BEMIDJI -- Molly Wiste's art classes at Bemidji Middle School wouldn't normally have the funding needed to create a large-scale art piece. But after discussing with her students what community meant to them in an era of nationwide division, Wiste wanted to do exactly that.

That’s where the Bemidji 31 Education Foundation Fund comes in. The organization, though still in its infancy, hopes to put grant dollars into the hands of local teachers to expand in-classroom opportunities.

While there are often booster funds for athletics, music and individual school parent-teacher-organizations, there are not always the extra funds in the classroom for projects, resources and field trips. This fund fills a gap classroom budgets can’t always stretch to cover, which will benefit all students, particularly those that might not be able to afford to participate in those extra activities.

“Many other school districts in Minnesota have partner foundations or organizations whose purpose is to assist those districts in meeting their academic goals,” the foundation website explains. “While Bemidji is blessed with many smaller groups full of people that do great work, we do not have an organization that is equivalent to those of our peers. The mission of the fund is to provide resources for classroom academic activities and create community partnerships in a lasting and sustainable effort.”

Defining community

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You can see the grant funds in action for yourself as Wiste’s class’s most recent project is currently on display as part of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk.

Standing on the shores of Lake Bemidji is the colorful triptych piece, made of durable wood panels. Each of the three pieces has a painted background depicting Lake Bemidji at different times of the day. Affixed on top are circles painted by students in Wiste's middle school art classes, representing the meaning of community for each of them.

Molly Wiste's Bemidji Middle School wrote about the intention behind their designs, on the back of their finished art piece. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Molly Wiste's Bemidji Middle School wrote about the intention behind their designs, on the back of their finished art piece. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“Middle school art students looked at the idea of community, what it means to be a part of a community, and did some thinking about what communities they themselves were a part of,” Wiste said. “The idea was to promote the positive aspects of community when it might seem like we are so divided.”

Some took the concept of community to a very small scale, like their Girl Scout troop or 4-H Club. Others expressed it more broadly, like being a part of the community of citizens of the United States or Minnesota, or those with Anishinaabe heritage. Several images depict community abstractly, with butterflies or clouds.

“I think it was amazing for them to be able to work on something that we couldn't normally afford to do -- something large-scale,” Wiste said. “It was so meaningful to the students because we, with the focus on community, were able to just think about things in a different way.

“It has a huge impact on them to be able to see it up in downtown Bemidji with other artists that are professional artists, and the community is seeing it and telling them how amazing it is. It's just been a great experience for them to see more of what real artists do. Because they're now artists outside the classroom, out in the real world and that's been really cool.”

Students painted individual circles depicting what community means to them. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Students painted individual circles depicting what community means to them. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

About the organization

The Bemidji 31 Education fund has been in the works since 2019. It has distributed two rounds of grants to educators, one round in spring 2020, and one in the 2021 school year.

The organization committee is made up of six members -- Jeff Haack, Ann Long-Voelkner, Carol Johnson, Taylor Eck, Tom Schwartz and Peter Bahr -- the first three of which are members of the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education.

In speaking with Haack, he said one of the long-term goals of the organization was to have a sustained impact and someplace that teachers know that if they have an extra project, their classroom budget is falling short or if their building needs something in particular, they have options.

RELATED:Foundation gets underway for Bemidji Area Schools

“(It’s important) that the community can see that there is a place in our organization that puts classroom and educational projects first,” Haack said. “Not athletics, not post-secondary scholarships, but actually putting dollars in the classroom in the teacher's hands in front of the kiddos. That's our long-term goal and then to grow the best we can.”

The foundation will consider grant applications up to $1,500 from any Bemidji ISD 31 educator, cohort or classroom. This year, the foundation gave out around $4,000 to teachers, ranging from $250 to just over $1,000.

Haack said while this amount may not sound huge, it still makes a difference in the classrooms, and the foundation has hopes to one day grow to a similar size as peer foundations. For example, a similar foundation in Fergus Falls was able to give out roughly $60,000 in grants a year, he said.

“Our fund is administered through the Northwest Minnesota Foundation,” Haack said. “We were (also) extremely fortunate to get some help from the United Way of Bemidji. They've been working on a webpage for us and some print media. They're doing great work for us. I can't really speak highly enough about them.”

This month, the foundation launched its new website, bemidjieducationfoundation.org.

COVID-19 has thwarted some of their plans to drum up more donors, as the foundation had plans to present at the Bemidji All-School reunion, now twice canceled due to the pandemic.

“That was the biggest letdown for us,” Haack said. “We also had a handful of projects and grants that were handed out that (included) a lot of personal interactions, field trips, things of that nature. They were just canceled, because of COVID. How can you have a field trip when everybody was distance learning, and sitting at home and six feet apart and all those things?”

Haack said the silver lining to the pandemic is that it gave the organization time to think through its future goals and market itself effectively to the community.

“We see this gap between what teachers want to do, and what they're able to do,” Haack explained. “We see that there are other smaller organizations that help with individual needs, but while they're productive, energetic and effective -- they're fragmented.

“You have the PTO at Lincoln or at Northern, but you don't have one group that can help out. Booster organizations, PTOs, they're usually about as successful as the parents or the participants are at the time. And when those folks move on or their kids move on, some of that success moves with them. We're looking for something that is more constant.”

STEM supplies

Wiste’s wasn’t the only class to receive funding this year. From a pool of 15 applicants, nine classrooms received funds from the foundation this school year.

Steph McDermott, a second-grade teacher at Horace May Elementary, was awarded funds to purchase STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) materials for her classroom.

McDermott said she had her eye on two kits -- called Makedo and Makey Makey -- before learning about the foundation, but with her current classroom budget and personal contributions, couldn’t afford to get more than one or two sets, which wouldn’t be efficient when used with a full classroom of students.

Makedo is kid-friendly tools to work with cardboard, like screws and safety saws. This allows students to build more long-lasting structures. She said these were used for a classroom project building hibernation structures in a unit learning about animals and that the materials will also be used for students to freely construct.

“It let them be a little bit more creative with how they were building. Their building stays together and they don't fall apart overnight, which is something that would have been a lot of times with just like scotch tape or masking tape,” McDermott said.

McDermott said she was appreciative of the grant because while she feels STEM learning helps reach the most diverse group of learning styles, there is not always funding for it.

Molly Wiste's Bemidji Middle School art students created this art piece,  on display as part of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, with funding from the Bemidji 31 Education Foundation. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Molly Wiste's Bemidji Middle School art students created this art piece, on display as part of the Bemidji Sculpture Walk, with funding from the Bemidji 31 Education Foundation. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“So many good things come out of that for every kind of learner. Offering those opportunities to students is amazing and just as a teacher I'm so thankful for it,” she said. “What a way to share your love of Bemidji and Bemidji learners to make these funds accessible for teachers who have good ideas but know we sometimes need to have two of something, yet can only buy one. Those STEM materials can be really expensive and that's a way to pull in and engage a lot of different kinds of learners.”

Other projects completed throughout the district included a grocery store unit for preschoolers, a calming space for elementary students, and a Starfall subscription to help with math and reading.

The foundation's new website has a place to make donations. Bemidji Area Schools employees can apply for classroom grants on the website as well.

“Our best advertising is for teachers to do what they do, for them to come up with these great projects and implement them,” Haack said. “We are young enough as a group where we'll just see where that takes us.”