Local teachers use money from contest to improve classrooms

Students sit on exercise balls at Great Lakes Elementary. (Jan. 31, 2017)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Each year teachers in school districts face the reality of reaching into their own pockets to fill some of the needs in their classrooms.

At the beginning of the 2016 school year the 24 Hour News 8 Daybreak team went all over West Michigan, stopping at multiple districts with little treats to help the teachers get off on the right foot. At four local districts, teachers competed in a spelling bee. The four winners took home $1,000, to be used to fill the gaps in their classroom.

Jennifer Hopkins was the lucky teacher in the West Ottawa School District. Her classroom at Great Lakes Elementary is unrecognizable for prior students.

Hopkins used the bulk of the money to reinvent the way her students sit. She added hockey stools for kids who like to fidget or pillows for those who prefer to sit on the ground. She bought crates with pads on top and sports exercise balls. In the middle of the room there’s a new large carpet and bench where she can assemble the class as a group. Back in the corner, a brand new kidney table allows Hopkins to work closely in smaller groups with select students on specific areas. The nontraditional seating changes were important for Hopkins’ class as a way to find the best way her students learn.

“We know that kids learn differently and when they’re moving that allows them to learn, and they are able to use their knowledge of how they learn and apply it to what they’re actually learning,” Hopkins said.

In the Jenison School District, Tobi Hoeker’s class at Bauerwood Elementary had the final say in how her $1,000 was used. Hoeker had her students write a letter on how they wanted to spend their money. She says the majority expressed interest in books. With that in mind, the third-graders created the Bauerwood Book Buddies program. They bought as many books as they could with the money, two of each book.

“We sent one copy of each book to Our Lady Lourdes Elementary on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where poverty is 80 percent and finances are almost nothing for school supplies/books,” Hoeker said. “We kept the other copy of each book here at Bauerwood, and distributed them to each class that participated. So each class here got three to five books.”

Each book has a message inside that says: “Readers are leaders. I have a special twin. A child at Bauerwood/South Dakota is also reading this book.” Hoeker’s students and the fifth-grade class sent letters to the Book Buddies schools in South Dakota.

Ariesa Joseph has been teaching for a decade. Her second-graders at Sherwood Park Elementary, in the Grand Rapids Public School District, are reaping the benefits of their teacher’s spelling skills.

Joseph added new lighting, she bought science kits for both second-grade classrooms and used some of the other money to teach her students about outdoor recreational activities — including camping outside. With the rest of the money, Joseph tackled a huge hurdle she is facing this school year. She has three new students from the Congo, one of them speaks only French. Joseph at one point could not communicate with him so she bought an iPad and now is using Google Translate to break down the language barrier.

“The money helped so much. Usually we have to spend our own money in the beginning of the year and we don’t make that much,” Joseph said. “It just helped so much to be able to have this money and buy the things I’ve always wanted to buy in my ten years of teaching and could never afford to buy.”

In the Kentwood Public School District, Kristen Moss is between two schools. On the day of the Daybreak spelling bee, Moss happened to be at Meadowlawn Elementary. For her, the timing couldn’t be any more perfect. She had just been deciding on a budget of her own money to make her office more inviting. As the community school coordinator, she takes students who are battling a crisis or challenge inside or out of the classroom and helps them get on track.

When the school year started, she had a desk, a phone and blank white walls. But after her spelling bee victory, Moss’ room has new life. The bulletin boards match the polka dots on the wall and the bins used to hold files and papers. There’s also a kid-friendly table where the games and activities Moss was able to buy are on-hand for her students. She lit the room with colorful displays and a chalkboard cover on her desk, allowing kids to scribble away.

For Moss, the money has made a world of difference in connecting with the students. She went from a dull, blank room to an inviting, kid-friendly space.

“They literally walk past the door and are like, “Can I come into your office? I want to come in here, can you come and get me today?'” Moss said.