Foundation grant to MSU-Meridian student aids Clarkdale High

MERIDIAN, Miss.—What began for Chester N. “Chet” Nicklas as a graduate class assignment at Mississippi State University-Meridian now is a completed learning-enhancement project made possible by a $15,000 Phil Hardin Foundation grant.  

An Enterprise resident, Nicklas graduated in August with an educational specialist degree. While enrolled in MSU-Meridian’s educational leadership program, he had submitted a grant proposal to the local foundation titled “Sufficient Technology for 21st Century Learners.”

As a chemistry and physics teacher at Clarkdale High School, his goal was to help his school convert and upgrade its Career Center into an Active Learning Center.

Like all educational specialist students, he was required to complete a directed independent study that included the choice of either writing a research paper for publication or submitting a grant proposal on behalf of the school at which he worked.

Penny Wallin, assistant professor of educational leadership, said MSU-Meridian’s addition of a grant-writing option to the graduate curriculum has led to the development of a “pay-it-forward” mindset among many students.

“Over the past four years, 16 students have written grants and 11 have had their grants funded,” said associate professor Matt Boggan, Wallin’s departmental colleague.

Before they begin composing a grant proposal, students first must collaborate with Boggan and Wallin, as well as site-supervisors, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the targeted school’s needs. 

Cheryl Thomas is Clarkdale Attendance Center’s principal and Nicklas’ mentor. She placed him on the school’s School Improvement Team to learn more about the leadership process, as well as to demonstrate how collaborative efforts are necessary for schools to be successful.

From their collaborations, Nicklas said he and others on his team developed a central theme: the key to improved student achievement is technology access for all.

Nicklas also said his research verified how a majority of students tended to learn best through hands-on experiences. The highest levels of learning take place when they were able to “explore questions by conducting research about topics, presenting information to classmates and collaborating and interacting with one another,” he added.

In addition to new Chromebook laptops in the center, the grant is making possible a Chromebook cart providing another 30 for individual classroom use. Other Chromebooks already at the school will be available when not being used for testing purposes.

Thomas said the Active Learning Center should be completely updated and have students using the computers in time for the 2016 spring semester.

Nicklas and Thomas expressed excitement for Clarkdale students that now will be able to use the center and new computers to read, research, compose and apply real-world scenarios to their everyday learning experiences. 

“We truly are thrilled Chet received the grant funding through the Phil Hardin Foundation for the active learning center at our school,” Thomas said. “We are especially grateful to have a faculty member who gained the practical experience of grant writing through his participation in the educational specialist program at MSU-Meridian.

“Our faculty and students are benefiting from the excellent leadership preparation Chet received through Mississippi State,” she said.

Robert Ward, president and chairman of the Hardin Foundation board of directors, said he and others at the philanthropy are equally pleased that all Clarkdale students will have enhanced learning opportunities.

“Up-to-date technology has gone from a luxury to an absolute necessity in schools today,” Ward emphasized. “We are impressed with the school’s commitment to updating its Career Center into an Active Learning Center in such a creative and effective way to advance student achievement.

“We look forward to seeing the results,” he said.

For more about MSU-Meridian graduate degree programs, visit

MSU is Mississippi’s flagship research university, available online at

Pictured - front row: Robert Ward, president and chairman Phil Hardin Foundation; Lloyd Gray, executive director Phil Hardin Foundation; Randy Hodges, superintendent of education Lauderdale County Schools
back row:  Chet Nicklas, chemistry and physics teacher Clarkdale High School; Penny Wallin, assistant professor of educational leadership; Matt Boggan, associate professor of educational leadership and Cheryl Thomas, principal Clarkdale Attendance Center


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