The First Step: Understanding Your Needs
By Don Peek
If you aim to secure grant money for your school, your very first step must be understanding -- in detail -- the needs your school faces. To understand the true depth of those needs, you must consistently perform needs assessments. A good needs assessment measures the difference between what you expect of students in your classroom, school, or district, and what actually happens. The wider the gap between expectations and actual outcomes, the larger the need you have.
The easiest way to do a quick needs assessment is to look at the goals you set for the year and see if you met them. The end of the school year is the ideal time to assess your progress. By that time you should have state tests, nationally-normed tests, and locally developed tests to help you determine the actual growth of your students. If you do not currently have assessment tools in place, proper assessment should definitely be your first goal for this year.
As you begin to fill out grant applications, you will need to include details gathered from your needs assessments. Remember, a needs assessment is any instrument that measures the difference in current conditions and desired conditions. Typically, most of the information you need for grant applications can be gleaned from testing instruments, but you might also need to use student, teacher, or parent surveys.
In addition, your disciplinary and attendance records might be used you as needs-assessment instruments. For example, I often talk of schools where students perform 1.5 to 2 years behind in math or reading. You might determine from your attendance records that the at-risk students who score low in reading and math are the ones who have the poorest attendance. Maybe the problem is not class size or the instructional programs you currently use. Maybe the problem is that students are not learning what you’re teaching because they don’t attend school regularly enough to master the skills they need to perform on grade level.
Good needs-assessment instruments help you to examine a wide range of problems and programs from many different angles and to determine exactly what problems you face. Failure to review those assessment tools at the end of each school year, simply put, is a mistake. In fact, your grant program should be built around those needs assessments. You should perform your needs assessments, use them to determine the largest problems you face, and then determine if you have local money to fix them. If you do not have enough money locally, then you should use a grants database to explore the many opportunities for grant money that can be used to address -- and solve -- those problems.
From time to time, new needs surface in a district, school, or classroom -- needs that have not been part of your regular needs assessments. You may be seeing gang activity in your school for the first time, a larger percentage of dropouts than you have experienced before, or an influx into your community of a sizeable number of students who cannot speak English. Those issues are excellent candidates for grant writing because you have not experienced them before, so it is unlikely you have built money into your budget to address them.
As you are surely aware, the end of the school year does not mean that you lock up the doors and head off on vacation. If you write grants for your school, that is the time to study the results provided by your needs-assessment tools to discover the problems that need to be addressed through your grant-writing program. If you didn’t get that done during the summer, you need to do it now. Needs assessments are the starting point of any good school grant program. Be sure you use them to your advantage.
Don Peek is an expert in school funding. He has run The School Funding Center since 2001. Its database contains over 100,000 grants available to all types of schools in the United States. Don worked in education for 20 years as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent before becoming the VP then the president of the training division of Renaissance Learning, developer of the Accelerated Reader.