Education Foundation helps students

Photo by Susan Lipstein Union Education Foundation grant recipients, chosen based on their proposals for what they wanted to do with the funds.
Photo by Susan Lipstein
Union Education Foundation grant recipients, chosen based on their proposals for what they wanted to do with the funds.

UNION, NJ — The spring reception for the Township of Union Education Foundation honoring grant recipients for 2015-16 and 2016-17 was held yesterday at the Knight of Columbus. Grants awarded provide children from primary grades through high school with educational programming and materials for subjects including science, writing, computers and music.

The foundation, whose mission is to raise funds for grants to teachers for creative and innovative educational programs for students in Union’s public schools, was started in 2001 by interested parents, retired educators, business owners and involved citizens who felt there was a real need to supplement education for Union students.

Susan Lipstein said the idea formed when her children were students. “I got tired of hearing ‘we have to cut here,’ ‘we have to cut there,’ so I decided we should raise the money ourselves,” said Lipstein.

The foundation awarded its first grants in 2002, and has awarded more than 100 grants and raised over $150,000 for those grants. “These grants give teachers incentives to try different things,” said Lipstein. “It’s a way to test out new ideas.”

Lipstein said that the foundation — which is a charitable nonprofit — raises its funds through fundraisers and donations, all of which go towards expanding students’ opportunities for learning. “The teachers want to have these programs, but the funds aren’t there,” said Lipstein. “Funds are constantly tight in school districts. All of our grants are looked at by curriculum supervisors. If a district sees success, they might pick up the program and fund it,” she said.

Marianne Deczynski, a grant recipient who teaches third- and fourth-grade instrumental music at Washington and Battle Hill elementary schools in Union, said that the funding provided by the foundation has made a huge impact. “When I drafted my proposals, I did some research into the educational value of my projects,” said Deczynski. “Rhythm and steady beat are important to language development in children. Studies show that students who can keep a steady beat have more advanced language skills. By incorporating these instruments into our curriculum, the students have more hands-on opportunities to develop these skills at an early age. Students who play instruments also do better on standardized tests. I think the Education Foundation saw value in what we proposed and were generous enough to fund our project.”

Deczynski, who was a recipient of grants two years in a row, said that the funds were used to purchase a set of Orff Xylophone instruments to help reinforce the elements of music taught at each grade level. “I created a xylophone ensemble with some of my fourth-grade instrumental students,” said Deczynski. “I also used the instruments in the winter concert as part of the band and orchestra. The instruments we receive will be used by many students for many years. It’s interesting to watch students who play an instrument transfer their musical skills to a different instrument. The students are challenged to focus and think in a different way to be successful. When we are challenged in this way, our brain is developing and students are benefiting,” she said.

Lipstein said that monies raised by the foundation have gone to fund a variety of programs and materials and have opened up opportunities for students. “We look at it as starting a seed that grows,” said Lipstein. “With the right equipment, our kids can compete with anyone in the state.”

The grants have funded literacy materials, Kindles and E-Readers, Chromebooks, musical instruments, a space telescope, and STEM materials, among others, and the results have been impressive. “We gave a large grant for the robotics program at the high school last year,” said Lipstein. “Because of that, the team went on to the state championships. It creates more of a level playing field.”

Deczynski said that the grants are more important than ever as budgets shrink and prices rise. “Budgets shrink every year and prices for supplies keep going up,” said Deczynski. “My budget keeps my program running but there’s not much for extras. I’m grateful that our district values music and allows the students the opportunities it does. Students need an opportunity to think outside the box, problem solve and create. They have these opportunities through the arts. It provides them with an outlet for their emotions and a means of self-expression.”

Deczynski said that the grants support a holistic and well-rounded approach to educating students. “Studies show that playing an instrument increases a student’s test scores,” Deczynski said. “It also teaches them skills such as listening, responsibility, teamwork, self-esteem, cooperation, focus and determination. We need to educate the whole child, and Union does that with their support for our arts programs. Students learn when they have hands-on activities, and materials that make learning fun and exciting. The Education Foundation provides these exciting opportunities for the students. When a teacher can spark an excitement for learning in a child, there’s no end to what they can accomplish. When we can take something out of a textbook, and make it a reality for a student, they are more likely to see the value in it and hopefully we are creating lifelong learners,” she said.

According to Deczynski, the foundation has enabled teachers to spark excitement in their students. “There are so many great ways to make education exciting and fun for students, but budgets only allow for so much,” said Deczynski. “Through the hard work and generosity of the foundation, teachers can bring excitement to the classroom and provide the students with materials they would otherwise not have available to them. It’s exciting to hear the grant recipients talk about their grants and the wonderful opportunities they provide for our students. Education is so much more than a textbook or a computer screen, and these grants bring subjects alive for our students.”

Other grant recipients include Elena Bartlett of Battle Hill Elementary; Elizabeth Macheska and Ian Penny, both of Washington elementary school; Michael Atzbi, Michael DiPaolo, Jonathan Figueiredo, William Dye, and Troy Marshall, all of Union High School; Marcel Royal, Regina Reda, and Ellen Patricco, of of Connecticut Farms Elementary; and William Dye and Doug Walsh of Burnet Middle School.