Feature

Building Community, Building Success

Rosemary Renton, Jim Giles

Late last spring, our principal announced to the staff that we were going to offer a free field trip to every student in our school. She told teachers to plan a one-day, curriculum-related field trip, anywhere we wanted. For once, we didn’t have to worry about the price of the bus or admission. Teachers could hardly believe it. Our classes planned trips to the Royal Ontario Museum and the Toronto Zoo, places that we normally would be reluctant to ask families to pay for, since many live with serious financial challenges.

So it was a surprise for us when one student would not return his permission form. After repeated reminders didn’t help, a staff member spoke to him privately. “You know this field trip is free,” she coaxed, “so why won’t you bring in your form?” The student didn’t mince words: “But what will I eat that day?”

For many students who rely on a school’s breakfast and lunch programs, a trip away from school isn’t exciting – it can be stressful. At Andrew Hunter Elementary School in Barrie’s north end, we know that many of our families live with this kind of stress every day. Still, this  realization about the role of the free lunch program was eye-opening and this moment encouraged us to think even more broadly.

Learning to make systemic change – The Beginning

While Andrew Hunter teachers had always found ways to help our students and families out  with acts of  kindness – a teacher might discreetly buy a grade eight 8 girl a grad dress, bring an extra lunch for a hungry child, or stockpile mittens to give out as needed – it became obvious that broader systemic changes were needed.

In November 2011, a small group of our staff attended a professional development session on poverty and education at ETFO. Led by executive staff member Jim Giles, it was an opportunity to talk to staff from schools with similar challenges, and to discuss strategies and seek solutions together. Many teachers talked about providing lunches, or buying students  clothes  and  school  supplies  with their own money. While commendable, these activities were also proving exhausting, and expensive, and more importantly they were not sustainable. If you are feeding a student lunch every day, what happens when that student changes classes, or you change schools?

Giles urged us to make systemic change instead of relying on stopgap solutions, and to build a sense of community with our school families. While the task seemed daunting, ultimately we realized that if we were looking for long-term, sustainable change, this is what we would have to do. We wanted to make the school a more welcoming place for students and their families, to create a sense of community, but we knew that some of our families were struggling to meet basic needs such as food and clothing. Students had trouble making it to school on time, and concentrating when they were hungry. It made sense that we needed to address these needs first.

A healthy start to the day

We started with our nutrition program. Previously, we had a snack bucket in each classroom that was filled once a week with things like cereal bars and crackers. Sure, they filled empty stomachs, but they were neither nutritious nor appetizing, and when the snack bucket ran out that was it for the week. But what could we do? We couldn’t afford a fridge, and even if we could, where would we put it?

In  collaboration  with  the  principal, we converted an empty classroom into a nutrition room, and, through grants and donations from local businesses, bought two refrigerators, two  freezers, and  a  dishwasher that met the health code. We advertised for parent volunteers through our newsletter and word of mouth, and a core group of students volunteered to help with serving and clean up. The menu was advertised on a bulletin board and in the announcements, and on the first day of breakfast club, 70 excited students showed up, eager for the hot breakfast and the sense of community that can be found in the breakfast room. Over a year later, we now serve breakfast to 60 to 80 students every day. Students who come too late to sit down for breakfast can pick up a “grab-and-go” breakfast so they’re not late for class. And as one of our intermediate students says, “The breakfast club doesn’t just give you food. You get to sit down with your friends and enjoy a wonderful morning. It’s a good way to start a day.” In addition to the breakfast club, there is lunch available to any student who needs one, and bowls of fresh fruit and snacks in every classroom. Students are welcome to eat whenever they are hungry, and leftovers are sent home with select students to share with their families. A grade 5 student explains how important this program is: “It helps my day so I don’t starve at school. People can’t think when they’re hungry, so it helps me think.”

We started with our nutrition program. Previously, we had a snack bucket in each classroom that was filled once a week with things like cereal bars and crackers. Sure, they filled empty stomachs, but they were neither nutritious nor appetizing, and when the snack bucket ran out that was it for the week. But what could we do? We couldn’t afford a fridge, and even if we could, where would we put it?

