By Rebecca Schmitz
For most people, few things are more daunting than standing on stage and speaking to a packed auditorium. Now imagine you’re a teacher who has 60 seconds to pitch an idea for a project that could provide much-needed support and resources to your students. Throw in the fact that your audience is composed of successful, knowledgeable business and education leaders and creative thinkers, all of whom will be evaluating your pitch and possibly helping you make it a reality. Understandably, you’d be a little on edge.
This didn’t stop Betsy Agee, a fifth grade teacher at Crozet Elementary, from taking the stage at Monticello High School on a Friday night in November as part of Charlottesville’s Startup Weekend EDU and confidently pitching an idea she and two other teachers had come up with after recognizing a gap between the resources their students needed and what the budget could provide. She began her pitch with these powerful words: “Let me ask you a question… what would you do with 337 kids with a million ideas and 180 devices? Our idea is ‘In Our Hands,’ a grassroots technology accelerator.”
Agee, along with fifth grade teacher Brandy Garbaccio and third grade teacher Abby Claytor, had recognized a need among Crozet’s students for more technology and other resources. “We believe in and are proud of our students and what they accomplish day to day. We were confident in our needs and wants. We have so much to say about our students, but to be brief and cut to the chase, with a timer in front of us, can be nerve-wracking,” Garbaccio said. Despite the short time frame allotted for their pitch, their idea, a Kickstarter-based website that would allow local businesses to partner with and support students’ project-based learning, impressed the judges. Their pitch landed them in the Top 10.
When Agee first read the email sent to county educators about the conference, an annual event designed to match student and educator entrepreneurs with people in the community who could help them develop and grow their projects, her interest was piqued. It seemed an ideal forum for the teachers to get the guidance they needed to refine and enhance “In Our Hands.” Her colleagues agreed. “It seemed like a dream situation to share our passion for supporting our students,” Garbaccio said.
In her pitch, Agee stressed the need to provide resources for tech-savvy students who have no access to computers at home. Also, some students had become so proficient in areas such as computer coding that they needed to be more challenged, but lacked access to a device long enough at school to improve their skills and continue designing. “In Our Hands” would strive to meet these students’ needs by matching local business and donor funding with schools demonstrating innovation.
Garbaccio, Claytor, and Agee believe that “In Our Hands” can work both ways—businesses can not only donate money or volunteer time to support a particular project featured on the site, but also identify ways in which the students can help them. “We are inviting businesses to be more involved and interact with our students. It is more about giving businesses an open invitation to lay the path for their inheritors, the students of the community.
“Abby Claytor is an example of this interaction. She was raised and remains in her community, and is benefitting Crozet by educating the students who will become the community members of the future,” Garbaccio says. “Our students are savvy and innovative. They are huge builders and creators and inventors. We are a resource that’s not tapped too often.” In providing support to businesses in areas such as computer coding or web design, students can sharpen their own skills while gaining real-world experience.
Garbaccio notes that the students have become more active in the community, and have already begun to share their skills and gifts with local businesses. “These kids have such big hearts. We wanted to make sure they realize that if they see a need in the community, they can make a difference,” she said. “The kids love everything about Crozet. They love their families and their communities and they see Crozet as part of their family and they want to keep it strong.”
As part of their efforts, students are helping to develop marketing materials for the Crozet Community Orchestra’s March 22 performance. They also organized a supply drive for the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA, collecting blanket and other supplies for needy animals. To complement their science-based standards of learning, fifth grade students have begun to research and develop a device that would collect waste from local creeks, and are devising experiments to test and ensure the safety of local sources of drinking water.
The teachers hope to have “In Our Hands” up and running by March 19, when the school holds its annual Community Night. that showcases students’ work in front of their families and local businesses. “It’s a time when the kids are excited about showing their family members and the community what they can do,” Garbaccio says.