Something More

Technology as a funding priority.

GUEST COLUMN | by Naomi McSwain

credit-wooten-centerOur wake-up call came at a funders’ forum surrounded by big names like the Annenberg Foundation and California Community Foundation. A representative from Annenberg uttered the stinging words that I remember like yesterday: “If all you do is homework and basketball, you will most likely not get funded.” This was in 2010 when the funding world hit a major slump due to the economic recession. Donors who recently lost money could not give to foundations at the same level as they used to.

According to a GuideStar study, nonprofits like ours saw a 52 percent decrease in contributions during the recession. In our case, our budget went from about $700,000 to $400,000 in a two-year period.

As we worked to improve our afterschool programs, we turned to education technology — offerings that employed experiential and adaptive solutions — to sharpen our learning projects and enable our center to go after STEM and STEAM funding.

During this time our program consisted largely of homework and basketball at our youth center in South Los Angeles. With this rash of grant denials, we realized that in order to remain competitive in the limited funding market, we needed to improve our offerings.

This catalyzed a quest to incorporate computers and online resources into our educational offerings to supplement our center’s tutoring approach and seek to engage students with important tools. One of our current interns at the time, Cameron Townsend, a freshman at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, introduced us to a game design resource called GameSalad.

Cameron used the program to teach a game design class for teens in our Summer Fun Camp this year. The students loved it so much we are continuing it in our CollegeTrek Afterschool Program.

“Everyone always assumes it would be really difficult to create a video game from scratch,” said Ashley, one of our seventh grade participants. “With GameSalad, it’s fun and easy!”

As we worked to improve our afterschool programs, we turned to education technology — offerings that employed experiential and adaptive solutions — to sharpen our learning projects and enable our center to go after STEM and STEAM funding. Our new lesson planning revolved around our STEP Tutorial Model.

STEP is an acronym for Self-Directed, Team-Oriented, Experiential and Project-Based. It promotes four key college readiness skills: critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creative expression.

With limited funds, it was clear that technology was the most cost-effective solution for providing the kind of high-quality instruction we wanted. Everything we offer today uses technology for implementation, whether for game design, coding, or music production. All of the our current classes are project-based with hands-on activities and teachers as facilitators instead of lecturers.

Dedicated to our mission that promotes good citizenship and academic excellence with an emphasis on higher achievement, the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center is now seeing an increase in our funding. KROQ Radio via proceeds from its Almost Acoustic Christmas Concert donated $90,000, which we used in part last year to buy 11 new iMac computers.

Additionally, we recently received a $100,000 grant from the Ahmanson Foundation for a new van and general operating support. At their site visit at our center, the representative said she was impressed by our game design, science lab and other activities in session that day. Among their areas of support — technology and software.

Other funders who in the past year gave the thumbs’ up to our proposals include Bank of America Charitable Foundation, whose workforce development and education priority includes mentorships that support hard skill development (e.g., programming). The California Endowment, our state’s largest private health foundation, also has granted our program $65,000 over the past two years. They funded in part our i-Ready.com assessments and tutoring, and a program called Juvenile Justice Jeopardy, an online game teaching teens about juvenile law and how to exercise their rights properly.

All of this uptick in funding is due to more competitive grant proposals that employ advancing educational technology at the heart of our programming. And great strides for our programs means even better outcomes for our kids.

Naomi McSwain is Executive Director of the Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center in Los Angeles. Visit: www.wootencenter.org

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