Establishing “community nights” for families to better get to know staff, helping students build resilience and understand the importance of world language, and providing more internet access. This school year, the Stoughton Area School District’s “Innovation Grants” made an impact in several schools.

Now in its fifth year, the Innovation Grants program is continuing to provide district educators paths – and funding – to explore new, creative programming to help students and families.The grants are regularly budgeted from the district’s general fund to provide seed money for an action research study or to develop an innovative idea that aligns to the district’s strategic plan put together by the community.

At River Bluff Middle School, educators organized “community nights” at the school where families got a chance to meet educators, play games and enjoy a free meal. At Sandhill Elementary, staff provided increased extracurricular opportunities for students. At Stoughton High School, educators brought together community partners and students to help them see world languages being used in daily lives outside of the classroom. And throughout the district this year, students who ride buses to and from school got to use free WiFi to help finish homework.

Community Nights

River Bluff Middle School educators Laura Borsecnik, Jessica Fetting and Sarah Miller used their grant to organize and host three “community nights” at the school, including a free meal, games and activities related to team building, math, and literacy, and books for kids to take home.

Borsecnik said the literacy activities included a read-aloud activity, creating a cultural literacy quilt and creating blackout poetry. The math room included games such as Yahtzee, Farkle, SET, Knock-Out and Muggins, while families played corn hole, badminton, disc golf and ultimate Frisbee.

Each night had a special theme, she said, with a meal connected to that theme, complete with dimmed lighting, table decorations and music. Conversation starters were at each table to get people talking and mingling, and families were sent home with a gift bag, including a framed picture of their family and other goodies donated by community sponsors.

Borsecnik said the idea behind the grant was to make all families feel welcome at the school, and to know they’re an “integral part of our school culture.”

“We firmly believe that students will be more engaged in school work and are more likely to be successful when families are comfortable in our building and with our staff and believe they are valued,” she wrote in an email to the Hub. “We wanted families to get to know staff in a non-academic, casual setting. Most importantly, we believe that we are truly one big family, so we wanted to spend time doing the things families do – sharing a meal, laughing and playing games.”

Borsecnik said the response was “overwhelmingly positive,” and the events are something school officials “definitely want to continue in some form.”

“Families loved being able to talk with staff outside of conferences or our school open house, in a relaxed setting,” she said. “Most importantly, we were able to forge closer relationships with students and families.”

‘Resiliency’ grant

Sandhill Elementary School educators divided their $8,000 grant to help into two main focuses – providing access to extracurricular activities in the community and developing a “Karate and Character” program, said Sandhill teacher Diane Pinnow. Both were designed to help students build resilience, she said.

In the first program, more than 30 K-5 students participated in a variety of activities in and outside of school, including gymnastics, tumbling, pottery, karate, basketball, soccer, swimming, Girls on the Run, bowling and painting. Staff focused on ways to reduce barriers so that as many students as possible could participate in an extra-curricular activity, she said.

“This provided students and their families opportunities to make connections in the community and get involved in areas of their interest,” Pinnow wrote the Hub. “Research shows that resilience can be built by forming caring relationships, making connections within the community, mastering skills, and having the opportunity to express oneself creatively.”

The “Karate and Character” program is in conjunction with Kicks Unlimited’s Matt Griey. Its mission is to help kids build self-efficacy, Pinnow said, with emphasis placed on the “discipline of the mind and body through positive relationship building, goal setting, and self-reflection.”

For eight weeks, a group of students learned karate, and also got to be role models to younger students by exhibiting positive character traits, she said, noting that one student who participated in the fall session went on to become a mentor.

“In this role, he goes to the first-grade classrooms twice a week and reads a picture book emphasizing one of the character traits,” Pinnow said. “He then leads a discussion guiding the kids to share the author’s message regarding perseverance and friendship qualities.”

Going ‘Global’ at SHS

Stoughton High School educators used their grant to support a local “Go Global” conference to bring together community partners and students to help them see world languages being used in daily lives outside of the classroom. The school held its first “Go Global” conference on Tuesday, Feb. 26, with more than 80 high school students participating.

Sessions included an African drum ensemble, an administrator who lived abroad, a graduate who studied overseas in the Peace Corps and an SHS alumni who started his own music discovery and streaming platform. Students were able to attend three sessions of their choice as a way to help them learn about other cultures and connect with local community members.

The SHS Norwegian Dancers also were on hand to teach some “mini-sessions” for their classmates on some of their dances.

Organizer Stephanie Krentz, who taught German at SHS for six years before moving to a district mentoring role this year, said she was thinking of a way to bring in people from the community to help students “see world languages being used in daily lives outside of the classroom,” when she heard the goal of the latest round of the district’s “innovation grants” for faculty ideas.

“(It was) improving student achievement, engaging students in their own learning and specifically fostering a culture of collaboration between our school and community,” she said. “When I heard that I was like, ‘Check, check, check,’” she said.

WiFi on school buses

The SASD transportation department was awarded a grant to provide WiFi internet access on school buses to allow students to use their district-issued Chromebooks to complete homework assignments while riding home or in transit from events.

“This is especially beneficial for students in households that don’t have access to high speed Internet due to economic or household location barriers,” the grant proposal stated.

Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at