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Champions For Learning grants fund teacher projects focused on students’ needs, innovation

Champions For Learning grants fund teacher projects focused on students’ needs, innovation

By Rachel Fradette, Naples Daily News

Media specialist Tiffany Weeks had to find a way to hear from her younger students at Lavern Gaynor Elementary even behind the veil of a mask.

A solution to the problem came to her — and eventually funding came with it.

Weeks found that a ball with a wireless microphone could help her more quiet students find their voices and confidence in the classroom, especially during literary discussions in the library.

“It’s hard enough to hear them as it is. They talk very softly. They’re afraid to communicate. Then you put a mask across their face it makes it even more difficult because sometimes you can’t even tell if they’re talking,” Weeks said.

Weeks, who has applied each year for more than 11 years, said she noticed the microphone during a training course and decided to do more research and go for a grant.

“This should allow me to hear what they have to say and should also help encourage them to want to speak,” Weeks said.

Fifth-grade students Aiyanna Bustillos, 10, and Rachelle Joseph,10, said they are happy for Weeks and excited to see what happens with all six of her grants, including the microphone ball.

“She earned it,” Joseph said. “She’s wonderful and kind.”

Weeks’ six grants are among more than 200 grants totaling about $101,747 being awarded by Champions For Learning to teachers at 50 schools, a record for the education foundation.

The Collier-based organization that hand-delivers teachers’ grants annually brought back in-person visits to schools this year after COVID-19 altered deliveries last year.

Teachers throughout Collier County were celebrated Thursday outside their schools with grant checks and recognitions.

Janet Perna, who volunteers with Champions For Learning, said she became more involved to help make a difference even in a modest way.

“Education to me is where it all starts,” Perna said. “We have challenges in the country in terms of our educations levels, quality of the workforce for new jobs, and it really starts in elementary school.”

Perna has served on the foundation’s grant selection committee for six years. As a former IBM executive, Perna said she wants to see more young girls enter the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

Perna said she noticed as educators began to ask for funding for character education.

“How do we help these kids learn about what’s appropriate behavior, how to respond when they’re frustrated and how to respond in a healthy way?” Perna said.

Community members interested in researching and funding grants for teacher projects can do so through an online grant portal where teachers also submit their applications.

See the list:Here’s the full list of grants delivered by Champions For Learning

Golden Gate Middle and Golden Terrace Elementary teachers picked for grants

Band director Ashley Crosby led her students into Golden Gate Middle School’s courtyard to hear that some of their old instruments would finally be replaced.

“We have a big need for instruments in our program,” Crosby said. “And some of our instruments have seen better days, and they are needing to be replaced.”

More than 220 students participate in the school’s band program, which received $2,000 to purchase six clarinets, five trumpets and five flutes.

“We’re going to use this money to replace some instruments that we use,” Crosby said to her students.

Three of her colleagues at the school also received grants.

Down the street in Golden Gate, Golden Terrace Elementary teachers Stephanie Irish and Joyce Cordell stepped out of their classrooms to hear their projects had been funded.

Cordell said one of her three grants will engage more students in reading through graphic novels that combine visuals and plot.

“They’re like comics,” Cordell said. “So speech bubbles and it’s bright and colorful.”

Cordell said classics are transitioning to a graphic novel style, and her kids are biting.

“They are reading them like crazy,” Cordell said.

Irish, who started at the district 15 years ago, said she still has former students who recall when her class watched chicks hatch in an incubator.

Irish requested funds for the project this year in one of her three grant proposals to Champions For Learning.

“They’ll be like, ‘Remember when you did that project with us,’ and it wasn’t, ‘Remember when you taught us how to take a test,” Irish said.

Rachel Fradette is an education reporter for the Naples Daily News. Follow her on Twitter: @Rachel_Fradette, email her at

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