.S., Foundation. Serving Clatsop, Tillamook and Columbia counties, the Foundation awarded 59 grants totaling $40,000 this year.

While $1,000 for Robbins' class isn't a fortune, the mini-grant will make a significant difference in the quality of materials his students will use to build functioning wind turbines and solar panels. 

"I was prepared to do it with a couple hundred bucks," he said. The class will still sell compact fluorescent light bulbs as a fund raiser, because of the high cost of the materials like solar cells, batteries, inverters, copper wire and super strong magnets. The magnets used in Robbins' class to build a small, shoe box sized turbine cost $1 each, and hundreds will be needed. A similar alternative energy course isn't available to high school students anywhere else in the county that Robbins is aware of.

"Stuff is really expensive, so you have to look at other ways to fund what I think are the coolest courses," he said.

Seaside School District Superintendent Doug Dougherty knows that with a motivated teacher like Robbins and hands-on activities like these, students get to learn in ways that could last a lifetime.

"The types of activities and projects that tend to be funded are the ones that students will remember for a long time," he said.

Students in Robbins' class will build solar cells that could charge batteries or even a cell phone, and their handiwork could continue to function for many years to come. 

But Robbins is most excited about seeing his students grasp concepts that would've tough for them to get on paper. 

"The bottom line is that creating electricity from sun or wind is so abstract to begin with. Without hands-on experience, it can be too abstract for them to learn," he said.

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