Donor-driven grant program making an impact on current and future students

The Mardi Lowry McDonough ’87 Student Opportunity Fund & Grant Program has grown significantly since its first round of grant awards in the fall of 2018. The most recent awards this fall totaled more than $32,000 for 37 projects spanning every school in the district and impacting students in every grade. These grant awards were selected from nearly 70 applicants seeking a record amount of funding totaling more than $100,000. What does this program mean to students and educators and how can the Education Foundation and donors work together to make sure it keeps thriving? Mary Kay Montovino ’73, president, and Duane Bullock, vice president, talk about the program’s history, growth, and goals.

Q: Why do you think applications to the grant program have increased so much?

MKM: For one thing, we market the program within the district and in the community, so I think teachers have learned about it over the years. But a bigger factor is that the program has built a partnership between educators and donors in the community. Teachers see that individuals, families, and businesses are willing to match their generosity with important priorities in our schools. Goals and needs they may have put aside are now within reach thanks to donors who support the grant program.

Q: As requests continue to grow, how will you meet the demand?

DB: We want to keep sharing the impact of the grant program and welcoming more donors into our community of support. I can’t emphasize enough how important these funds are to teachers and students. The impact really is two-fold: One, the funds drive innovation in our classrooms, allowing teachers to think bigger about opportunities they can offer. We see this in many of the science and technology-related requests that we fund for various equipment and unique additions to the curriculum. Two, there are needs in our classrooms and our programs. We get a lot of requests, for example, for funding for musical instruments, which are high-ticket items, even when purchased used. This cycle we are providing funds for cymbals, and in previous cycles, we helped to fund other instruments.

Q: How did the grant program get started?

MKM: The foundation was founded to help the district accomplish specific goals. One of those goals was to build a culture of giving and a community of donors to support things that are “beyond the budget.” To make sure funds are making the biggest, most direct impact on students, board members decided to create the grant program, which gives educators the opportunity to identify where funds can make the most difference. It was originally called the Student Opportunities Fund, but in 2020 was renamed in memory of Mardi Lowry McDonough, a graduate of the class of ’87 and long-time SCASD teacher.

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Q: How does the program work?

DB: Twice a year, for a fall cycle and a spring cycle, we open the grant application, which is a simple online form that teachers, coaches, and staff can complete to share information about a specific funding goal. These goals range from programs and projects to equipment and supplies, from field trips to student teams like Science Olympiad and Unified Bocce Ball… and many other things in between! The district administration and the Education Foundation board review all the requests and award grants to specific projects.

Q: How do you decide which grants to award and how many to award?

MKM: Of course, we like to give as many grants as we can! Earlier on, we had far fewer applicants and could award nearly every application. Now, we receive almost 70 applications for each cycle that range in the size of the request, from $200 to $2,500, which is the maximum grant amount. For the last cycle, we had 67 applications with requests that totaled more than $100,000. We were able to announce 37 awards totaling around $32,500. We look for applications that will make a lasting impact on as many students as possible, but we also look at specific circumstances. For example, last cycle we awarded funds to help CTC Health Professions students offset the cost of the EMT certification exam. While this award directly supported a smaller number of students, the overall impact of funding extends far beyond State High and makes a lasting difference. We have also helped to fund the creation of Care Closets at individual schools, which provide students with things like personal care items, socks, winter coats, hats, and gloves. We believe firmly that it’s important to help make sure students basic needs are met.

Q: What’s the most important thing you want donors and prospective donors to know about the grant program?

DB: The Mardi Lowry McDonough ’87 Student Opportunity Fund & Grant Program directly benefits students in every school in our district this year, and in many cases, for years to come. The funds are specifically directed to teacher-led opportunities. Giving to Mardi’s Fund is the easiest, most direct way to keep your donations in our district, benefiting our students, today and in the future. Donors are making things happen at the classroom level through this student-centered program.

MKM: We are so grateful for donor support. Every gift to this fund makes a difference. Your gift today will help to fund more grants in the spring cycle of 2024. You can also set up a recurring monthly gift online to support the fund on an ongoing basis, which many donors like because it’s easy and convenient. Most of all, I’d say this fund exemplifies the phrase, “Live here, give here,” for donors in the community and it’s also a great option for alumni, no matter where they live, to honor their own experiences and pay it forward to new students.

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To help fund exciting projects in spring 2025, make a tax-deductible gift before December 31.

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