Chicago RV Classroom, Rural Tennessee Farm School, and Innovative Deaf-English Charter School Headline VELA Education Fund Awards

More than 360 grantees selected from 48 states set to receive over $3 million in financial support

December 15, 2021 — VELA Education Fund today awarded more than $3.2 million in microgrants to everyday entrepreneurs across the country who are advancing nontraditional educational opportunities in their communities. 

Recipients include a mobile microschool in Chicago, a one-of-a-kind charter school that serves deaf and hearing students in Albuquerque, and a farm in Tennessee that aims to teach homeschooling students a variety of subjects by focusing specifically on horses. 

The awards come after VELA saw a 58 percent surge in applications and is another sign that families’ demand for nontraditional education options, which soared during the pandemic, remains strong. 

“This dynamic group of grantees underscores just how much creativity and innovation exists across the nontraditional education landscape,” said Meredith Olson, president of VELA Education Fund. “We are proud to support these enterprising entrepreneurs, and we hope our grants open the door to additional philanthropic opportunities for these educators, parents, and community leaders.”

These are just three of the innovative grantees receiving the microgrants:

Albuquerque Sign Language Academy | Albuquerque, NM | $10,000

The Albuquerque Sign Language Academy provides direct instruction in American Sign Language to all students, making it the only school in the nation that is state certified as dual- language ASL-English. The school serves 115 students across grades K-12, and as many students are deaf or hard-of-hearing as are hearing. Almost all the hearing students have a relative who is deaf, and the school’s unique model allows families to learn and grow together. In addition to its focus on sign language, the school also prioritizes nature-based learning and will expand its outdoor offerings through its grant from VELA. “We’re excited to be connected to VELA Education Fund and expand opportunities for hands-on, outdoor conservation education,” said Rafe Martinez, the school’s executive director. “VELA’s support goes a long way in helping our deaf and special needs students have access to the outdoors.” Learn more at Albuquerque Sign Language Academy.

River’s Ridge Homeschool Horsemanship | Riceville, TN | $10,000

Amber Passamonte plans to turn her 15-acre family farm in rural Tennessee into an education laboratory. Passamonte is a former veterinarian technician who is now a mom of twin 5-year-olds. She started homeschooling her children during the pandemic and joined a co-op; with the VELA grant, Passamonte will be able to regularly host homeschooling students at her farm to learn a variety of subjects through horsemanship. Passamonte plans to leverage horses to teach everything from physiology to math to literature. “My families’ priorities are to have a safe, relaxed environment while exposing their kids to something new,” said Passamonte. “They value the flexibility of homeschooling and letting our students grow and learn at our pace, while teaching patience, kindness, and grace. We all are just trying to raise good humans!” 

Urban Explorers of Chicago | Chicago, IL | $10,000

Janice Cowley taught in Chicago Public Schools for 17 years. But during the pandemic, upset at the challenges her students and families faced, Cowley decided to try something radically different: she bought an RV, retrofitted the interior to look like a classroom, and started her own microschool. Students from preschool through 5th-grade board the bus and travel to different Chicago neighborhoods, where they learn about each area’s history and explore its parks and small businesses, all with an emphasis on science, technology, arts, engineering, and math (STEAM).  “What do you do when you’re a creative and innovative teacher in the middle of a pandemic?” asked Cowley, who refers to her mobile microschool as an urban magic school bus. “You start your own school! Not just any school, but a cool ‘school on wheels’ with a unique mission.” Follow along at Urban Explorers of Chicago

More than half of the 360+ grantees receiving Fall 2021 microgrants identify as people of color. Roughly two-thirds (68%) serve students, and nearly one-third (28%) serve families. Grantees reside in 48 states and Washington, D.C. Together, the grantees will impact hundreds of thousands of people across the country. 

Microgrants are meant to support very early-stage ideas and enable everyday entrepreneurs to test custom solutions that better meet their own needs. For the Fall 2021 round, applicants could apply for either a $2,500 or $10,000 award. 

VELA trusts people and communities and empowers them with resources to test their ideas. The nonprofit fund’s mission is to move money quickly to everyday entrepreneurs who are expanding nontraditional educational opportunities, and the work is resonating. After receiving 527 applications during its Spring 2021 round of microgrants, VELA received 833 applications during this latest round – in just two weeks. 

This grantmaking round caps VELA’s first full year of operation with a flurry. Including this latest round, VELA awarded more than 780 grants in 2021 totaling more than $8 million to everyday entrepreneurs. 

The microgrant recipients mentioned above and Meredith Olson, President of VELA Education Fund, are available for interviews. If interested in pursuing a story, please contact Lisa Cohen at

About VELA Education Fund 

VELA Education Fund is a national nonprofit fund that invests in nontraditional education innovations that meet learners’ unique needs. VELA awards microgrants and bridge grants to eligible individuals and organizations that are innovating outside of the traditional education system, to help them put their ideas into practice. VELA connects its grantees to a national network and provides them with a platform to elevate their work and learning.