Grants help keep tuition at small-schools stable

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JEFFERSON CITY - Not-for-profit schools seek other ways to fund projects that are out of their budget.

The Kids in Montessori (KIM) School in Jefferson City received a grant from Missouri's Department of Natural Resources to repair their wooden playgrounds that had a pea-gravel surface. Parents of the school noticed the splinters their kids were getting from this playground and started to find a solution to their problem.

Melissa Skinner, a KIM School Parent Volunteer, said one solution the parents came up with was to apply for the Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) playground grant. The grant helped the KIM School with funding $20,000 to install repurposed recycled tires as playground tiles. The KIM School will have a ribbon cutting for their new playground Thursday afternoon to welcome its Annual Fall Festival. The repurposing of recycled tires was also a way for the DNR to reduce the amount of illegal tire piles. A video the DNR uploaded in 2010 said, "up to five-percent of the scrap tire fee is used annually for playground material grants."

The vendor took two days to install the recyled tire tiles, but Skinner said the kids weren't bothered by it.

"Well, we are very lucky that we have about 13-acres out here," Skinner said. "There's lots of room for them to roam and play. Prior to installation, the playground was a concrete slab, so we got sidewalk chalk and the children drew, played hopscotch, jump rope, things like that."

She said the students were thrilled when the playground was complete and parents felt their kids were much safer. 

"Absolutely, it was night and day. As soon as the tile was installed and the structure went up it was, they couldn't wait to get on it and it's really fun to watch the children come out and play on such a fun surface and a safe environment," she said.

The improvement wasn't just a beautification of the school; it was also an extra safety measure.

"The rubber tiles meet head injury fall criteria. So based on the weight of the children and the height of equipment we installed out here, these rubber tiles, they protect children's falls," Skinner said. "The rubber adds an additional layer of safety that the pea gravel didn't provide previously. So, if they fall off of a large piece of equipment and hit their head they're going to be slightly hurt, but they're not going to be severely injured."

Skinner said the playground renovations was only able to happen through the collective effort of the parents.

"We all did certain parts of the grant application, we had people reviewing stuff, reading things, just compiling it was time consuming, but it wasn't overwhelming at all," she said.

This was a first for the KIM school. The school also received a grant from the MFA Oil Foundation for repurposing some of the existing metal playground components: merry-go-round and climbing structure. 

"We’re very proud of the work we've done and it's really for the children to ensure their safety. And to also allow them to have fun in the process too. So it's a win-win situation for the kids and for the teachers and the parents to know that their kids are safe," she said. "This is really the product of what happens when a community comes together and works together and works hard. This is a beautiful result of what can happen in a community."

Head of School at Columbia Montessori School Dan Johnson said budget problems is where a majority of non-profit, private schools find themselves in the same boat.

"Most schools and most non-profit organizations will come into situations where we have expenses that aren't going to be met by your budget. And that means you're going to have to solicit outside sources of revenue," he said.

The school most recently received a $10,000 grant from Boone County Community Trust to replace their heating and air conditioner systems. Johnson says the school typically solicits three to five foundation grants each year, ranging from smaller amounts for teachers to pursue Montessori certification to larger amounts that would allow for capital improvements.

But he said many schools don’t have the extra administrators to do grant research, to assemble and write the grant in a timely way.

"There is enough grant money that’s going around. The problem for schools is pursuing that grant money. You would have to have someone who had the time pursuing that grant money," he said.

Another way grants help is by allowing schools to have money to offer scholarship assistance to families. He said scholarships is a way for schools to maintain a diverse student population. Johnson said so far the grants have helped fund larger capital projects, teacher certification, supplies for classrooms and to keep a friend in the class.

"We have even done things like pursue grants that will allow us to keep classroom pets and to afford to feed and maintain those classroom pets. So again, they range from larger commitments to very small commitments that help individual classrooms just on a day-to-day basis," he said. "If the grant money was not available, schools would have to raise tuition in order to fund these other projects that they would like to engage in."

Ellen Wilson, Site Leader and Lead Teacher at Community Montessori School, said the school has benefitted through grants to pay teachers, purchase materials such as outdoor equipment, and provide scholarships for students from low-income families. Currently, five of their students have full scholarships from the United Way and other sliding scale tuition.