In  collaboration  with  the  principal, we converted an empty classroom into a nutrition room, and, through grants and donations from local businesses, bought two refrigerators, two  freezers, and  a  dishwasher that met the health code. We advertised for parent volunteers through our newsletter and word of mouth, and a core group of students volunteered to help with serving and clean up. The menu was advertised on a bulletin board and in the announcements, and on the first day of breakfast club, 70 excited students showed up, eager for the hot breakfast and the sense of community that can be found in the breakfast room. Over a year later, we now serve breakfast to 60 to 80 students every day. Students who come too late to sit down for breakfast can pick up a “grab-and-go” breakfast so they’re not late for class. And as one of our intermediate students says, “The breakfast club doesn’t just give you food. You get to sit down with your friends and enjoy a wonderful morning. It’s a good way to start a day.” In addition to the breakfast club, there is lunch available to any student who needs one, and bowls of fresh fruit and snacks in every classroom. Students are welcome to eat whenever they are hungry, and leftovers are sent home with select students to share with their families. A grade 5 student explains how important this program is: “It helps my day so I don’t starve at school. People can’t think when they’re hungry, so it helps me think.”

Zones of regulation

Even with full stomachs, sometimes it was difficult to get our kids to focus in class. Many of our students seemed tired and unfocused, and others needed help controlling their anger so they could learn. In response, we began training in the Zones of Regulation program. This program, developed by Leah Kuypers, teaches students to categorize their emotions by colour (blue is sad/sick, yellow is excited/ anxious/fidgety, red  is  angry, and  green is ready to learn), and helps them select tools to get into the learning zone. Classroom teachers take time every day to talk about the zones, and students from K to 8 learn how to articulate how they are feeling. Teachers use physical exercises to help their students get into the green zone, and it’s not unusual to walk by a class doing yoga or breathing exercises to get ready to learn.

While many of our teachers have, in the past, brought  clothes and  shoes to  school to give to students, we realized we needed a more organized way of getting clothes into the hands of families who needed them. We now have a designated clothing room, where donated clothes are washed, dried, and organized neatly by size. It is marketed as an environmentally friendly way to recycle clothing, and families are invited to donate clothing they’ve  outgrown,  and  take  clothing  they need. Students and families can drop by anytime to browse, and it is especially busy during our evening community events.

Grad Blitz

In addition to the clothing room, last spring, a group of staff felt that many of our families might need help getting their children ready for grade 8 graduation. They sought donations of dresses, suits, shoes, and accessories, and set up “Grad Blitz” by turning a classroom into a beautiful boutique. The clothes were hung on racks, just like at a store, and a long table was covered in pretty cloth to display the shoes and accessories. Families came and picked out outfits for the girls, boys, and even a few moms, and their suits and dresses were packed up in gift bags to take home.

The day before graduation, our breakfast room became a spa. A parent volunteer who is a hair stylist brought in supplies and our graduates received manicures and pedicures for their big night. As a staff member recalls, “Our students were beautiful and radiant on their graduation night! When the night was over, a staff member commented, ‘I was looking around at all the beautiful dresses and tuxes tonight, and I couldn’t tell the difference between students who purchased a new outfit and students who had received one from Grad Blitz.’ Mission accomplished!”

Getting families involved

In the past, we have struggled to get families to attend our evening events. To increase attendance, we changed the tone from serious-sounding,  curriculum-related  events, to events that sounded like fun. We offered Free Movie Nights, for example, with current movies and free popcorn. When families arrived for the movie, they were greeted with  displays  from  community  services such as the Health Unit, and an assortment of clean winter coats and boots, free for the taking. While we used to be lucky to get 50 people attending our evening events, we averaged almost 200 at our movie nights.

