Foundation 65 aims to empower Evanston educators


Illustration by Shveta Shah

Foundation 65 provides grants and support to educators working to improve arts, literacy and equity in Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

Aviva Bechky, Development and Recruitment Editor

About two years ago, Evanston Township High School student Sophia Petrof came to her mother with a question: How could they help students struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Petrof, now a senior, and her mother Jaqueline Petrof, who teaches second grade at Dawes Elementary School, decided to start an after-school program for students struggling in math. In order to fund necessary supplies, they applied for support from Foundation 65, a local grant-giving education group.

“Something that I really appreciate about Foundation 65 is that they provide the finances for all the snacks, all the books, all the interventions,” Jaqueline Petrof said. “I really appreciate Foundation 65 trusting me as an educator to use data driven instruction and grade level standards to do the work.”

Foundation 65 provides grants to literacy, arts and equity initiatives across Evanston/Skokie School District 65. The organization’s grants also funded Black Girl Magic Book Club, which shares books that center Black female protagonists with students, as well as efforts to help teachers pursue higher education in literacy.

The goal at the heart of Foundation 65 is to empower educators, Executive Director Alecia Wartowski said.

“Educators come to us and say, ‘I have a grant proposal,’” Wartowski said. “The second thing we do is we support educators in their own kind of educational development.”

Foundation 65 is currently supporting its third cohort of teachers in getting masters degrees in literacy. The first cohort graduated in the spring.

For former Foundation 65 co-President Katie Gillies, a reading specialist at Niles North High School in Niles Township High School District 219, supporting the teacher training program offered her an opportunity to connect with students closer to where she lives.

“I remember when I started in this field, and there was really just one of us in every building as a reading specialist,” Gillies said. “Growing that community of reading teachers is something that I’ve always really believed in, and always thought, ‘Well, we should do that here in Evanston.’”

Gillies said teachers who pursue a masters in literacy learn the science of teaching, which includes neurolinguistics and phonics. But she also pointed out that the programs also help teachers learn how to empower students to read.

In an ideal world, she said, every student would be taught by teachers trained to teach reading.

“If our teachers are equipped to teach reading in their classroom, the reality is, we’re going to have kids in our classrooms … as solid readers,” Gillies said.

English teachers are not the only educators going through these programs. In any subject area, Gillies said, knowing how to teach reading will help teachers scaffold their educational materials.

And reading education doesn’t just have to take place in a classroom. Last school year, Foundation 65 supported Instructional Coach Lisa Harries in starting a Maker Space at Kingsley Elementary School.  

For eight weeks last winter, students explored the design thinking process at the Maker Space, designing functional objects like beds, chairs and tables for fictional characters. Throughout the year, Harries and a colleague also led exercises where students throughout the school built towers and bridges using unconventional materials.

By doing journal exercises and vocabulary exploration with students, Harries said she still incorporated literacy into the program.

“The students enjoyed it,” Harries said. “They enjoy coming. They enjoyed building. They enjoyed working with different materials they wouldn’t normally work with.”

Now, she’s taking a sabbatical — and will spend it exploring how Maker Spaces can work in education. 

“I’m on this sort of personal exploration to understand: What is a Maker Space and how do we really utilize Maker Spaces for student growth?” she said. “I would like for them to be open in every elementary school.”

Foundation 65 also helped simplify the grant-writing process to make it more accessible to people who’d never written an application before, Harries said.

Going forward, Wartowski said she hopes Foundation 65 will branch out, working on literacy and arts initiatives while also focusing on equity and diversity by supporting programs like the Petrofs’. 

It’s important, she said, to help those who are already committed to improving local education.

“You have to ask, ‘Is our role to kind of build up the good or is it to just tear everything down?” Wartowski said. “And I think building up the good, especially the educators who are really doing amazing work, is powerful.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @avivabechky

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