Use Grant Funding to Extend Learning Beyond the School Walls

In their fifth principal interview for the NAESP Center for Innovative Leadership, Andy Jacks and Hamish Brewer talk with Connecticut principal Diane MacKinnon about using grant funding to renovate an outdoor learning space that created a fantastic space and taught students new skills to help their families to transform spaces in their homes, too.

Topics: School Budget, Principal Leadership, School Management, Student Engagement

Diane MacKinnon, principal of Momauguin Elementary School in East Haven, Connecticut, isn’t afraid to take risks because the rewards can be huge. And when these rewards benefit students at Momauguin, she’s all in. That’s why she applies for grants—an often daunting task—to support initiatives at her school.

MacKinnon recently used grant funding to implement a new schoolwide project to renovate an outdoor learning space, a group effort that gave students a fun new place to learn and a set of skills they could use at home to help their families transform spaces.

Incorporating local community members into new school projects is important to MacKinnon, because it allows them to feel like a valued part of the school community. When the school community succeeds, everyone in the community can feel proud of that success.

The Challenges:

  1. How do use lead using teamwork?
  2. How do I extend learning beyond the school walls?
  3. How do I involve the community?

What You’ll Learn

Principal Spotlight:

Diane MacKinnon
Principal, Momauguin Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut
Twitter: @diane_mackinnon
Instagram: principal_smiles

MacKinnon has called Momauguin Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut, home for the past three years. Before that, she led a K–2 elementary school for four years. The Momauguin student population is almost 75 percent free-and-reduced lunch, and roughly half of the students are being raised by their grandparents. It’s no secret that principals are a well-rounded bunch, and MacKinnon is no exception to that rule. Her passions in life extend beyond her students and school to the open water. She loves sailing, finding herself on trips like a recent excursion exclusively for women out on the Long Island Sound.

In this video, MacKinnon takes you on a virtual tour of her school to show just how she put to use grant funding to extend learning spaces beyond the classroom. From MacKinnon, you will learn ideas to:

Lead using teamwork.

  • A lover of sailing, MacKinnon takes her lessons in teamwork on a sailboat into her school. The school provided every student—compliments of the PTA, through fundraising—a Team Momauguin t-shirt. Students from kindergarten through fifth grade joined one of five teams, full of students from each grade level. Together, the students learned about teamwork through reading competitions, attendance competitions, and dance performances. Something for each student to look forward to? As a fifth grader, you get to run an assembly from start to finish.

Extend learning beyond the school walls.

  • A grant application that made its way into MacKinnon’s mailbox caught her attention. Having never applied for one before, she decided it was time to take a risk. It paid off. Her school received the Schoolyard Habitat Grant, funded by Audubon Connecticut and the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife. One of the reasons her school won was because the initiative was driven by a team of teachers and not just by the principal. Students use the space to problem solve, investigate, and explore. And the school invites community members to help them take care of the space so future Momauguin students can enjoy it, too.
  • MacKinnon has asked students’ families to take photos of their kids reading books outside the school setting that they share on the school’s Facebook page—a win-win for family involvement and innovative learning.

Involve the community.

  • With an extra focus on reading in her school, MacKinnon enlisted the community to help build a little free library. The book donations poured in, making it easy for students to grab a book as they leave school.
  • MacKinnon invited members of the community, including a representative from the Chamber of Commerce, to the school for the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new outdoor learning space. It allowed the community to feel like they’re a part of the success, and the local news station covered the event, sharing a positive news story about her school on the news.


  1. Use a team approach when implementing new schoolwide projects.
  2. Take risks by applying for grants and taking advantage fundraising opportunities.
  3. Transform learning spaces with the help of your entire community.

Share your strategy: How have you transformed a school space to celebrate students? Go to the NAESP CIL webpage to tell us—and you could be one of the next principals we profile.