Cultivating community outside the classroom

Grant programs bring students wider perspective
By: 
Scott Girard

Photo by Scott Girard. From left: Daniel Smith, Jonah Anderson, Vandy Fau, Reggie Sowell and Quayshun High look on as VAHS student Terrell Jones talks to them about a Ruby Bridges quote during a meeting of the African-American Boys Empowerment Group at Country View Elementary School.

Community-focused grants
Learn Academy: $6,050
TAREA: $6,000
Service Learning: $6,000
African-American boys group: $3,500
Technology lessons: $3,000

This fall at Core Knowledge Charter School, a group of eighth-graders huddled around a computer, having a Skype conversation about the importance of hats and socks.

On the other side of the conversation was a teacher at the American International School of Amman in Jordan, who told them about his plans to deliver the 15 boxes of hats and socks the students would eventually send to Syrian refugees in Jordan. He also talked to them about the Syrian conflict, refugee camps and day-to-day life in Jordan.

That’s one of the projects the Core Knowledge students have taken on as part of the school’s emphasis on “service learning,” a concept that CKCS director Brett Stousland brought to the school from prior jobs at overseas schools when he took over two years ago.

“Instead of just having a coat drive where kids just collect coats, they throw them in a box and nobody knows what happens to them, it’s researching, ‘Why do kids not have jackets?’” he said. “It’s within your school, it can be within your community, and it can be within the global community, so we wanted to push the global piece.”

The concept has been bolstered this year with an “Innovation Grant” from the school district, money the school board has put toward innovative and new ideas from teachers around the district. The grants totaled just over $80,000 for nine projects last year, the second year of grants, including five programs aimed at building community within the schools, in the Verona community and worldwide.

The money for CKCS bought books that focused on how to ensure students learn from the projects and included a few project ideas, Stousland said, and will also fund a trip to Washington, D.C., for a group of students and teachers to attend a conference on service learning.

Other projects include a blood drive, sending school supplies to Uganda, gathering toiletries for homeless children and many others planned for the school’s “Service Learning Day” in May.

Verona Area High School technology coordinator Rita Mortenson, who has applied for and been awarded more grants than anyone else in the district, said the grants offer a chance to think differently and show the community at large the value students bring.

“It’s a great way to coordinate with other people and give you a reason to reach out,” Mortenson said. “It lets you think outside the box in terms of the community at large.”

Reaching parents

Glacier Edge Elementary School counselor Jenny Schultz and her colleagues were looking for a way to make the entire student body and their families feel part of the school community, even though around half of the school’s students bus in from near Fitchburg.

“We have kids living in two distinctly different communities, and the community that’s near the school, (informal) contact is a little more easily built in,” she said, noting that parents who pick up their kids or can just “swing by the school” to ask a teacher a question. “But for kiddos who take the bus, that connectivity is just a little bit different … they don’t have that built in opportunity to ask that quick question.”

So the GE group created Teaching and Reaching Every Area (TAREA), funded by a federal grant and private donations, after spending a spring break going around to families in the Nakoma Heights neighborhood off Verona Road and receiving feedback on some of their ideas.

When the grant money ran out after year one and private donations only covered year two, they needed another funding source. That’s where the innovation grant came in, and the program has been funded in both rounds of grants so far for $12,000 total.

The program consists of an hour each week of “homework club” at the Nakoma Heights apartment building and a three-day-per-week reading intervention program for a dozen students that work with University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate students.

It also offers a parent group, many of whom are Spanish-speakers, called “Word of Mouth” that discusses school issues such as course enrollment and GPA that some parents are unfamiliar with.

Stoner Prairie counselor Sarah Holzum saw the success of TAREA and thought a collaboration with the program could help cut down on her students’ reading skills loss over the summer. She applied for a grant to fund the “Learn Academy,” a program similar to TAREA in location and purpose, but focused on a group of 20 students who data had shown had lost reading skills between the past spring and fall.

The program helped all but three students either remain at or increase their reading level last summer, which Holzum said was “awesome,” and took place at night so parents could come, as well. The program also supplied each student with a “mentor” from the school staff, and she hopes that component will continue into future years, along with increased collaboration between Stoner Prairie and Glacier Edge.

Building a peer group

Another grant being funded this year focuses on cultural outreach.

Country View Elementary School associate principal Mary Moroder wanted to find a way to emphasize leadership and education to the school’s African-American male students.

So she applied for a grant to create a program for the school’s nine fourth- and fifth-grade African-American boys that would allow those students to see positive role models from the African-American community, both historical and current, and discuss issues surrounding their culture’s history.

“It’s been an opportunity in my mind for the boys to talk about it with their shared culture and experience,” she said. “We want these boys to bond as kind of a cohort group that they can encourage each other … so they have that as a group moving onto the middle school, moving onto the high school.”

The group meets once a week during lunch or recess times, and learns about historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Ruby Bridges and Nelson Mandela, often with follow-up discussions of racism, education or how students can impact the worlds even at a young age.

Mandela was the group’s first lesson of the year, and when he died in late 2013, group leader Tory Winn brought in nine copies of USA Today newspapers with Mandela on the front, telling the students they were part of history and should hold onto them as long as they could.

“They thought that was so cool,” Moroder said.

Winn, a graduate student at the UW-Madison and a consultant for the Race to Equity project who has met two presidents, was brought in to plan lessons for the students and give them an older African-American male to look up to.

Two high school students in the Multicultural Student Achievements Network, Jermero Menton and Terrell Jones, also visit the group regularly, sharing their experiences in Verona schools, both academic and social, and serving as more role models for the younger group. Winn said he looks for opportunities to bring lessons back for the students wherever he goes, and he enjoys seeing the boys learn about what people in their culture have done throughout history and expanding their understanding beyond Verona.

“They don’t have to think about LeBron James as their only cultural capital,” Winn said. “Schools should be a place of academic enrichment as well as cultural enrichment. Their world is becoming more than just their local neighborhood.”

Using students’ skills

Still, some of the community outreach is closer to home.

Mortenson, the high school technology coordinator, recognized current students’ technology skills were something community members might value, if only they had a way to share those skills.

So she proposed creating a group that would go to the Verona Senior Center and Verona Public Library to hold intergenerational trainings on iPad and Google Chromebook use.

The group, co-run by VAHS librarian Teresa Voss, held 10 sessions in the fall, and Mortenson said they were well-received, with many seniors asking for more.

The group also presented at a conference about their work, that trip being what much of the grant money went toward. Mortenson hopes to build on the program with more sessions in the spring.

“When you think of, with student talent, we’ve done (10) free workshops for the community and many of them have filled right away,” she said. “The students feel really great about it; the seniors just love it.”

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