Education Opinion

Happy Easter

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — March 21, 2008 7 min read
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Yesterday was one of the best days we’ve had at our school this year. We didn’t get any great news about winning a grant or contest. The LEAP testing was just completed last week. So, we didn’t get any reports of high student achievement. But, several very special and very standard things were going on at the same time. I’ve saved the best for last, so if you don’t have time to read a long entry today, skip to paragraph seven.

One of the activities involved registration for the 2008 – 09 school session. Parents were coming in to an organized set-up to complete registration forms between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m., in case they were unable to make it during regular school hours. Tables had been arranged in the auditorium with pens and registration forms to allow privacy and space while filling out the applications. Last summer, this activity was started in a first floor classroom. Unfortunately, the room had to be vacated for the teacher to set up her class. Then the registrations were conducted in a busy hallway outside the school office. Custodians trying to clean up around the parents made things rather difficult.

Two employees were working to assist the parents in yesterday’s session. The data clerk and the school interventionist checked over the applications for completeness, and made copies of the support documents such as birth certificates and immunization records. These ladies had received special training to make sure everything was in order. Last summer, in our rush to get the registrations completed, no one checked the forms or signed off in the official review space. Later, we learned the hard way that we did not have all necessary court orders, custody documents and affidavits of guardianship. The data clerk was doing a very professional job of checking the forms before signing on the official authorization line. We also have a full-time counselor who is personally setting up each cumulative folder and will be responsible for ensuring that all files are complete with required documents.

A brief PTA meeting was scheduled to be held when the registration hours were finishing up. This is the second meeting this semester. Parents who joined the organization received certificates of membership. More parent participation was anticipated. I think the PTA’s first project will be to plant shrubbery around the building. Students also received third quarter awards for attendance and scholarship. I don’t know what the final turnout was like, but I saw parents coming in early for the meeting.

Report cards were to be distributed after the PTA Meeting from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. The time was moved back slightly to accommodate more working parents. Our former meetings from 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. were just too early for many families. I am anxious to know the percentage of parents who showed up last night. While I was meeting with the principal to discuss next year’s staffing, he was simultaneously reviewing report cards. I was happy to see him providing written feedback to the teachers as he read every card. He also made notations about excessive absences which would be passed on to the social worker and behavior problems to address with the counselor and administrative assistant. Each teacher had to complete a Quarterly Assessment form that will be used as part of the needs assessment for the School Improvement Plan. The data analysis will be completed by his administrative intern and presented to the faculty.

Registration, PTA meetings and report card distributions may seem like very mundane activities in a school. If you are wondering why these things seem so important to me, it’s because they are details in a big picture of progress for our school. Establishing routines, monitoring progress, evaluation the efforts, and creating a culture of quality education in a learning community take these singular mundane activities together to create the synergy that produces school improvement. I was excited because I could see the school improving right before my eyes. But, something else, far from the routine was also going on this week at our school.

We were the beneficiaries of the largesse of the Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul. A big group of adults and an even larger army of college students from six universities descended upon our school under the leadership of my new friend, Rev. Mary Harrington. I met Rev. Mary through this “Starting Over” blog at a very difficult time in our school history a few months ago. These beautiful people generated an excitement in our whole school community unlike anything we have experienced this year. Although the volunteers worked at our school for several days this week, yesterday was a beehive of activities as they labored valiantly to complete several projects, large and small.

When I walked up to the school, the first project I observed was the painting of the ten-foot aluminum fence. It is now a shiny forest green. It was a vast improvement over the rusty appearance that formerly greeted our public. This was a very messy, labor-intensive job because the fence had to be painted with an oil-based paint. The workers managed to paint a full city block of fencing on the front of the school grounds. We will have local volunteers to help complete the sides and the back, but this was a wonderful start. I’d love to reserve the back fence for our eighth graders to complete as a community service project before their promotion to high school.

The front entrance doorway got some attention from a volunteer who teaches Art at one of the universities. He and his daughter freshened up the designed panels on each side of the doors and the school’s name on top of the entryway. The artist is also one of the board members for the volunteer group. It was refreshing to see these board members working shoulder to shoulder with the young adult volunteers. I took lots of pictures for the students to use in their “How I Spent My Spring Break” memoirs.

In the side yard of the school, several volunteers performed the back-breaking task of starting a vegetable garden, at the request of a kindergarten teacher. She wanted the students to have the experience of growing food for their own tables. The beds were prepared and we are waiting on a promised delivery of rich soil before seeds can be planted. I was both surprised and impressed at this request by the teacher. It was not the type of project that I would have considered when we were asked for a list of potential jobs. I also liked that this project did not generate from the “top.”

One young lady was painting hopscotch squares on the pavement in the yard. This was suggested by a first grade teacher toward the end of the day. It was rather late to begin any new tasks, but that did not stop the college student who wanted to leave her special mark for the little girls in the school.

Someone got the bright idea to paint “masterpieces” on the plywood radiator covers we built a few months ago. We were planning to paint them and add cork to the flat surfaces to use them as bulletin boards for displays. Now they are too pretty to cover up, so we’ll have to rethink that idea.

The most spectacular project was one organized by an Art major named Nicole. She had a group of our students sketch pictures about their dreams for the school, the school mascot, and other subjects. Nicole transferred the students’ pictures to larger than life images on the walls in the basement on the exterior of the cafeteria. She then solicited the help of students (and some of the adults) to paint the designs which resulted in an extraordinary mural. The mural includes several owls (the school mascot), imaginary flowers of giant proportion, buildings, musical notes, instruments, the Superdome, trees, and the sky. It was truly a delightful activity that made a perfect start of the Easter vacation for our students and the end of a wonderful week of generosity for the visitors. More than one of the visitors compliment us on the “air of caring” they sensed from our teachers and the positive vibes they picked up in the building.

Our children enjoyed intermingling with the college students and all of the special affection from the amazingly kind adults. They need and deserve this type of loving attention. I’ll bet that the personal interest and interactions will remain with the kids for a long time. Best of all, when anyone enters the front doors—after walking through our freshly painted gates—between the newly refurbished door panels, they will glimpse the vibrant colors of the mural which entices them into the school. I’ve not seen the students that excited about anything so far this year. It never felt so good. Thank you Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul. We love you!

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.