Stilwell Public Schools is located in the highest poverty county in Oklahoma and every school in the district is a Title I school, yet the district is steadily improving student performance in spite of years of budget cuts. How are they doing it? Through the dedication of Superintendent Geri Gilstrap, the hard work of teachers and staff, and with money from grants.
Almost as soon as she became superintendent seven years ago Ms. Gilstrap began pursuing grants. “We’ve seen our budget drop 27 percent,” said Ms. Gilstrap. “I knew I couldn’t just rely on funding from the state to serve the needs of our students. The need in Stilwell is too great.” While looking through the previous superintendent’s files one day Ms. Gilstrap came across information for a grant writing firm called Resource Associates who had written a grant in the past for Stilwell. As a teacher, Ms. Gilstrap had written an AP English grant so she was a little skeptical about using people outside of the district to write a grant for her but she gave Resource Associates a call anyway. “I was immediately impressed with their knowledge and professionalism.”
Over the past seven years Ms. Gilstrap and Resource Associates have worked together to win millions of dollars that have made a noticeable impact for the district’s 1,500 students. From classrooms to cafeterias, money from grants is being used to hire critical staff positions, train teachers, grow healthy food, and empower students. With 100% of Stilwell students eligible for the free and reduced lunch program “we couldn’t provide for the basic needs of our students without grants.”
Resource Associates and Stilwell are truly partners in the grant writing process, working together like a well-oiled machine. According to Ms. Gilstrap, “Resource Associates knows so much about the district and our needs. When a grant is released that they think is a good fit they call me right away to make sure I’ve seen it. When we decide to go after a new grant I just have to give them an outline of the program we want to fund and information about what we want to accomplish and they run with writing the narrative. They do the heavy lifting, and then I review what they’ve put together. It’s a very collaborative process but takes a lot of work off of my plate.”
One of the first grants Resource Associates won for the district was the Native American Children in School grant which provided Stilwell Public Schools with $1.3 million over four years. Thanks to that funding, the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) department was able to grow from just one teacher serving more than 250 ELL students to multiple qualified instructors able to provide individual attention to students with language learning needs. The district also used a portion of the grant funds to implement Cherokee language and culture classes. With nearly 70% of students identifying as Native American, these courses have given students an opportunity to learn about their heritage as part of the school day.
In 2016, Stilwell was the only school district in Oklahoma to receive a Demonstration Grant for Indian Children. This million dollar grant has been used to further enhance Cherokee cultural learning in the district, to help students become more proficient in the use of technology, and to prepare them for success in college and careers. The grant money supports two Cherokee cultural days during which the district invites people in to demonstrate and teach traditional basket weaving, how to make corn husk dolls, and how the Cherokee syllabary works. Pow wow dancers are also invited to showcase traditional dances and songs.
The Demonstration Grant for Indian Children enabled the high school to purchase the Blackboard learning management system that is preparing students for how courses are administered in college. “Many of our students have not had much exposure to technology and they are intimidated by the unknowns of college,” said Ms. Gilstrap. “This puts them at a disadvantage but this grant has helped us address that in many ways.”
Through a partnership with Northeastern State University (NSU), students can take courses for college credit that could allow them to graduate high school and enter college as a sophomore. NSU professors come to Stilwell High School to teach the courses concurrently with the standard curriculum. NSU staff also visits the high school to work with students to prepare for the ACT and complete financial aid forms.
The Farm To School Planning grant has also made a dramatic difference in the lives of students. The $45,000 grant enabled the district’s science department to purchase a green house where students grow a variety of vegetables that are then served in school cafeterias. They were also able to purchase a large refrigerator and a freezer where the produce is stored. Additionally, each Wednesday, elementary students visit the farmer’s market located near the school. They are given “Veggie Bucks” to purchase local produce that they can take home to their families. “Students are learning about nutrition, how to cook, and how to grow their own food. They are taking those lessons home so that our whole community is healthier,” shared Ms. Gilstrap.
Significant gains in student literacy have been achieved with the help of a grant. The district is now in its second year of the Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant. They were awarded $450,000 in the first year and $175,000 in year two. The funds were used to provide training and coaching to teachers in effective literacy instruction and to hire four literacy coaches to work one-on-one with struggling students. Stilwell Elementary was rated an F in literacy by the state but after the implementation of these grant-funded programs the school has moved up to a C and has been named a High Progress School for its rapid improvements. Ms. Gilstrap noted emphatically, “When you have money, you can run programs that actually address the problems students have and progress can be made.”
Ms. Gilstrap and Resource Associates recently learned they’ve been awarded a $90,000 Farm To School Planning grant that will enable Stilwell to expand on the foundation built with the initial $45,000 Farm to School Implementation grant. Two other grant proposals are out for review as well. In the meantime, Resource Associates will continue to be on the look out for grants that will fill gaps in the district’s funding. “I count on Resource Associates to help us do our best work for our students,” said Ms. Gilstrap. “They care about our students as much as I do and celebrate our success right alongside us. I recommend the Resource Associates team to any school district. You have nothing to lose and millions of dollars to gain for your students.”