McLane program strengthens community engagement

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Community Connections program at McLane strengthens engagement
A student rides her bike on the McClane Creek TrailWhile teachers and administrators across the country have struggled with locating students who stopped showing up for class during remote learning, staff at McLane Elementary has quietly been building its network of students, families and community members stronger than ever before.

In fact, each and every student at McLane Elementary has remained engaged with the school since COVID-19 forced schools to begin remote learning in March 2020, said Principal Anthony Brock.

“I’ve talked to other leaders at schools where kids have like, gone missing,” Brock said. “That number for McLane is nonexistent. We’ve had three or four kids that we’ve worried about -- that we lose touch with from time to time, but we always get back in touch with them. Our kids are still coming. They’re still staying enrolled and connected to their school.”

A national study by the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, published in October 2020, estimated that a staggering 3 million students were missing from schools nationwide, having had no formal education or contact with their teachers or school staff for seven months at that time. Many of those students are from among the most educationally marginalized populations in the country -- often struggling with disabilities, homelessness, low-incomes, language barriers or other challenges.

At McLane, school leaders recognize the importance of engaging all families, including those who come from historically marginalized families. The school’s Community Connections program, led by third grade teacher Emily Hamilton, intentionally finds ways to bring all types of families into the school for a variety of after school clubs and service projects. Parents are invited to participate in ways that express their unique strengths and interests.

Community Connections began as a series of unique after-school clubs and service projects meant to engage students socially. With the help of teachers, parents and community volunteers, McLane offers art and Lego clubs, ukulele club, book clubs, Minecraft club, coding club, outdoor PE opportunities, McLane trail activities, gardening and work parties. Most of these clubs have been virtual during remote learning. Plans to expand offerings to include more in-person events are in the works.

“My daughter participated in Community Connections,” said Wendy Vance, parent of a fifth grader at McLane. “After being a little apprehensive, she became a strong advocate for it. It was a wonderful way for her to be able to interact with others outside of our home doing activities she loved. The volunteers were great at bringing her into a conversation and asking about the activity she was doing. It made a big difference in her social/emotional health during the pandemic, and I am so grateful she had the opportunity to hang out with people from school, even if it was via Zoom.”

Third grader Oliver Fountain is one of many students who participated this year in an after school Community Connections Minecraft game club. The club meets once a week and builds virtual worlds together. Participants even built a virtual model of McLane. “Going to the N dimension was my favorite moment,” Fountain said, referring to a level in the game. “You find the dragon and you battle it, then you go through a portal.”

The McLane Creek Trail, a nature trail that includes an entrance adjacent to school grounds, has been a tremendous asset for the school, Hamilton said. “That gives us more real estate to be able to spread out and do the things we want to do.”

Students work with their families, school staff and community volunteers to maintain the trail. Each year, they plant thousands of daffodils along the road nearby. They also complete PE activities on the trail, hold work parties and plan scavenger hunts.

Perhaps most importantly, the trail has been a place where the school and community can see one another regularly while social distancing. “Social connections are an important factor in keeping kids and families feeling good about school,” Brock said. “And when kids feel good about school, they learn to love learning.”

Encouraging students to discover their passions, be curious and love learning is one of six Student Outcomes adopted by the OSD Board of Directors as part of its strategic planning process. Community Connections accomplishes that outcome, as well as many others.

Students who love school and have friends there are likely to be happier and perform better academically, Hamilton said.

“From a scientific standpoint, it’s really important for brain development that kids have social interactions. It’s how we learn how to interact with other people and how to manage conflict and everything that we do that’s social or emotional. You need to have relationships with other people in order to learn about those things,” she said. “And it’s just more fun. Some of them are lonely and just bored, and it gives them something really fun and engaging to do that they associate with school.

“I have noticed several kids that had a negative view toward school. Who maybe felt like they didn’t fit in or that school was a boring place for them.I’ve seen a lot of kids flip on that script and just feel more connected to their school and feel like school is a place that reflects their interests and has people that know them. And I think that probably helps with their academics. I would be surprised if it doesn’t.”

Families, also, are growing to become more passionate about their school. A diverse group of parents have joined the Parent Teacher Student Organization (PTSO) and are eager to invest their time and talents at the school.

“Community Connections has opened up a lot of opportunities for parents who haven’t necessarily fit into the normal volunteer mode or PTSO mode. They’ve been able to use their personal strengths,” Hamilton said. “Everyone has a place in our community and everyone has an ownership in our space.”

McLane staff have plans to increase community involvement even more over the next five years, including adult education opportunities, guided and led by the interests of the community. While currently, about 10 percent of families participate in traditional PTSO events at the school, Hamilton would like to see that number rise to about 70 percent of families attending PTSO events, and even more getting involved with Community Connections.

“I want 100 percent of our families to see themselves as welcome and see themselves as being stakeholders in our school in some way,” Hamilton said.

Brock credited the school staff at McLane with helping Community Connections flourish. “I have deep admiration and gratitude for our entire McLane staff,” he said. “This work is all possible because of our entire McLane staff’s commitment to serve our students and to meet their needs. It is an honor, and humbling, to work alongside these amazing educators every day.”