Innovative Ideas + Touchstone Energy® Grants:
A Winning Equation for Rural Schools
y Nancy Nixon



The writing has been on the chalkboard for years. The financial burden just to keep the doors open is overwhelming for many rural schools. Their buildings are deteriorating, they’re experiencing cuts in art, music and physical education programs, and the possibility of consolidation is a constant threat. And because Illinois’ method of funding public education favors school districts with larger tax bases, our small, rural schools are hurting and tomorrow’s leaders are suffering the consequences.

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From left: Egyptian Electric Cooperative Association President Allen Haake and Executive Vice President/General Manager Mark Stallons present a $900 Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grant check to Coulterville School District teachers Patricia Berry, Tracy Wolf and Olivia Parker and Superintendent Lou Oberneufemann.

A tandem challenge is for teachers to provide the type of educational tools their students will need to compete for jobs in the future. They need challenging, progressive and technologically advanced programs now. But achieving the next level beyond what’s required for students just to graduate simply may not be feasible for many rural schools without financial help. But where can schools obtain funding to address either of these issues? One answer is through grants, and Illinois’ Touchstone Energy® electric cooperatives are doing their part to help.

For the past eight years, Illinois’ Touchstone Energy electric cooperatives have pooled money into a statewide fund, which is used to promote the cooperative business model, educate the public about the Touchstone Energy brand, and provide funding for programs that improve the quality of life in rural Illinois. Because rural education is of increasing concern to so many electric cooperative members, the cooperative leaders voted in 2005 to earmark $10,000 of those statewide funds for awarding grants of up to $1,000 to schools that best demonstrated their need for program funds.

With assistance from Corn Belt Energy, an electric cooperative in Bloomington that has run its own grant program for years, and an advisory committee, the Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grant program was developed and launched in 2006. Four unbiased judges from outside the cooperative community were asked to review the applications so there would be no question about fairness in awarding the grants. The applications were distributed to schools in October, and the response was overwhelming. Program administrators knew the program’s first year’s response could be light and set a goal of 30-40 applications submitted, so when 87 applications arrived, they were both surprised and pleased. The requests for funding in most cases were humble, and the judges were impressed by the innovative ways schools could put grant money to use.

In all, the grant program funded 12 school programs for implementation this year. Bryce Cramer, chairman of the sub-committee overseeing the Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grant program and District Office and Member Services Manager at Egyptian Electric Cooperative in Murphysboro, says, “Schools in smaller communities are notoriously under-funded when compared to urban schools. These grants are providing tools and projects our schools need to provide educational opportunities our children deserve. As an added bonus, teachers, parents and school administrators will view the electric cooperatives as partners in the community. The grant program is a perfect fit with Touchstone Energy’s ‘commitment to community’ core value.”

Robotics In Rural Illinois

The population of Coulterville deep in southwestern Illinois is 984. The tiny town doesn’t have interstate access and it is approximately an hour’s drive from both Mt. Vernon and St. Louis. Yet, because of assistance from a Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grant, Coulterville eighth graders are embarking on a robotics program, something many larger urban schools won’t see anytime soon.

Given the school’s financial situation, it would have been easy for its science teachers to follow a basic and mundane curriculum that may not have challenged their students, but they chose a different path. Proof of their progressive leadership lies in the opening paragraph of their grant application, which reads, ‘Coulterville Unit School District #1 has developed a plan that extends science education “Beyond the Classroom Window.” The goal is to make science not only interesting to students, but also meaningful. Each area of science is not only organized according to grade level and state/national standards, but also involves action activities designed to create enthusiasm for learning. Many schools, regardless of where they’re located, could learn a lot from this “can do” attitude.

The school, which is served by Egyptian Electric Cooperative in Steeleville, requested the grant to enhance the scientific study of electricity by moving from electronic basics into advanced skills where students learn the “hands-on” basics of developing their own robots. The students build robots from kits and program them. 

Coulterville School District’s Dr. Louis Obernuefemann thanked Egyptian Electric Cooperative for the grant, saying, “The students have started construction and the excitement is soaring. When they complete their projects, I will send you some photographs of their accomplishments. With your help…we shape the future.”

The Science of Scales Mound High School

Keith Hesselbacher submitted two of the 87 Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment grant applications in 2006. Even after 42 years teaching and 39 years of running the clock at Galena football, volleyball, baseball and basketball games, he just can’t seem to let go of school involvement. Hesselbacher took over the reins as science teacher at Scales Mound High School in tiny Scales Mound near the Illinois-Wisconsin border four years ago. Always an advocate for the students, Hesselbacher felt they should have access to more technologically challenging coursework. The school didn’t have the money to fund the programs, so he applied for two grants. One grant application requested supplies and equipment to create an introductory electronics course for studying circuitry. A second grant application requested funding for the start up of a more advanced class that delved into bread boarding, where students could learn about transistors and diodes.

