Grants bring innovation to Region 16 schools

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Community School fifth-graders Emily Orzehowksi, left, and Madison Lisowski play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ on the ukulele during class in December. Community School music teacher Judy Coniglio received a grant through Region 16’s innovative grant initiative to buy 25 ukuleles for the school’s music class. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

REGION 16 — A week before the Christmas break, about two dozen fifth-graders at Community School in Prospect filed into music class for the afternoon’s lesson.

The chord progressions for “You Are My Sunshine,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “This Land is Your Land” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” were written out on the whiteboard in front of the classroom. After a few words from music teacher Judy Coniglio, her students headed to the back of the room to pull out the newest instruments to the music room’s collection — ukuleles.

For the remainder of the class, the fifth-graders strummed away as they played and sang the songs written on the whiteboard — mixing in a little “Jingle Bells” for the holidays — breaking only for some instruction from Coniglio or for small groups of students to play for their classmates.

Coniglio, who has taught music part-time for 11 years in Region 16 following a 35-year teaching career in New York, has always wanted to introduce ukuleles in music class. She was able to finally do it this school year thanks to the district’s innovative grant initiative.

The initiative, which was approved by the Board of Education last summer, provides grants to teachers to fund projects that support instructional activities that fall outside of the current curriculum. This school year is first the district is running the program. Teachers applied for the grants in September and were awarded the grants in October.

Coniglio’s Classroom Ukulele Lab was one of 13 projects selected for funding.

She used the funding to buy 25 ukuleles for the lab, which is designed to enhance music reading and performance as well as undertake a study of folk music and chordal accompaniments.

Having grown up with folk music in the 1960s, Coniglio said she’s partial to guitars. She applied for the grant to not only bring ukuleles to the classroom and have the students all playing together, but to hopefully offer students a pathway to playing guitar.

“It’s a very simple way to get people singing and playing together,” said Coniglio about the ukulele lab.

The ukuleles have created a buzz at Community School. One student received a ukulele for Christmas, Coniglio said, and while the fifth-graders were playing all of the fourth-graders were asking when they are starting.

Community School music teacher Judy Coniglio instructs her class on playing the ukulele in December. Coniglio received a grant through Region 16’s innovative grant initiative to buy 25 ukuleles for music class. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Coniglio is also planning to have a group of students perform during an arts festival in the spring.

“It’s just been a lot of fun,” Coniglio said.

The initiative was suggested by Superintendent of Schools Tim James over the summer and unanimously supported by the school board.

“Mr. James’ ‘Innovative Grant Program’ is a positive initiative for Region 16. Students and programs will benefit from the use of new materials and technology, which would generally be out of reach,” said Steve DiBona, a seventh-grade teacher at Long River Middle School in Prospect.

DiBona along with fellow teacher Stephen Jerram were awarded a grant to enhance the Long River Daily News program. According to a summary of the projects funded provided by James, the grant will be used to purchase new digital cameras and better memory cards so the Long River Daily News crew can have the ability to include digitally-edited and refined news stories from on-the-scene reporters.

The response to the first initiative grant program for the district was strong as 22 applications were submitted in the fall.

“Twenty-two in our first outing, I was thrilled and the quality is excellent. I think this is really going to be a benefit for our students. Teachers are really excited about this,” James said when the grants were awarded at a board meeting in October.

A team of four administrators reviewed and selected the proposals to be funded. Those that were not funded were given suggestions and critiqued for the next round of funding next school year.

Community School fifth-graders Robert Hansen, left, and Jackson Barter play ‘Jingle Bells’ on the ukulele during class in December. The ukuleles were purchased through Region 16’s innovative grant initiative. –ELIO GUGLIOTTI

Other projects funded include an iPad initiative to improve social skill development among elementary school students on the Autism spectrum and a SMART Response Interactive Student Response System in which students use wireless remotes to respond to questions allowing instant assessment.

The initiative is similar to education foundations in school districts throughout the state that raise money to fund projects not covered in school budgets.

Last spring, the nonprofit Naugatuck Education Foundation awarded its first grants to borough public school teachers after three years of working to establish itself. Five $500 grants were awarded to fund projects such as “Harvesting Success,” a program to start a vegetable garden at Cross Street Intermediate School in Naugatuck tended by students.

In its second year, the Naugatuck Education Foundation plans to fund up to $10,000 in grants.

Region 16’s grant initiative was funded this school year through $10,000 of anticipated savings in the certified salary account in the budget following unexpected resignations of veteran teachers whose positions were filled with teachers at lower salaries. Moving forward, the long-term hope of the school board is the initiative can grow into a similar foundation found in other districts but in the short term the plan is to continue funding the initiative through the budget.