Photo by Emily Buss
Winona Area Public Schools grant writer Valerie Williams, who was instrumental in acquiring more than $600,000 in grant money, is making sure area students are receiving innovative tools to help foster lifelong learning. Williams helped secure a LEGO Smart Schools Grant, which gave hundreds of thousands of Legos to students to enhance their science, technology, engineering, and math skills.
Winona Area Public Schools are in a unique position for long-term advancement. Curriculum has been enhanced in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), behavioral episodes are at an all-time low, and extracurricular opportunities to indulge students' creative side are many. As a grant writer for district 861, Valerie Williams is to be thanked for the bulk of new positive programming throughout the schools and on school stages.
Only a select few school districts in Minnesota are lucky enough to employ full-time grant writers, and Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is one of them. Since joining the district in 2007, Williams, a Winona native, has tirelessly given back to the community that, she said, has given so much to her.
“When I saw the job with the Winona school district, I went for it. I think the teachers will tell you that, between preparing for classes and helping students; they just don’t have the time to seek out the needed grant money.”
Grant writer by day...
In the five years she has been with the WAPS district, Williams has netted more than $600,000 in grant funding, dollars that have supported safety initiatives, creative services, and the district’s push for STEM courses.
During her first year on the job, Williams secured a $67,000 grant from the United States Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) for an upgraded security system at the high school and Paul Giel Field. The funds helped pay for increased security cameras on campus, hand-held metal detectors, breath alcohol testers, and an identification scanning system that now functions using card-reading technology.
“We were also able to put in a locking system [at the high school] and the increased number of cameras just makes the school a safer place for everyone,” Williams said.
After the success of the COPS grant, Williams sought out funding for a program near to her heart. Throughout the last five years, the Seattle-based Laird Norton Foundation has funded speech and theater opportunities. An initial grant of $30,000, and then $20,000 every year thereafter, has brought more arts into the classroom.
Artists are compensated for the time spent showcasing their work during the time between class periods, giving tours of their studios, and working with teachers. “[The artists] bring in so many different creative elements into the classroom and I think the students really like it,” said Williams.
An $80,000 grant helps fund Project Lead the Way, a high school initiative that allows students to get a lesson in real-world business practices.
“[The program] emphasizes real-world design and building concepts that students take back to their metals or woods class. They are able to actually build their designs and learn the skills necessary to continue education in engineering,” Williams said. She praised the work of WSHS industrial technology teacher Kevin Martin for recruiting a growing number of interested students. “The project is expanding and, hopefully, in the future will include more classes. There are so many design and engineering companies in Winona that are wanting to hire but aren’t finding those people. The more we can educate the students in this field, the higher the hope is that they will stay here in our community after they graduate.”
In April 2012, Williams secured the $40,000 LEGO Smart Schools Grant, distributed to Jefferson Elementary, Winona Middle School and Winona Senior High School (WSHS), that assisted teachers in implementing STEM skills at all age levels.
“LEGO brought in huge numbers of Legos for STEM projects, specifically the middle school and high school robotics programs,” Williams explained. “At the middle school, students are working on solar projects with the legos. It’s amazing what these students can build.”
When the project was first introduced to high school students, 9th grade American history teacher Linda Pfeilsticker was teaching her students about the famous Louis and Clark expedition. She had her students construct a scene from the expedition, in an exercise she said allowed students to turn recently learned classroom material into long-term knowledge.
“I believe in hands-on education and that’s what a lot of these projects allow for,” Williams said. “Sometimes people look at this initiative and think that a lot of the purchased material doesn’t seem necessary. But, any time you can get material into the hands of kids, that gives them the opportunity to discover. It’s a great way to build on imagination and I’m big on creativity.”
Theater director by night
A Cotter High School and St. Mary’s University graduate, Williams has been involved in local school theater for much of her life. After college, she ventured north to the Twin Cities and worked with area theaters such as Illusion and Mixed Blood. She returned to Winona in the early 2000s to work with the Theatre du Mississippi. However, after taking the grant writing job with the school district, Williams left her brief stint with the Winona theater to focus on the students.
A public school referendum in 2009 reinstated the speech team, and Williams, with coaching experience at Cotter under her belt, began coaching the team. For the last four years, Williams has also worked in the WSHS theater department and directed several performances and one-act plays.
“When I started grant writing for the high school, I had no idea that I would also be doing this, but it’s been a wonderful coincidence,” she said. “Despite the long hours, I’m really happy to spend my time with the students. I love being able to create characters and, hopefully, have a positive influence on the kids.”
Most recently, Williams finished work on the WSHS production of “Alice in Wonderland.” In addition to her full-time day job, she has weeknight theater rehearsals now through April, weekly individual meetings with speech team members, followed by upcoming rehearsals for the spring play, and is planning for the much anticipated Shakespeare in the Classroom in May.
“It’s a lot to take in at once, but I love theater, so it was an easy choice,” Williams said. Just like district 861, Williams said, the theater takes everyone. “Each student has a place.”