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Winning Combination of Activities Draws Crowds


"What matters most is that we are able to reach such a broad range of our student population, from special education to the very gifted and talented," says Tara Elliott. "I recall watching one of our very special needs students working collaboratively with his dad and a NASA engineer to create a paper rocket that would outfly the other students' distance down the hallway of Salisbury (Maryland) Middle School. That student's rocket made simply of notebook paper flew over 70 feet! I've never seen a bigger smile on a student, and it was incredibly touching to see how proud his father was of him."

In one activity of "A Night Under the Milky Way,"
students perform "moon crater mining"
with chocolate chip cookies.
(All images courtesy of Photographer Jennifer Seay)

This memorable moment occurred during a unique annual event at the school, a combined evening of teacher conferences, dinner, and a science expo. Elliott, a reading, English, and language arts teacher, was part of the team that brought together the three separate events to bolster attendance.

Another team member, Chad Pavlekovich, was having great success with a "star-gazing night" for his students, and that concept became the "science expo" portion of the event. "A Night Under the Milky Way" was born, with teacher-run activities like rocket building and launching, moon crater mining (using chocolate chip cookies), guest speakers, night telescope viewing, and a host of science activities that incorporated reading and math skills.

"Typically the night begins with parent-teacher conferences. The PTA then serves dinner and the parents and kids are on to the 'A Night Under the Milky Way' event," Elliott told Education World. "Our PTA and its president, Tami Bugas, were instrumental in ensuring that parents and students did not have to leave the school premises to get dinner for the evening. In the past, the PTA has even gone the distance to include space food, serving such deserts as Milky Way Bars, Moon Pies, and astronaut ice cream!"

The key benefit to grouping the activities is that more parents attend conferences, and the activity has shown growth. The initial "A Night Under the Milky Way" event claimed 367 attendees, while the recent follow-up event called "CSI Night" boasted 490.

"There are even benefits that we never took into consideration," reported Elliott. "Many more of our students are now interested in science. In fact, so many of our students became interested in science that SMS is in its second year of piloting a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) Academy."

Staff members become sci-fi
characters to promote the special evening.

Community partnerships have been built through the event as well. Many local businesses have donated materials, supplies, or even guest speakers, including NASA's Wallops Island base. Local colleges have gotten involved by allowing interns to earn observation hours by working with teachers on activities.

"We've been fortunate that some of the professors have even jumped on board in creating engrossing and dynamic activities. For example, Seth Friese of Salisbury University gave a presentation entitled How Cold Is It in Space? that was complete with shattering crackers and fruit!" added Elliott.

Jayne Malach, a media specialist and overall coordinator of the event, and staff members have met every challenge to make the evening of combined activities a hit with students. When it was discovered one hour before students were to arrive that a vessel was needed to contain the donation of liquid nitrogen required for Friese's presentation, another college allowed the school to borrow a container at the last minute.

For CSI Night, staff member Evan Lane gave up his planning period to help remove the meat from a deer carcass so that the bones could be used in one of the activities. From soliciting donations to creating activities to giving their own time to set things up after school, the teachers never fail to amaze Elliott. Some even sacrifice their dignity by dressing up as sci-fi characters to promote the event -- both Princess Leia and Darth Vader have been spotted!

"Our staff's dedication to making learning fun astounds me, as does the support and loyalty of our principal, Amy Eskridge. There has never been anything that any staff member needed that she wasn't able to find or deliver, and we've had some pretty unusual requests!" said Elliott.

Many community helpers offer presentations
during the annual three-part event,
like this one at the recent "CSI Night."

She reports that an additional advantage to this night is the number of fathers who attend, and their presence gives new dimension to the classic PTA encounter. The team is currently developing an event to occur in April that will focus on the book Red Kayak by Priscilla Cummings. Activities will revolve around the novel which takes place near the school's location on Maryland's eastern shore.

For the upcoming event and others, Salisbury Middle School harnesses support from local businesses. Those that donate materials are invited to set up a booth in the lobby during the events. The team casts a broad net when it comes to speakers. On CSI Night, for example, local police, search and rescue teams, K9 departments, fire departments, the FBI, SCUBA rescue, detectives, and EMTs were represented. Staff members served as hosts for participating community members.

"We provide our speakers with gift bags that include bottles of water, an SMS t-shirt, and some goodies donated by local businesses," Elliott advised. "Our principal also writes thank you notes to the speakers after the events. It's so important that the speakers feel appreciated. When they do, they want to return, and that helps you to build a pool of speakers for future events."

The ideas for articles in this Partners for Student Success series come from annual collections of Promising Partnership Practices by the National Network of Partnership Schools. Established by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, NNPS is dedicated to bringing together schools, districts, and states that are committed to developing and maintaining comprehensive programs of school-family-community partnerships.

"Based on more than a decade of research and the work of many educators, parents, students, and others, we know that it is possible for all elementary, middle, and high schools to develop and maintain strong programs of partnership," NNPS director Joyce L. Epstein told Education World.

NNPS provides a wide range of resources to help schools and school districts build strong partnerships. Click the links below to…

… learn more about how your school or district can join NNPS.

… find out about NNPS products and services.

… investigate research related to school, family, and community partnerships.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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