SANDY — Diane Nahalewski spent last summer scouring the Internet, garage sales and hardware stores for something that could make getting through the school day a little easier for her students.
As a resource teacher at Park Lane Elementary, Nahalewski — affectionately called “Mrs. N.” by her students — teaches about 30 special education students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Some days are easier than others, but most of the time, helping students “get the fidgetiness out” while completing their work has been difficult, she said.
After experimenting with PVC pipe, bungee cords, pool noodles and zip ties, Nahalewski was able to retrofit some of the students’ desks into standing desks, letting them either stand while they work or sit on a stool and move their feet with a foot swing that bounces.
Buying new standing desks for students would cost about $300 per student, plus the cost of a stool, but Nahalewski was able to convert existing desks for about $15 each. Even so, the school couldn’t afford to extend the project to every special needs student.
In a surprise announcement, representatives of Google and national charity DonorsChoose.org came to the school and agreed to fully fund Nahalewski’s project for all of her students.
About $60,000 in funding was also announced for similar projects that would help more than 50 teachers and some 5,000 special education students in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
“The real intention behind what we did today is to just honor teachers who are thinking creatively about how to support all students, especially those who might learn in different ways,” said Hannah Peter, partnership manager for DonorsChoose.org. “So we’re just really excited to spotlight a teacher who’s doing just that and also hope that through her amazing work, maybe there will be ripples and other teachers will find inspiration in how she’s approaching her work.”
Nahalewski originally posted a request for funding on the website, which connects willing donors with teachers or schools that need help funding a project. If a funding goal is met, the charity ships the needed materials to the school.
“I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not just the kids that show being fidgety, but the kids that don’t show it as well that need this.’ So I wanted it for everyone in my room,” Nahalewski said.
As part of a company-wide initiative, Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, is providing funding for teachers across the country to improve educational access for students with special needs. The company focused some of its efforts in Salt Lake and Utah counties with the ongoing installation of Google Fiber and worked with DonorsChoose.org to find suitable projects, according to Google spokeswoman Angie Welling.
It was then that Nahalewski and her desk project came up.
“We loved Mrs. N’s project. We thought it was really creative, really innovative,” Welling said. “Here’s a teacher who recognized a need in her classroom and got really creative about how to fix it: PVC pipe and bungee cords and pool noodles and things like that.”
The donation includes funding for Nahalewski’s desk project, $500 for each of the five other DonorsChoose.org projects in the school, $2,500 for future projects in Nahalewski’s class, and about $60,000 to help some 50 other projects in Salt Lake and Utah counties.
“Those are students who have different ways of learning or they need different tools and technologies that they don’t have right now,” Welling said. “For those 5,000 students and for those 50 some-odd teachers, we really hope that this has a direct daily impact in their lives, helps the kids learn, improves the classroom environment and gives the kids some tools that they didn’t have before.”
Park Lane Elementary Principal Justin Jeffery said letting teachers, such as Nahalewski, have the flexibility to be innovative is important in meeting the needs of students, especially those in special education.
“We’re trying to meet the needs of all learners,” Jeffery said. “When I think of the things that she’s doing, she’s meeting the needs of a specific group of learners that have trouble, and even some that don’t. We’re trying to do all kinds of things to meet their needs.”
Nahalewski accepted the surprise donation Monday amid the cheers of students and teachers. She said she looks forward to extending the project to all her students that want to participate.
“It’s just all finally come together,” she said. “We’re hoping to just keep moving forward.”