Salem students will explore the stars, ukuleles and more with new grants

Kids in Salem will be able to learn ukulele, grow their own food and get encouragement for running thanks to a series of grants awarded to local teachers.

Twenty-five Marion and Polk county educators are receiving $1,000 grants from Maps Community Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Salem-based financial institution. The grants were announced earlier this month.

Most recipients are teachers within the Salem-Keizer School District, though the grants will also support projects for students in Aurora, Woodburn, Lyons, Falls City, Turner and Mt. Angel.

Growing food for cooking classes

At Straub Middle School, teachers Carli O’Brien and Chris Weaver teamed up on a proposal to start a school garden, which they hope to begin this spring.

Both came to Straub last year, and their classes frequently work together. O’Brien teaches family and consumer science classes which often involve cooking, and Weaver teaches in the life skills special education program.

“We both kind of shared this idea, this passion for working outside with plants and just being outside in general, and we’ve spoken on how that’s so beneficial for the students,” O’Brien said.

She grew up gardening and has previously worked at a preschool in Boulder, Colorado where students worked in a school garden. She said she’d like a school garden to provide ingredients for her students to cook with.
“I just think that that holistic mindset of knowing where your food comes from, it’s not just in a jar at the grocery store … is really beneficial for all kids of all ages,” she said.

Weaver said he hopes “for my students to be able to learn (more about) where their food comes from but also just to get some work experiences.”

And other Straub teachers are interested in using the space for lessons as well, they said. Right now, they’re scouting potential spots and looking for other grants to build the space out.

O’Brien said she’d like to see the project sustained over the summer by having families sign up to tend the plot for a week at a time and take home food that it produces.

“It’s more than just our school at that point, it’s the community,” she said.

Ukuleles to encourage new musicians

As students returned to class from the pandemic, Anna Smoll noticed many were reluctant to sign up for Waldo Middle School’s music ensembles.

The choir and music teacher wanted a low-barrier way to get kids excited about making music that didn’t feel like a big commitment. She settled on a simple idea: a ukulele club.

“It’s a fun one to just be able to pick up. It’s not overly complicated so students can feel successful (their) first day playing,” she said.

With her Maps grant, Smoll will be able to buy a classroom set of ukuleles, both for a school club and to use in her music classes. She has about 10 and said the grant will let her get 25 to 30 more, enough for an entire class to play at the same time.

Waldo has a large number of students from the Chuuk and Marshall Islands for whom the ukulele is already part of their culture.

“They come already with high regard for the ukulele and a lot of them enjoy that,” she said. “They come in a lot better than me a lot of the time.”

The instrument is ideal for beginning students because of its size — younger kids who struggle to hold a guitar can still play — and its relative simplicity. Mastering just four chords lets students play a variety of pop songs.

“Day one in club, they’re playing songs that they know and like,” she said.

Smoll plans to get the club up and running after winter break.

“It’s so exciting to be able to offer these sorts of opportunities to our students. I work in public education, our budget isn’t huge so there’s not a lot of margin for extra projects like this,” she said.

Prizes for young runners

Many of David Whetzel’s students stopped being physically active during the pandemic.

The Scott Elementary physical education teacher said as students returned to school from over  a year of classes on a screen, many had trouble moving around.

“We were trying to figure out a way to do something that’s fun that would allow them to move but wouldn’t feel like it was a punishment,” he said.

Whetzel settled on a running club, which began as a pilot program last March. Kids can walk or run laps during recess and scan a card with a unique code that tracks each students’ progress.

In September, the club rolled out school-wide, with 600 students and school employees participating.

“We’re already off to a great start,” Whetzel said. Students get a lanyard for walking or running five miles, and tokens to add to it as they hit other milestones. 

“It’s really reduced I think some of the behaviors. It’s also allowed kids who just need to move an opportunity,” he said.

Whetzel is using the Maps grant to buy more foot tokens so students can show off their mileage progress, and for prizes in an end-of-year drawing for kids who hit 100 miles.

Those students will be entered into a drawing for a scooter or bike, and will also have their names engraved on a plaque to hang in the gym.

“I think it’s really been good for our school climate,” Whetzel said. “We’ll put those resources to good use.”

Other projects

Teachers are also using grant money for science programs, helping students build social skills and classroom activities.

Whiteaker Middle School science teacher Brad Kilgroe is buying a modern telescope for students to view the night sky in greater detail. “With the recent advancements in space technology (i.e James Webb Space Telescope, Rovers, etc.), students are more curious now than ever to learn about space,” he wrote in his grant application.

At Roberts Middle School, the district’s alternative school, Zoriana Camp sought money for a curriculum to teach students social and emotional skills and build out the school’s “Calm Corner.”

“Students will learn coping skills, tips and tricks in a safe, comfortable, and aesthetic environment. Students will be able to return to class, ready to learn and socialize with in their peer community,” Camp wrote.

Teacher Teri Birkel got a grant to fund hands-on kits with science, technology, math and engineering activities for fourth and fifth graders at Englewood Elementary School.

“These kits will allow my students to enjoy math and science, while learning about mechanical levers, linkages, structures, wheels, axles, incline planes, buildings, bridges and construction. My goal is to make math and science fun so as my students advance through middle and high school they will be excited and confident enough to explore STEM classes at their high school,” she wrote.

Correction: This article was updated to clarify that the grants are awarded by the Maps Community Foundation.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.