Because of his articulate and persuasive grant applications, judges awarded Hesselbacher funding for both programs for which he requested funding. Jo-Carroll Energy provides power to Scales Mound High School, and when Charlie DeLoach, Director of Communications at the co-op, learned that Hesselbacher and Scales Mound High School were awarded not just one, but two grants, worth $1,915, he knew he wanted to prepare a special surprise presentation that would involve Hesselbacher’s students too.

On January 3, when DeLoach walked into Hesselbacher’s class with two oversized grant checks and local media in tow, Hesselbacher, though confused at first, soon realized that he had been awarded the grants for his programs and found it hard to conceal is enthusiasm.  He said, “I’m very happy and very surprised. This is going to give the students the opportunity to find out about basic circuits and some of the electrical components such as capacitors and diodes that are used in many, many areas today with all the electronic equipment we have. For the students to have a chance to see these first hand and work with them I think is certainly a great opportunity for them.”

A few days later during halftime at the Scales Mound boy’s varsity basketball game, Hesselbacher was again honored by the school’s superintendent for receiving the grant awards.

Hesselbacher is a perfect example of how it’s not the size of the school that determines students’ success…it’s the size of the heart.

Little Broadway Makes A Comeback

Farrington Elementary School in the Bluford School District near Mt. Vernon is a minority even among rural schools today. with just over 50 students in grades K-8, it’s the next closest thing to a modern day one-room schoolhouse. Monte Jo Clark is practically a “one woman show” at the school. She serves as the school’s Superintendent and Principal, and in the past has also coached, taught and at times acted as janitor and school nurse. When asked if she also drove a school bus, she remarked that she actually had in the past but didn’t renew her license for this year.

The school is quite tiny and space is at a premium. In fact, she fondly refers to one multi-purpose area of the school as the “café-gymna-torium” because all drama and musical productions, daily meals and physical activities occur in the same space.

The tiny school understandably has a small budget but is known in the area for its theatrical and musical productions. Clark said, “The fine arts program encompasses kindergarten through eighth grade and we really take pride in stage productions and lots of musical presentations where we need good quality sound equipment.” While the productions are something the students all look forward to, they also learn a lot behind the scenes about set development and gain personal growth through acting, singing and dancing.

But the program’s future was in jeopardy because the 20-year-old equipment used for the productions was quickly deteriorating. When Clark saw in her local newspaper that Touchstone Energy cooperatives were awarding grants for schools she donned her grant-writing hat and seized the opportunity. When the grant awards were announced, and Clark discovered that she’d won a grant, she was elated. She said, “The day before our Christmas program we blew out our main speakers rendering the entire sound system useless, so now not only do we need a sound board, we also need speakers, and this money will help to
pay for the equipment.”

In a school that’s limited in opportunities it’s nice to know that the electric cooperatives could help to preserve a program that’s so important to the students, faculty and parents. So, with help from Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grants, Farrington School’s café-gymna-torium will again be transformed into this area’s “Little Broadway.”

The three schools highlighted in this story are typical rural schools. The communities may be small and under funded, but thanks to grant opportunities like the Touchstone Energy Classroom Empowerment Grant program combined with innovative ideas generated by teachers and school administrators, students are reaping the rewards of a winning equation.

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Teachers Wolf and Berry prepare a demonstration showing the type of robotics technology their eighth grade students are learning about and constructing. The robotics program is funded in part by a Classroom Empowerment Grant.

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Scales Mound High School Science Teacher Keith Hasselbacher (standing at right center) and some of his students proudly display two Classroom Empowerment Grant checks totaling $1,915 that will fund new electronics courses. The checks were awarded by Charlie DeLoach, Director of Communications at Jo-Carroll Energy (standing at far left).

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Elementary School
was awarded a
$500 Classroom Empowerment Grant
for new auditorium
sound equipment.
Here, students pose
with their Principal/
Monte Jo Clark

(standing at right); and Marcia Scott, General Manager of
Tri-County Electric Cooperative and school alum (standing at left)..

Touchstone Energy Cooperatives

Touchstone Energy cooperative leaders and school leaders recognize that the grant program is worth far more than the $10,000 awarded this year – it has brightened the future of many rural children, and no value can be placed on that. Because so many more deserving schools need the cooperatives’ help, cooperative leaders have voted to not only continue the program for another year, but to double the available funding from $10,000 to $20,000. They feel it best emulates Touchstone Energy’s four core values of integrity, accountability, innovation and commitment to community.

Touchstone Energy cooperatives will be distributing Classroom Empowerment Grant applications the first week of September. The application deadline has been set for September 30, and grant award announcement will be made in mid-December. Information about the grant program and application process will be announced in upcoming issues of Illinois Country Living magazine, cooperative publications, and in statewide educational bulletins. If you have questions about the grant program, contact your local Touchstone Energy electric cooperative. For more information about Touchstone Energy, log on at www.touchstoneenergy.coop.