Schools: Sparking the imagination

Grants fund innovative educational programs at Menlo Park district schools

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By Andrea Gemmet

Almanac Staff Writer

The slap of jump-ropes fills the gym at Oak Knoll School in Menlo Park. The teens from Jumping for Joy, a Santa Clara-based youth team, perform their high-energy routine by starting with basic jump-rope moves that accelerate into complicated, precision stunts.

After school, students inspired by the performance can participate in jump-rope clinics, and go home with a rope and skills to pass along to their classmates.

The performance isn't just about entertaining kids on a recent school day. Surging enrollment in the Menlo Park City School District is crowding the playgrounds, and educators are looking for ways to motivate students to get exercise, especially exercise that takes up a minimal amount of space. Jumping rope fits the bill, and it's one of a myriad of clever ideas funded annually by the Menlo-Atherton Education Foundation's Jeannie Ritchie grants.

The grants area a bit like the idea behind micro-loan programs, in which a small sum of money can make a big difference. Jeannie Ritchie grants range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, and are awarded annually to fund programs pitched by teachers.

Some of them, like Jumping for Joy, encourage fitness. Others, like the upcoming Life Cycles Unlimited program, reinforce science lessons by bringing butterfly larvae, tadpoles and frogs into second-grade classrooms. The Picasso traveling art museum exposes middle schoolers to art and the cultural riches of Spanish-speaking people, with students in Spanish class getting extra, in-depth lessons. Other programs funded this year are designed to help students explore music, physics, literature, living skills and diversity.

Even students can pitch programs for Jeannie Ritchie grants. Hillview middle school students put on monthly diversity events at lunchtime, focusing on a different world culture through displays, activities and food.

Oak Knoll teacher Andrea Boatright says the recent hands-on history program had her third-graders on the edges of their seats. Keith Gutierrez taught the students about native Ohlone people by having them try their hands at spear-throwing games, grinding acorns, and starting a fire without matches.

"They were hanging on every word," Ms. Boatright says. "(Mr. Gutierrez) sings with them, gives them a hands-on introduction to the way (the Ohlone people) lived, in a way a textbook can't do."

Students got to grind acorns, dress up in traditional clothes and play games that helped hone hunting skills. They also found out that traditional women's work was harder than it looks, as they attempted to carry a basket loaded with acorns that hangs from a forehead strap, Ms. Boatright says. "You have to bend down without dropping the basket," she explains. "They spilled hundreds and hundreds of acorns."

Cindy Guerra, another third-grade teacher at Oak Knoll, says that Mr. Gutierrez has an activity that helps illustrate just about every concept the students have been taught in class.

"He, in my opinion, is the best because he is Native American, he practices all his customs and traditions, and he doesn't miss a beat," Ms. Guerra says.

The Hands-On History program has three parts, starting with the Ohlone Indian program. Students also take a trip to the historic Woodside general store as part of the exploration of California history and westward expansion, and this week, students will get a surprise visit from "Oh Suzannah." Suzannah is played by former teacher Laura Steuer, who comes in costume and in character as a young woman who traveled to California with her family in horse-drawn wagon. She tells stories based on historical accounts and diaries from the Gold Rush era, she says.

"I say to them, 'No one knows it like I do, because I was there!'" Ms. Steuer says.

At Laurel School, the kindergarteners in the district's bilingual Spanish immersion program were the entertainment at last month's Spanish culture day. With help from teachers Benjamin Salas-Velasco, who is from Spain, and Andrea Vereau, the two immersion classes learned a flamenco dance routine and performed for their classmates to kick off the day-long event. Accompanied by a guitarist and led by a real flamenco dancer, the girls swish their ruffled skirts and the boys, in broad-brimmed hats and dotted sashes, clap and stamp to the music.

The audience learned to count and sing the simple song in Spanish, rocking the multi-use room with shouts of "Ole!" before heading out to art activities followed by an authentically Spanish lunch of paella.

Earlier in the year, students celebrated the culture of Peru, and in May, they'll explore Mexican culture. The program is designed to expose students outside the immersion program to the diversity within the Spanish-speaking world, as well as bring together Laurel's bilingual immersion kindergarteners with their first-grade counterparts at Encinal School.

The Jeannie Ritchie grants are named for one of the founders of the Menlo Park-Atherton Education Foundation, and in the past 24 years, it has doled out about $500,000 in grants. A panel of teachers and foundation board members vote on applications that are submitted anonymously, judging them on their relevance to the curriculum, as well as their creativity and innovation. Ms. Boatright, the Oak Knoll teacher, says that without the grants, there wouldn't be a way to fund a program like the Hands-On History that her third-graders so enjoyed.

Of course, the grants are only a small part of what the education foundation funds every year. Foundation grants made up almost 7 percent of the Menlo Park City School District's annual budget last year, funding everything from librarians to science curriculum materials, music classes to professional development for teachers. Jeannie Ritchie grants made up 13 percent of the foundation's $1.8 million grant to the district last year.

FUNDRAISER: The annual spring fundraising event for the Menlo-Atherton Education Foundation, "Rock the Foundation," is set for 7 p.m. Saturday, April 24, at the Computer History Museum, 1401 N. Shoreline Boulevard in Mountain View. The event features a silent auction, a raffle, an open bar, and dancing to music by Pop Fiction. The goal is to raise $100,000 to fund the salary and benefits of a teacher who would otherwise be laid off due to budget cuts. Tickets start at $75 and may be purchased online. Go to and click on "Spring event."

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