Granting Wishes

Table with play-doh and play-doh tools around the title "Granting Wishes" molded from play-doh.


asey Stewart noticed a change in her kindergarten students in the Mt. Lebanon School District in recent years. They could pick up an iPad even at a young age and easily swipe left. But their hands weren’t strong enough to grasp the scissors and properly cut paper or hold a pencil to write or draw.

It was one of the not-so-great effects of today’s technology-focused culture. From in-depth research, Stewart found that youngsters across the nation were experiencing the same weakness in their fine motor skills.

To help her students, she knew something needed to change. But she also knew purchasing materials to improve fine motor skills (think: using Play-Doh to form words or using magnetic tiles and building straws to construct 3D shapes that the kids learn about in math class) would come with a hefty price tag.

A grant from the Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education (MLFE) allowed her to purchase the needed materials and develop what she calls “fine motor fun with a twist of learning.” Starting off the day with the “Fine Motor 15” as opposed to giving the kiddos a worksheet to launch their day, Stewart quickly began to see improvement in the fine motor skills of her kindergarteners at Jefferson Elementary. “It’s purposeful play that enables the children to learn by doing, all while strengthening hand muscles,” she said.

Images of children wearing masks in a school using their hands learning fine motor skills.
Youngsters in Casey Stewart’s kindergarten classroom at Foster Elementary School participate in the “Fine Motor 15,” where they learn and play at their desks at the start of each day in an effort to improve their fine motor skills.

This year, Stewart moved to Foster Elementary and brought the activities with her. To make it work during the pandemic, she divvies up the activities and gives each child their own set of materials to start their morning focused on their fine motor skills.

“The kids love it. They’re building their fine motor skills, but they’re also getting their minds ready to learn. They’re so eager and excited to come in and see what they get to work with,” she said. “It’s been such a positive change.”

For many teachers across the Mt. Lebanon School District, the foundation’s Expanding the Boundaries of Learning grant has been an absolute game changer. It propels teachers to dream big and think outside the box, knowing that if they dream it, there’s a chance they could get the financial backing to make it happen, even if it’s not in
the budget.

“Without MLFE, ideas often would die in the moment of, ‘Oh, I don’t have the money!’,” said Jennifer Rodriguez, the district’s secondary fine arts department chair. “But with MLFE, your ideas could become a reality. It really does enable teachers to fulfill some of those dreams that they have for their students.”

The organization was founded in 1999 and operates as a nonprofit 501c3. Its mission is to “directly enhance student experiences in the district in all 10 Mt. Lebanon schools,” foundation President Natalie Wagner said. “We do this by expanding the boundaries of learning by supporting teacher-driven projects. We fund extraordinary and innovative learning opportunities.”

Since its inception, the foundation has funded roughly 130 innovative projects, which have run the gamut from bolstering physical education and science learning through the purchase of laser timing devices to funding a collaborative mosaic mural at the high school. The MLFE board of parents and teachers weighs teacher proposals to determine which projects get the funds.

For five years, the majority of the grant money came from the Taste of Lebo fundraiser, an open-air event in Clearview Common in which local restaurants provided appetizers and student musical ensembles provided entertainment. Obviously, in 2020 this event couldn’t happen, and it’s not happening in 2021. But knowing that teachers are still dreaming of new and innovative ways for their students to learn, the foundation decided to pull from its reserve and divide $4,100 among the 10 schools to show teachers that the support for their innovative ideas is still there, Wagner said. It will be up to school leaders to allocate the money inside their buildings this year.

Now, foundation leaders are back to the drawing board to try and figure out how to continue funding teacher innovations. You can find a number of ways to donate on their website:

At Markham Elementary, teachers Carolyn Isadore, Kelsey Barringer and Cheryl Wasserman were inspired by the district’s focus on social and emotional learning initiatives. Two years in a row, the opening day for staffers inspired the teachers to continue thinking about all aspects of learning—beyond just academics. They knew they wanted to create a wellness space where kids could learn self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making and how to build relationships with others.

Markham’s principal at the time encouraged the teachers to pursue their dream and the grant from MLFE sprung it into reality. The grant funded the initial parts of the wellness room, which had a soft opening in early 2020. The room was outfitted with new lighting, carpet, calming blue/gray walls and comfortable and relaxing seating. It’s a space teachers, in a normal year, will be able to reserve for their classes, to teach them ways to remain calm and handle their feelings in a responsible way. This year, teachers can still borrow books and equipment from the space to bring the training to their classrooms.

“I feel like having this space in our school has helped change the culture and helped everyone understand that it’s important for us to identify our feelings, no matter what they are,” Isadore said. “My favorite part of teaching is being creative and developing lessons based on my students’ interests, new ideas in the field and curricular themes. Having the MLFE grant has allowed me and my teammates to let our creativity and dreams fly into reality.”

Markham Elementary School teacher Carolyn Isadore holds books bought with a Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education (MLFE) mini-grant awarded to build a mental wellness program. Students, faculty and staff at Mt. Lebanon High School came together for two MLFE-funded projects: a yarn bomb that covered the grand staircase and a mosaic mural in the auditorium lobby.

One of the most notable projects funded by the MLFE could be the yarn bombing of the grand staircase at Mt. Lebanon High School. The idea was to cover everyday objects in society in yarn, Rodriguez said.

The grand staircase is a focal point at the high school. Students and staff across the high school learned to crochet and knit. Even the school resource officer learned the new skill. Everyone wanted to be a part.

“We had some kids knit entire blankets and we had other kids knit little 2-inch by 2-inch swatches,” she said. To this day, Rodriguez still hears from alumni who are still enjoying knitting or crocheting, thanks to this project. Once the project reaches the end of its life, the panels will be taken down and stitched together to make blankets for the needy.

At the high school, Rodriguez is looking to “foster a schoolwide culture that enjoys the visual arts… The goal here is really to try and find an artistic voice for everybody.” She says Mt. Lebanon is lucky and has a community that “wholeheartedly supports the arts, right along with academics and athletics.”

Another notable project Rodriguez oversaw was a giant mosaic mural in the auditorium lobby. While art students collaboratively designed the mosaic, the entire high school community was brought together to turn it into a reality.

“We had everyone from administration to cafeteria workers to custodians to the students who have never taken an art class in their lives come and place their tile and be a part of the process,” she said. The project allowed students to leave their mark on the school and collaborate in a way that couldn’t be done for a normal classroom project.

Rodriguez is grateful for the opportunity to oversee projects like this.

“When teachers have the opportunity to dream big and think outside of the box, the projects and experiences that come out of it are memorable for the whole community,” she said. “This sort of enrichment is contagious and it spreads. It enables a teacher to crave the next big thing, to get excited about new opportunities and to break out of routine.”

To check out all that the Mt. Lebanon Foundation for Education does in the community or to donate, visit:

Photography by Casey Stewart, John Schisler and Judy Macoskey