Close-Knit Foundation Help Teachers

Students created yarn squares for Knit the Grand Staircase, funded by a grant from the Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education. Fine Arts Chair Jennifer Rodriguez, far right, says the temporary “knit bomb” display spotlights art as part of the school culture.

The Grand Staircase at Mt. Lebanon High School is a beautiful structure, and just the act of ascending it can make one feel like education is a higher pursuit. But Jennifer Rodriguez, the district’s fine arts department chair for secondary education, says it’s easy to take that structure for granted. She wanted to beautify it, while getting everyone in the school to see the staircase differently—permanently.

That’s how the Knit the Grand Staircase project was born. Similar to Pittsburgh’s 2013 Knit the Bridge, when hundreds of fiber artists covered the Andy Warhol Bridge with knitted artwork, the school’s staircase project features hundreds of students, staff and volunteers who will make small sections that will join to form a graffiti-like piece of art to cover the staircase. After the display, also called a “yarn bomb,” is disassembled in the fall, Rodriguez says students will turn the fabric into patchwork blankets and donate them to the charity of their choice.

But it’s not only the project itself that’s on display here—it’s how it was funded. The $1,200 project is possible thanks to a grant from the Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education, a nonprofit started in 1999 to pay for teacher mini-grants for educational programs. Since its inception, it has paid for 130 projects, across all 10 district schools. Among the projects: ukuleles in the Washington music classroom, Foster’s Little Free Library, a math workshop at Mellon and a mindfulness space in Markham.

“These grants are the only things that makes it possible to do special extracurricular projects,” Rodriguez says. The yarn bomb project, which will reach every student in the high school, is her third grant from the Foundation; the first was furniture students painted for an area outside the principal’s office. The other was the mosaic mural outside the high school auditorium. “Without these grants, I couldn’t do these things,” she says.

The knitting venture also functions as a school-wide unity project, Rodriguez says. Making the sections is a metaphor for connectivity, with the yarn coming in different colors, sizes and textures. It also helps students slow down and learn a traditional craft in today’s tech-heavy world. It works on many levels because students can contribute even if they can’t knit; some of the yarn can be weaved by those who do not have good physical dexterity.

“I just want art to be visible and part of the culture of the school,” says Rodriguez, a high school art teacher and sponsor of the school’s art club.

Raising private funds for public schools is not a novel idea. The Foundation says more than 4,800 communities in the country do it. Board president Natalie Wagner, who has been with the Foundation for six years, says the board awards between $12,000 and $15,000 each year, depending on how much is raised, to teachers with innovative project ideas. Last year it sponsored $2,331 worth of projects in the spring and $8,621.06 in the fall. Teachers must apply for the grants and fulfill requirements in a rubric to be considered.

The Foundation’s main source of funding, other than direct donations, includes the sale of stadium blankets and tickets to The Taste of Lebo, which will be Saturday, April 27, from 2 to 5 p.m. in Clearview Common. The fifth annual event will include an appetizer tasting and competition with participating local restaurants, entertainment from the elementary strings program, high school orchestra and choir, a student art gallery auction, raffle and prize baskets. Tickets are available at the door or in advance at     

Photo by Harrison Lilley