Transforming rent into innovation in North Carolina schools

Fees collected from community groups renting facilities turned into grants for student projects
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 16, 2015

Superintendent David Stegall of Newton-Conover City Schools in North Carolina had a simple idea two years ago: The fees collected when community groups rent district facilitiesÑinstead of going to the general fundÑcould be given to students and staff to develop innovative programs.

The Innovative Grant program launched last spring. In its first year, students, teachers, parents and community members were awarded between $500 and $1,500 to bring a variety of projects to life.

One high school student with an interest in engineering received a grant of $1,500 to buy a 3D printer for his school, and built a mechanical hand for a student with limited mobility. Another student with a passion for environmental issues won a grant to build a school “bioswale”Ña landscaped drainage feature that removes pollutants from surface runoff water.

And a teacher bought books and developed hands-on activities for a weekend book club for at-risk elementary school boys.

“A lot of innovation happens from risking and failing,” Stegall says. “Too often in education we play it safe, and let others take the risk and maybe two or three years down the line get on board.”

Most schools rent gyms, cafeterias, baseball fields and other facilities to community organizations. And in most districts, those rental fees go into the general operating fund to cover extra classroom supplies and materials.

Because the money does not go directly to individual schools, principals don’t have much incentive to collect the fees from all of the groups that rent space, Stegall says.

Newton-Conover administrators announced that the funds for 2013-14 would go directly back to schools in the form of innovative grants, and encouraged principals to be diligent in collecting fees. Rental revenues rose from about $8,500 annually in years prior to $24,000 last year. Administrators funded 15 grants, primarily for student and teacher proposals.

A fourth-grade teacher received a grant for an elementary school garden. Students from every grade planted and tested soil, and horticulturists visited classrooms this year. The fresh fruits and vegetables were sent home to some of the neediest families in the spring.

Another teacher received funds to bring a popular elementary school author to the district, and purchased a set of his books for every third and fourth grade classroom.

The pilot grants have inspired some schools to raise additional funds with the help of parent organizations and websites like DonorsChoose.org.

The district will host an online competition at the end of the month, and students who have already launched the most successful projects will receive $1,000 to continue their work next year.