Helena Magazine

Helena’s Teacher Assistance Grants make a genuine difference in the classroom

Published 1:39 pm Monday, September 11, 2023

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Written by Donald Mottern

When Mayor Brian Puckett took office as Mayor of Helena, there was already a one-cent sales tax in effect for the purposes of funding education. First implemented in April of 2011, and first effective in July of that year, the tax was initially imposed as a way to raise funding for the construction of Helena High School.

Cent-by-cent, this fund quietly grew and grew and was utilized by the city of Helena to pay bond debts for school athletics, to make large donations to the city’s schools as well as a way to afford a host of other meritorious matters dealing with education as the needs arose. The tax proved itself to be a necessary and effective tax that has allowed the city of Helena to build a bedrock of education, one that other municipalities can, and have, use as an example.

Upon taking office in November of 2020, Mayor Puckett realized that despite all of the expenses, money remained in the fund at the end of each year and with it, a great opportunity patiently waited to present itself.

“I looked at it as an opportunity to be able to use some of that funding, instead of just letting it sit here (in the fund), (and) get it directly into the classrooms,” Puckett said.

Puckett began the Teacher Assistant Grant (TAG) with the earnest goal of doing something somewhat rare in the governmental sphere, which was getting money and funding directly into the hands of the teachers. This move quickly allowed for the ones in the classrooms, the ones who are with the students each and every day, the ones who know most about what is needed, the opportunity to make headway.

“It’s things that, a lot of times, that specific teacher wants because they know that it’ll be a good educational tool for the classroom,” he said. “This was a simple way to be able to reward those teachers that are always giving back to our community, who are pouring (their support) into our students each and every day.”

The first awards of the TAG grant took place in April 2021 and since then the grant has placed nearly $320,000 dispersed through more than 130 grant awards for teachers in Helena schools.

In doing so, the TAG grant has made an immediate impact on Helena’s schools, who have seen an immense benefit come from the additional funds. From Helena Elementary, Intermediate, Middle and High Schools, teachers are finding themselves feeling fortunate and thankful for the extra support. Support that is allowing the teachers themselves to find and select items that can truly make Helena’s schools the cathedrals of learning they set them out to be. It is making it possible for schools in Helena to better connect and serve their most valuable export, their students, and the TAG grant generates pathways for teachers to personally adapt and update their classrooms so that they can better fit it to the students and their technology-savvy generation.

In Helena Elementary School, where the educational journey of every child in Helena begins, 28 awards have been given to teachers so far that have made possible the procurement of a long list of items including desktop computers, replacement books, desks and chairs, reading and math kits, smart panels, teaching and manipulative sets, adaptive seating arrangements and toys for special needs classrooms. Of all of these awards, there is one that stood out as being one of the cheapest, but one that might prove to be among the most impactful. A set of Bee-Bots, totaling in the amount of $319.80, was purchased by kindergarten teacher Jessica Cummings when she received money from the TAG grant in 2021.

“It really is neat to see the students use these and to think that some of them are going to go into a field that they will have to code,” Cummings said. “And to think that maybe a Bee-Bot gave them that spark is really an awesome thing!”

A Bee-Bot is a small robot, roughly six inches long and across and standing four inches high. When used by themselves, they are intended to educate young students on the basics of coding and directional movement, however teachers like Cummings find their uses to be nearly as limitless as the imagination of their young students.

“With Bee-Bots they are not afraid to fail when putting the code in and they quickly learn to fix their mistakes. Being able to incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) into my ELA (english language arts) and math standards is such a must for me.”

Cummings also utilizes the Bee-Bots to take part in lessons that involve numbers, math problems, letters, CVC (consonant, vowel and consonant sound) word construction and also simply for fun as the children code the robot to navigate mazes.

“I know those students are engaged in what they are doing and are practicing many standards at the same time, while growing confidence in something that might not come as easy (to them),” Cummings said. “I am so thankful for the city of Helena investing in our classrooms the way they have.”

At Helena Intermediate and Middle School, the two schools have seen teachers receive 39 and 30 awards respectively, which have been used to purchase things such as laptops, white boards, sensory items, adaptive seating and playground equipment, musical instruments, science and sporting equipment, program subscriptions and renovations to classroom libraries, labs and gyms.

“The Helena TAG Team grants offer an incredible opportunity for teachers at each of the Helena schools,” said Jessie Tisdale, a fine arts teacher at Helena Middle School. “Over these past years, these grants have allowed me to purchase 20 iPads and 20 Apple pencils for the Helena Middle School art program.”

The middle school’s art program incorporates the new technology to aid students in their research and photography and also allows for topics such as animation and even augmented reality to be introduced through programs that would otherwise be unavailable.

This is also the case in Helena High School, which has seen similar items procured for their arts program. Through a total of 36 awards, teachers at the high school have also purchased items such as sets of graphing calculators, new radio systems, 3D printers, digital cameras and lenses, computer upgrades and science and dance equipment.

Sommer Simpson, a fine arts teacher for Helena High School, has also used grant funding to procure iPads for the students for use in art activities, with their funding secured this past school year. In the high school program, these iPads are now shared between three visual arts teachers and serve more than 450 students.

“It is going to be a game changer for us and our students,” Simpson said. “We will teach students how to use software to create digital works of art including photography, animations, gifs, digital drawings/paintings, collages, pixel art, 3d models, films and new media.”

Students at Helena High School are also introduced to the processes related to editing photos, preparing images for printing, entering online art competitions, and website showcasing. All of which are modern elements whose presence in Helena’s classrooms have been made possible, or greatly expanded in scope, thanks to the funding and items procured from the TAG grant.

Simpson is also one of many teachers who have applied for, and received, more than one TAG grant award since its inception. In 2022, she was also able to purchase 55-inch televisions for use as digital frames, which in effect has allowed her, and the other teachers, to transform the hall into a professional gallery-like setting to showcase student artwork.

“The TVs have motivated and challenged our students to prepare their best work for presentation,” Simpson said. “We believe the displays are enhancing our school culture as they provide students with a sense of ownership of their school.”

It is evident, through near universal appreciation from the teachers, that the TAG grant program set forth by Mayor Puckett has greatly aided Helena’s schools in their furthered modernization and continued adaptability where education is concerned.

“The TAG grant has made a huge impact on our visual arts program and so many other programs in our school,” Simpson said. “I love that our city makes it a top priority to invest in our future through our kids and our schools.”

Applications for the TAG grant are open to each and every single teacher within Helena’s schools. Once each application period ends, a committee review then determines which applications are approved for each iteration of the grant.

The grant exists in two iterations each year, with awards of the TAG grant occurring each April and November. It is a design that allows teachers two opportunities to receive funding per school year.

“I’m just extremely thankful for our schools and the teachers within the schools,” Mayor Puckett said. “This is just a tiny way that we can give back to them, to make their jobs the easiest it can possibly be.”