Do you find it difficult to maintain a strong and healthy bond between your school and the community? This is just what the National Association of Elementary School Principals hopes to foster with its "Sharing the Dream" grant competition. All elementary and middle school principals in the U.S. are eligible to submit their best ideas and programs that promote family and community involvement, and those selected receive $3,000 and a toolkit of resources to enhance and expand their outreach efforts. Included: Learn about three successful school programs that reach out to their communities.
"A Sharing the Dream grant allowed McIlvaine Early Childhood Center to accomplish many things," says Sherry Kijowski, supervisor of instruction. "The staff was able to purchase non-consumable educational tools for the school, strengthen home-school relationships, and enhance the existing work with Wesley College's nursing program."
Kijowski's school in Magnolia, Delaware, received a Sharing the Dream grant from the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) to further its efforts to promote good health among its kindergarten students. Sponsored by the NAESP and the MetLife Foundation, this grant is part of a competition that supports elementary and middle-level principals as they foster and encourage strong school-community relationships.
Before each school year begins, classroom teachers and the school nurse from McIlvaine Early Childhood Center visit the homes of incoming students to identify potential health risks to students and talk with parents about how they can help their children be successful in their new classes. In addition to those home visits, the school also holds an annual health fair. In 2007, approximately 62 percent of the student population was represented at that fair. It was an impressive showing for an institution that serves a population of students who are deemed academically "at-risk."
"The health fair reinforces healthy choices and promotes a healthy lifestyle," explains Kijowski. "The program also reinforces a strong home-school connection, as it is an additional opportunity for students and families to come together in an academic setting. The annual health fair also promotes health advocacy for students once they leave the halls of McIlvaine. Families are often connected with state agencies during the health fair. This promotes wellness visits, needed inquiries, and additional vaccinations. The development of such habits helps their siblings (our future students)."
Since summer home visits that the health fair established were begun, attendance at school events has increased. Kijowski credits these "non-threatening" introductory experiences. Anecdotally, teachers have observed a decrease in unnecessary absenteeism when health services are highlighted during the health fair and throughout the school year by the school's nurse, Becky Gravatt. Gravatt's savvy use of Sharing the Dream grant funds has provided several non-consumable educational displays and resources that can be used year after year not only during the health fair, but by classroom teachers, participating nursing students, and others.
"McIlvaine continues to do the summer visitation program and holds the health fair each spring. Improvements and refinements to the process occur based upon feedback we receive from participants," reports Kijowski. "We meet each summer prior to the start of the visitation program to discuss talking points and student needs based upon previous experiences. We also debrief about the health fair and start the 'next year...' conversations immediately!"
A Sharing the Dream grant allowed Dreamkeepers Academy in Norfolk, Virginia, to create and implement a student mentorship program called "Direct Deposits." In it, students who are recommended by teachers -- due to poor academic progress, attendance, behavior, social concerns, or lack of support at home -- are assigned to adult mentors. The volunteers, who are often military, college, or staff members, establish a mentoring relationship with the kids and take part in many varied activities with them throughout the school year.
"The students participate in character education assemblies and programs to promote academic, social, and personal well-being," explains Dr. Doreatha White, principal of Dreamkeepers Academy. "Parents are encouraged to attend our PTA Chucky Cheese night monthly to allow mentors and mentees to interact away from school."
On Thanksgiving, funds from the grant were used to provide baskets full of necessities for a holiday meal to the families of participants who were in need. Those families expressed their gratitude, and the gesture inspired most to become more involved with school functions, including parent workshops, PTA, and volunteering when possible.
"Improvements in the program include a new student mentee contract for the upcoming school year, early background checks, more field trips, and monthly mentor training sessions for new staff members and community stakeholders," shared White.
Receiving a Sharing the Dream Grant enabled Stemley Road Elementary School to continue funding its annual Research Display Day, in which all students are participants in grade-appropriate research. The school is located between two small towns, and this event is part of a broader endeavor called "Building Dreams Together" that is designed to unite residents of both communities to support students' literacy development.
Through field trips to places like farms and caves, guest speakers such as a local artist and a mayor, and help from community volunteers and parents, the K-6 students research themes aligned with Alabama standards over the course of the school year. On Research Display Day, the students present their findings through many formats: posters, writing, art, PowerPoint presentations, video clips, historical reenactments, murals, speeches, and more.
"This will be our fourth year to implement our Research Display Day, and it has been such a rewarding and motivating project," says Principal Judi Clark. "The community and parent participation is a component of this endeavor we continually attempt to strengthen."
A representative from the Soil and Conservation Department who visited the Talladega (Alabama) school on Research Display Day told Clark, "I am so impressed with kindergartners' knowledge of the gardening process. They have been so proud to tell me about the planting day when parents and grandparents joined them to till the soil and place the plants for their garden."
The students also expressed excitement about eggs that were delivered to the school, the construction of an incubator, and, of course, the hatching of their young chicks.
"There was so much discussion and writing about their experiences," the visitor added. "This is truly a unique opportunity you have created in your school community."
"The goal of the Sharing the Dream grant program is to assist principals in addressing the disconnect between school and community," Margaret Evans of NAESP told Education World. "Sharing the Dream reaffirms that parents and the community care about schools. We have found that it is especially important to reach out to the diverse communities served by many schools today."
The Sharing the Dream competition is entering in its fifth year and is open to all elementary and middle school principals in the U.S. and territories. The grant consists of $3,000 and a "toolkit" of resources on CD-Rom. Recipients come together at the NAESP's annual conference to share their successes, discuss their programs with other administrators, and to network with peers.
"This year, 30 programs were funded, and Sharing the Dream has supported more than 100 programs overall," shared Evans. "The NAESP will soon add webinars as a means of keeping in touch and working with grant recipients."
Schools across the country have received grants, so finding convenient and innovative ways to communicate is essential. Most funded programs concentrate on connecting with parents by establishing things like parent resource rooms, but there isn't a single recipe for a successful program. Evans says that while the approaches are unique, the selected programs often share some common threads, and the most prevalent is strong leadership.
"The principal needs to engage and coordinate the program with a team," she stated. "Principals continue to say that the first step is the hardest. Then parents feel important and valued and overcome language barriers and improve culture and community."