SLSD teachers among SPARK! awardees

Two Cottage Grove High School educators were among the recipients of the SPARK! awards.

As South Lane School District (SLSD) looks to increase its limited in-person instruction and aims at a hybrid model of schooling possibly in March, some innovative programs created by local educators may be part of the transition.

In December, five SLSD and two Creswell School District educators were named among 21 awardees of a SELCO Community Credit Union grant.

The SPARK! Creative Learning Grants program awarded up to $1,000 to K-12 educators in 38 schools around the state for those who have established programs which were deemed particularly innovative and deserving of a financial kickstart.

“The selection committee was heartened by all the unique and creative projects that educators designed to help their students meet the challenges of this year like no other,” said Craig Carpenter, SELCO’s senior vice president of lending and business solutions regarding the Decemeber announcement. “SELCO remains committed, through SPARK! and other programs, to ensure those educators can overcome a lack of funding for a great idea. It’s never been more imperative to find fresh ways of reaching students, and we’re eager to support educators’ efforts.”

This year, the annual SPARK! Creative Learning Grants program awarded more than $42,000 to 47 educators across Oregon.

The program has supported teachers who have creative classroom ideas but lack the funds to get those projects off the ground. This round, the program was specifically aimed at helping educators meet the unexpected and evolving challenges of the 2020-21 school year.

The SELCO selection committee identified the grant recipients from among 118 applicants.

The committee’s goal is to fund innovative projects that will have the largest possible impact on students and the greatest opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

Cottage Grove High School chalked up two educators as awardees.

Brian Vollmer-Buhl, who teaches biology and ocean science at the high school, received $1,000 for paper microscopes called Foldscopes.

Part of the inspiration for investing in these, said Vollmer-Buhl, came from brainstorming how to incorporate hands-on science activities with distance learning.

“It was clear it’s going to be very different than when we have kids in the classroom because biology and ocean science are lab-based classes,” he said.

The grant is helping cover the purchase of 300 Foldscopes, and other accessories such as slides for specimens.

“And one of the cool things is, they’re designed so that they’re easily made with a cell phone, so that you can take images of what you’re looking at, and then share those with other people,” said Vollmer-Buhl.

Affordable and easy to use, the paper microscopes are planned to be implemented in the curriculum with the eventual return of in-person learning.

Another high school educator, Kim Hanson, teaches art and CTE (Career and Technical Education).

Hanson received around $987 for a program which teaches career pathways in graphic design and is linked through Lane Community College, meaning students can earn a college credit through the course.

“It just gets them kind of focused on what the career is about and the vastness of a graphic design career,” said Hanson. “Graphic design is a big field in Oregon with lots of job potential.”

The funding will enable students to create their own portfolios to bring to job or university interviews.

Hanson also received $5,000 from the Chambers Family Foundation to buy computers for the crea-tion of a graphic design lab in the high school.

In Harrison Elementary School, art and music teacher Laurie Hammond received $1,000 from the SPARK! Grant to bring ukulele classes to youngsters.

While thinking of how to apply her teaching skills to fifth-grade students, she eyed several ukuleles sitting unused at the school.

“I got to thinking, you know, what can we do that will enrich kids’ lives,” she said.

Getting the grant (and some help from the Parents Club) means Hammond can increase her ukulele count to 30. She plans to first provide a recorded music lesson for students to access on their own time and gradually transition to in-person learning for the hybrid model.

“I’m hoping mostly that it’ll be something that helps to really engage kids and hopefully provide them with a foundation in their pursuit of music,” she said.

Outside of town, Valerie Rocco, a physical education and health teacher at Dorena School, got $990 for a farm-to-table cooking class.

Rocco applied to the grant with a class in mind which could go home with the kids.

Following the model of companies like Blue Apron, Rocco will give students a box of ingredients and instructions to prepare fresh, seasonal meals at home.

“And when possible, using local ingredients,” she added. “And then they’ll also have an online video that they can access. So I’ll be making the online videos. And there are already the apps using Google classrooms.”

Other grant awards included funds to Child’s Way Charter School teacher Micheal Kerns for a program involving music for special education students, Creswell High School teacher Liz Babbs for a “Join the Journey” program and another Creswell High School teacher Wheylin Niehus for a hands-on building project kit.

For more information on SELCO’s SPARK! Creative Learning Grants, or to follow the progress of some of the grant winners, visit

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