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Funding | Feature

5 Tips for Securing School Grants

One district administrator shares his secrets for successful grant writing in today's challenging funding environment.

The people at Woodland Joint Unified School District (WJUSD) in California know a thing or two about how to snag grant money. They don't go after every opportunity that comes across their desks, said Gary Callahan, director of secondary education, professional development, and assessment, but they do boast a 75 percent success rate for those awards that they pursue.

"I'd say we've been pretty successful overall at pursuing grant funding," said Callahan, who works closely with the district's professional development and other interested parties when writing technology-related grants. Most recently, that collaboration resulted in a $50,000 state grant to help improve technology use through the School Loop Information System.

A Successful Grant Application
The award was part of $36.4 million that California received through the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology program, which aims to improve student achievement through the use of technology in elementary and secondary schools. (That program is currently in danger of being eliminated.)

Callahan said WJUSD went after the grant money when a thorough assessment revealed a need for an enhanced professional development program for employees who use the technology-based team information system to keep students in school and on track. The system was introduced in 2010 via a district-wide pilot program meant to improve student-teacher, parent-teacher and student-student communications.

Previously, Callahan said, the district used an internal database system combined with more traditional methods of sending progress reports and quarterly report cards home to parents. And while the new system promised improved features, including parental access to student information from remote locations, the district found itself lacking when it came to the professional development associated with the pilot program.

"We wanted to be able to do some very meaningful staff development and get the most out of this new system," Callahan said. "It just so happened that our needs--which were focused around opening up the academic lens on our schools to all of our stakeholders--aligned well with the grant. We decided to go after it."

Developing a Plan of Action
The process started with a plan of action, said Callahan, who spent time working with his team to come up with an overall vision for the district as it related to the professional development and technology use.

Using that plan, the team members ferreted out parallels between their district's funding needs and the specific grant parameters. Callahan said this step is critical because it shows grant reviewers that your district or school isn't taking a "let's see what kind of funding is available out there and go after it" approach.

What Grant Reviewers Want
"Grant reviewers are looking for a pre-established plan and a vision for exactly how you will use the money if it's awarded," said Callahan. "You can achieve this by making solid connections between the grant itself and the school program or initiative that you want to enhance and develop." It also helps to lay out a five-year and 10-year plan for the future that goes beyond the initial funding and shows how the initiative will improve the educational experience over time.

"Consider how you're going to sustain the initiatives even after those dollars run dry," said Callahan. "Do you have a plan to maintain the initiative that you've set? If not, you'll want to go back to the drawing board and come up with one."

With its most recent $50,000 grant award in hand, WJUSD has allocated the funds for specific areas of professional development and will roll out a full program this spring. The course will run through the summer, and will find students from the district's career academies providing assistance and support.

Callahan's 5 Tips for Grant Writing Success
  1. Don't just throw darts at random opportunities. Pick a grant that matches your district's goals and vision.
  2. Always read the fine print.
  3. Have a plan of action for after the grant money dries up.
  4. Enlist a team to develop and review the grant before you hit "send."
  5. Don't wait until the last minute. If a grant is due in 45 days, set up a 45-day calendar of the steps you'll have to take to complete the grant.

Looking Forward
Callahan said the district now has its eye on additional grants, namely those that will help it reach an overall goal of creating classrooms of the future. "Right now we're looking closely at what we want every classroom to look like in five to 10 years," said Callahan. "We'll need tools and resources to get there, so we'll be looking for grants that match with those goals."

To schools looking to replicate WJUSD's 75 percent success rate with grants, Callahan said the first step is to get all interested parties involved during the early stages. Have them review the grant details, follow all instructions and establish deadlines to avoid any "last minute" scrambling. "Get as many eyes on it as you can," Callahan added. "The more feedback you can get, the better the odds that you'll be able to hone your final draft into a winning proposal."

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