One of the most effective ways parent groups can support teachers is with a grant program. Tight school budgets mean that teachers often have to cut corners or go without activities that would enhance learning. And surveys consistently show that the typical teacher spends $500 or more of his own income each year to purchase classroom supplies. A PTO teacher grant program can fill those gaps and encourage teachers to find creative ways to reach students.

“We believe this is the best way money gets spent on students because teachers know what they need in the classroom,” says Kerry Ketelsen, PTO president at Tarver Elementary in Thornton, Colo. Tracy Donaldson, teacher grant coordinator for the East Helena (Mont.) Schools PTO, puts it this way: “Our main goal is to allow teachers to do their jobs by telling us what they don’t have [but need] to do it well.”

An effective grant program starts with teachers’ needs and sometimes, if you’re lucky, some unspent funds. To begin, articulate your purpose and establish parameters. At many schools, preference is given to grants that benefit the most students over the longest period of time and to projects that are sustainable without additional funding. An example would be $850 given by the Arthur S. May Elementary PTA in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to fund seven kits in a guided reading program for each of the three kindergarten classes. The purchase allows students to take the books home and learn by reading to their parents.

Typically, groups hold one or two grant cycles per year, usually one early in the fall and perhaps an additional one in the spring. The program might be promoted through flyers and emails, with applications available online, through email, or on paper. The May Elementary PTA found that it was best to give teachers the summer to consider possibilities and then submit their proposals by Sept. 30.

Because schools usually want the grant money used during the current school year, it makes sense to kick off the process early. Parents who help fund the grant program through direct donations or fund-raising efforts want to feel that their own children are benefiting from their support.

Choosing Grant Recipients

The grant application form does not need to be complicated, but it should seek information about the proposed project: what needs to be purchased and how much it costs, how the purchased item will be used and how long it will last, how many students and what age and grade level will benefit, the educational intent of the project, and a timeline.

In many schools, the first line of evaluation for grant proposals lies with the principal, whose involvement is critical. She can help you understand how each proposal meshes with school priorities, including curriculum and learning goals. In addition, the principal will know about school or district policies that could affect a project. For instance, at May Elementary the PTA could fund tickets to an event but not the bus for transportation, and at Blue Valley Middle School in Overland Park, Kan., the district will not provide financial support for the upkeep of new technology.

Next, the proposals are evaluated by a grants committee or by the PTO board. It is helpful to have a rubric to make the evaluation process simpler, assigning a range of points for each criterion. For example, you might award points based on how many students are directly affected by the grant request, how it aligns with the school’s curriculum, or whether the materials can be reused. Sometimes the grants committee makes the final decision; sometimes they make a recommendation to the PTO board or the general membership for a vote.

At Franklin-Randall Elementary in Madison, Wis., 5th graders are part of the evaluation process; from their unique perspective, they can discuss whether kids would enjoy the proposed item or activity. At some schools, the decisions are left to the teachers. The Tarver Elementary PTO gives $1,000 to each grade level and then lets the teachers decide together how to spend the money; their selections have ranged from a boom box to Chromebook laptop computers.

Awarding the Grants

However the money is distributed, it’s best to award it in a way that feels fair. “When I took over doing grants, I delved back as far as data was available,” says East Helena’s Donaldson. “At first, it was hard to figure out if we should OK everything the teachers asked for. I made a table showing what requests we received and from whom and where the money was going. Then we were able to look at the bigger picture and make sure we were spreading the money around.”

It’s also important to get receipts from the grant recipients. Particularly if the grants make up a substantial part of your annual budget, you’ll need a paper trail for how the money was spent.

If a grant is rejected, explain why to the person who submitted it. Suggest alternative funding sources, if applicable, as well as tips for resubmitting for the next cycle. At Franklin-Randall Elementary, each person who submits a grant has a committee member assigned to him, and that member suggests how to revise the application.

Some parent groups prefer to focus on larger items for grants and thus award every teacher a small grant for classroom supplies. East Helena PTO, for instance, gives each teacher $125 to purchase needed items not covered by other funding. Others prefer to receive requests for small as well as large items. At Zionsville West Middle School in Whitestown, Ind., the funded grants range from $110 for a remote control for the overhead projector to $5,500 for a concert by a rock violinist at three schools. At Blue Valley, grants have ranged from $35 for a deluxe ant farm to $1,000 for a guest speaker on bullying prevention.

A Broader Scope

Some groups don’t limit the funding to teachers.For instance, paraprofessionals at East Helena run a group called the Breakfast Bunch that works to teach students manners. The group received a grant for prizes to reward students for reaching certain milestones.

At the Marion Cross School in Norwich, Vt., the PTO welcomes requests from parents for items the school could use to increase school spirit. One successful proposal was $150 for jump ropes and chalk for alternative recess activities that promote social skills. Another was a $500 farm-to-school grant to help the school garden provide an even more diverse range of hands-on educational opportunities, to help students connect with each other in nature, and to connect students to local agriculture.

At Franklin-Randall, the pool of potential applicants is even larger. Anyone with an idea for school improvement can submit a grant application, including parents and students. A parent received $100 to build a circular bench so that parents who walk their kids to and from school have a place to wait. Students—whose grant applications automatically receive bonus points—have gotten funding for a pottery wheel and for help with a student-led drive for school supplies for needy kids.

Whatever guidelines you develop for your grant program, approach it with the same sense of teamwork that your group brings to everything else. A grant program “is a group process,” says Jill Andersen, PTO copresident at Blue Valley. “We work with the teachers and administration to have an open relationship where they feel like they can ask for what they really need. We’re here to serve the staff who make it easier to teach our students. We let them know we’re their partners and that we want them to ask for as much as possible that would really be helpful.”


Tips for a Successful Grant Program

1. Set guidelines rather than absolute limits so that potentially big creative ideas are not squashed.

2. Use purchase orders or check requests to spend grant money. Asking recipients to spend their own money for later reimbursement can discourage those on a tight personal budget.

3. Be sure to collect receipts for all purchases made with grant money.

4. Publicize not only the grant program but also the successes of the grants awarded. Have recipients present at a PTO meeting, and post photos on your website. This type of positive attention will help with future fundraising efforts to support the program.