The colorful photographs captured inside the halls of Tyler ISD buildings on Tuesday look to be pulled straight out of a Publisher’s Clearing House commercial — massive checks, worth thousands of dollars, are handed off to teachers whose smiles cannot be hidden beneath their patterned masks, and whose hands wave triumphantly in the air as they realize their dreams.

Dream of transforming a school bus into a roaming literacy center, swapping out snacks for books in a school vending machine and bringing yoga and mindfulness to the classroom have become reality.

The Tyler ISD Foundation, through its Grants for Great Ideas program, delivered the good news to 21 Tyler ISD campuses and more than 9,400 students on Jan. 19 with a ‘Grant Patrol’ caravan, featuring members of the marching band and cheerleading squad. In total, nearly $90,000 — almost $10,000 more than was gifted in 2020 — was presented to fund an array of student-centered projects that include everything from ukuleles to a breathing studio.

One of the impressive ideas earned a $5,000 grant from The Tyler ISD Foundation, in partnership with the Junior League of Tyler, to fund a Literacy Bus.

“Literacy is so important to the Junior League of Tyler. We are excited that we were able to give Tyler ISD a grant this year, and with that grant money, they were able to get the money for the new literacy bus,” Lindsey Harrison, president of the Junior League of Tyler, said.

Harrison said that when the Tyler Foundation came in and told them what they needed, the Junior League of Tyler decided it was in the realm of what falls into their mission statement, thus pushing their decision to grant the money.

The bus will be a mobile literacy device that will station at different parts of the Tyler community, such as parks, neighborhoods and city events. It will consist of books and activities students can benefit from.

The literacy bus will look like a regular bus, but inside will be stripped and remodeled. Students from the Career and Technology Center will be doing the design and building of the bus. The transportation, maintenance and technology departments of Tyler ISD will also be collaborating in the project.

Gary Brown, executive director of college and career for Tyler ISD, said one of the cornerstones of career and technical education is a work-based learning experience.

“We’re going to have our architecture students, our digital graphic students, our audio visual students, and our construction science students directly involved in all phases of the project all the way through to implementation.”

Juniors and seniors in the advanced career technology classes will primarily be the ones doing designing and construction in the literacy bus.

Once completed, the Junior League of Tyler will be hosting a book drive this summer to supply books for the literacy bus.

Jennifer Hines, Tyler ISD executive director of communication, said this gives the school district the opportunity to go directly to students, on the weekends and through the summer.

“We will have the flexibility to truly go out and meet students where they will be. If that’s meeting them at the park, if that is meeting them at an apartment complex where we know that we have a lot of students stationed, we can go there.”

Christy Hanson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that the most important thing to incorporate early on is exposure to literacy.

“What we know is that when students have exposure to reading, it helps them in all subjects and they have a greater likelihood of being successful in school and moving on past high school as well. That’s what all the research tells us.”

“The goal is to expose kids very early, those early years; three, four, five years old and even on through elementary school, so that they can have a love for reading,” Hanson said.

The literacy bus will be available to students in Tyler ISD and is in works to be fully functioning by the summertime.

The Grants for Great Ideas program encourages and rewards innovative and creative instructional approaches that are not already supported by campus budgets.

Throughout the day, Tyler ISD Foundation members and district administrators delivered the grants by taking their celebratory Grant Patrol caravan through campus hallways and surprised teachers by presenting them with the checks that will be funding their projects.

According to the press release from Tyler ISD, the Tyler ISD Foundation has gifted more than $3.3 million to Tyler ISD since 1990, through innovative teaching grants, student and parent programs, academic and teaching recognition events, and scholarships.

Katy Lee and Jolain LaMott were among the first recipients of the grants at Caldwell Arts Academy, where a total of six grants were awarded.

Lee, a master teacher, said the school is working to develop literacy while incorporating podcasting and news broadcasting to teach students everything from scripting, to cameras, to lights, to get them more experience.

“It’s really exciting to receive a grant like this. As we try to build our middle school, we’re looking for things that will try to excite them and set our middle school group apart a little bit. To build on that, gaining an esports to be able to dive into that niche, it’s so popular right now and it’s a great way to express creativity. We have a lot of kids who are interested.”

Lee explained that from this grant, students will benefit from building community, creativity and innovation and understanding technology.

“I think it’s great that the foundation is willing to support our kids in something that may be a little different, but definitely something that has a huge interest base on our campus. I’d like to tell the foundation, ‘Thank you.’ It’s super exciting,” Lee said.

Another recipient of a grant from the Tyler ISD Foundation was Jennifer Vaughn, an art teacher at Caldwell Arts Academy. She explained that they will be using the grant money to continue the Dia De Los Muertos celebration in November, as well as the Untold Stories celebration to celebrate local black artists.

“We love exposing our kids to the culture and how it relates to the arts because that’s just the perfect partnership for Caldwell. Almost half of our students are Hispanic and we see that echoed in the Tyler community. It’s an amazing opportunity for us to be able to not only celebrate that culture, but also educate the community about the culture. We’ve had a lot of positive community support from people who have never been involved in something like that,” Vaughn said.

Instrumental Arts teacher, Jan Snook, will be using the grant money awarded to her to purchase ukuleles and build a guitar lab for music students.

“I feel it’s important to give them opportunities to try a lot of different instruments. I’m hoping that through trying the ukuleles, some of them might decide they want to be string players. We’re building a guitar lab. We wanted to have plenty of instruments so that kids that can’t afford a guitar will be able to use one in class and learn from that,” she said.

Leah Philly, school counselor, and Courtney Johnson, first grade teacher, are excited about the grant that will help fund a yoga mindfulness and breathing studio.

“It’s hard right now to find resources and to have something like the Tyler ISD Foundation is something that just brings you a lot of hope because you know that you can get things done within your district and you know that you have someone you can ask for help from,” Philly said.

Caldwell Arts Academy has recently started a yoga class in the auditorium for students in kindergarten through eighth grade to implement mindfulness.

“We want to have a place where kids can go and just meditate and breathe. Our students have benefited from yoga because it reminds them that it’s okay to be still, it’s okay to focus on their breath. It is something where kids are pulled into so many directions and they come to yoga and they check in. Kids are actually gauging that it really helps them,” Philly continued.

Donna Schorr, music teacher and director, received a grant to be used to build a music recording studio at Caldwell Arts Academy.

“It’s important that our kids here in East Texas have the same tools available to them because they are just as connected as the kids in the larger cities, with the internet and us being in the digital age, these kids are just as connected, so they need to have the same tools and skill because they’re going out into the exact same world. So it’s super awesome that in this area, they have the same opportunities,” Schorr said.

Principal Bobby Markle, said that they are excited every January when this comes around to see what awards they’re going to get and what programs can grow from these awards.

“There’s always expansion funds that we can utilize that will help us get that idea from the ground to the next level and that’s really what it does for us. This money is not used just to go toward a consumable resource or something we’ll never see again in a few years. It’s for the kids, really it’s going to enhance their experience here at Caldwell,” Markle said.

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