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BLOOMINGTON — Whether it’s a towering climbing wall or the cost of postage to send letters to parents, Twin City classrooms have benefited from grants given by the Beyond the Books Educational Foundation for 25 years.

Beyond the Books was formed in 1992 as an endowment fund to serve the schools in Normal-based Unit 5 and Bloomington District 87. Each year, teachers can request grants for educational projects or activities.

Since its conception, the foundation has funded 724 projects in Bloomington-Normal schools totaling more than $550,000.

“In today’s environment with so much unknown funding for school systems, it’s nice to be part of a group that gives to schools,” said Vickie Robertson, board president for Beyond the Books.

The deadline to apply for the next wave of grants is March 6. The foundation, made up of community members and representatives from both districts, selects recipients after a blind review of submissions.

“We look for applications with an emphasis on innovation,” said Robertson. “Anything that is a new way to teach kids something old. We love grants that are cross-curricular, cross-generational and collaborative with other schools or businesses.”

The endowment fund is replenished through fundraisers, community donations and a partnership with the Shirk Family Foundation.

“It gives teachers an outlet to actually investigate unusual projects and a way to fund them. In addition to the monetary benefit to teachers, it’s also a great way to energize our community,” said Robertson.

Kristi Sutter, library media specialist at Sheridan Elementary School, has received a handful of grants over the years. She has used the projects to teach students about museum curation, engineering and storytelling.

On Friday, her students worked on puzzle boxes that came from a grant-funded STEM (science technology, engineering and math) reading event.

“As teachers, sometimes you come up with these amazing ideas but the funding isn’t there. Beyond the Books has been a fantastic resource in finding money to do these projects and they end up being the projects kids remember forever,” said Sutter.

Beyond the Books officials said some of the most notable grant projects have been a rock climbing wall at Evans Junior High School and a Holocaust survivor speaking at Bloomington Junior High School.

Michael Jennings, physical education and health teacher at Evans Junior High, received the grant to install the climbing wall.

“To maximize student engagement, we always try to offer different and exciting activities. The climbing wall would not have happened, and 900 students wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience something new, if we didn't receive the grant from Beyond the Books,” said Jennings.

Besides the physical activity, Jennings said students can join the Rock Solid Assistant program to help teach other students how to climb, which builds leadership and communication skills.

“It’s phenomenal that schools have this entity in our town that can assist with projects. Unfortunately, I think it goes unknown outside of the schools and I hope more people see what it has done for our educational community,” said Jennings.

The foundation is inviting the community to attend a family-friendly anniversary event at Evans Junior High, 2901 Morrissey Drive, from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Grant recipients will be present to share ways the funded projects have impacted students and there will be games, crafts and a display of small animals from Miller Park Zoo.

Information about kindergarten registration, substitute teaching and bus driver positions will be available.

“I hope to see scores and scores of people from the community attend the event, from young children to grandparents,” said Gail Ann Briggs, long-time member of the Unit 5 board and Beyond the Books Foundation. “There aren’t a lot of joint education foundations like this in the state and I feel so validated to be a part of this program.”

For more information on Beyond the Books Educational Foundation, visit www.beyondthebooksbn.com.

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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