In the spring, we invited our families for an evening of gardening. A free dinner was served, and a local master gardener taught everyone how to create a container vegetable garden. Our school applied for a grant to cover supplies, and each family left with two containers filled with vegetable plants to grow over the summer. This year, the grant money will go to a “Healthy Lunchables” night, where each family will receive an assortment of small containers and learn how to make healthy lunches and snacks to fill them.

We have worked hard to make our school a  welcoming  place  for  our  families.  Our foyer has garden benches for seating, bulletin boards showcasing student accomplishments, and the walls are papered with thousands of “Gotchas” – small, bright certificates celebrating students who were caught doing something good. We have monthly assemblies where students receive Character Awards for being models of good behaviour and parents are welcome. Under the guidance of staff, the assemblies are increasingly planned and led by a team of students who are leaders in our school.

Speaking Up

Last spring, we received a grant from SpeakUp Ontario to increase student voice at our school. We wanted to create a project that allowed students to think about what makes them unique, but also to see that we are all connected. We did schoolwide lessons about identifying their strengths, and asked students to bring in an object that represented what made them unique. We learned new things about our students, and they were proud to share their strengths. We then asked a photographer to take black-and-white portraits of the students holding their objects. When finished, the photographs made a dramatic and moving display, and we invited families in to view them at an evening event.

The photos stayed on display in our halls for three weeks, and not one of them was defaced. When I complimented a group of Intermediate students on the fact that no one drew on any of the pictures, they responded, “We would never wreck these pictures. We love them.”

Over the past two years, the tone of our school has changed dramatically. Behaviour has improved and student engagement has increased significantly. I asked a parent what she thought made a difference, and she put it simply: “The school is more involved with the students, so the students are more involved in school.”

The lesson that we have learned is that the more we build community, the more we build success. Andrew Hunter, through strong leadership, staff teamwork, and support from our families and our community, has made our students proud. In the words of a grade 8 student, “When I first came to Andrew Hunter, it  wasn’t a place most students were happy to say they came from. A few years ago that all changed. Now our school really feels like a second home for all students. I’m proud to say I am an Andrew Hunter Hawk.” n

Resources:

Poverty and Schools in Ontario: How Seven Elementary Schools Are Working to Improve Education, Dr. Darlene Ciuffetelli Parker (Brock University) and Dr. Joseph Flessa (university of Toronto  – OISE), 2011.

Possibilities: Addressing Poverty in Elementary Schools (Teacher resource book), Charmain Brown (York Region) and Jim Giles (ETFO), 2012.

Both titles are available through ShopETFO.

10 Ways to Make Positive Systemic Change at Your School

by Jim Giles

  1. Make school a place where students and their families feel welcome, safe and respected. Know the names of as many students and their siblings as possible.
  2. Interact with parents and families respectfully with the understanding that not all family members are equally motivated or have the experience to make positive connections or contributions.
  3. Resist deficit-based explanations for the challenges faced in daily practice and intervene in professional conversations where deficit-based assumptions are left unchallenged.
  4. Demonstrate an honest, open, non-judgmental approach when dealing with families in need. Language matters, so recognize that the problem is a condition of poverty, not of the people who are experiencing poverty.
  5. Set high expectations for all students, but be sensitive to how you plan and achieve these high standards, keeping each individual’s ability and potential in mind.
  6. Build a sense of common purpose in challenging circumstances through staff collaboration and convening meaningful conversations among stakeholders. Seek professional development and learning opportunities for all staff.
  7. Investigate school and community connections. Build a school community team that focuses on making connections with community partners. Ensure school events are inclusive of everyone in the community (e.g., single mothers, and different cultural and religious groups).
  8. Place realistic boundaries around volunteer work. A reliance on “heroic” efforts of teachers and excessive workload is unsustainable. Educators cannot address the impact of poverty on schooling outcomes by trying to do it alone.
  9. Be a model and foster positive attitudes in a caring, supportive learning environment that promotes healthy habits.
  10. Provide comfort, reassurance, and support to children and families facing socioeconomic challenges. Reinforce the message that they are not alone, that they are not to blame, and that you and the school community care deeply about them.