One hundred percent of the students at Thomasville Heights Elementary School receive free or reduced lunch.”Free and reduced is how they eat, not how they learn,” said Cynthia Jewell, principal of the Atlanta, Georgia school. That’s why Jewell has spent the last year trying to connect with the community and turn Thomasville around. Her mantra? “A New Year, A New Attitude, A New Thomasville.”
To help with that “new Thomasville,” hundreds of future, current and retired educators spent the day remodeling the school for the 2013 Outreach to Teach community service project. The young students will return to a school this fall with new murals, inspirational bulletin boards, nice landscaping, fresh paint, an outdoor classroom space, new parent center and more.
“The area we are in is hard. There are struggles here. But to have a refuge that is bright and welcoming will help them to learn,” said Angel Morgan, the school secretary at Thomasville.
Every year during the NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly the NEA Student Program selects a school in need in the host city and teams up with NEA-Retired for the community service project.
“We get such strong support for this annual service project because our members understand the importance of students and school employees learning and working in safe, healthy, and positive environments,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel who toured Thomasville and chatted with the Outreach to Teach volunteers.
This year in Atlanta, Outreach to Teach returned to its roots. It began in 1996 as a beautification project to give back to schools. What started with a few students wanting to clean up a local school where their annual Student Leadership Conference was being held has grown into a full blown remodeling project with hundreds of volunteers.
“It feels so good to help a school in such a concrete way,” said David Tjaden, chair of the NEA Student Program. “At the end of the day, we have visible proof of our efforts. We know our time was well spent because we really do believe that every student has a right to attend a public school that is clean, safe, inviting, and uplifting.”
By nature, those working in the education profession and attracted to it have a strong desire to make a difference in the communities they serve. Projects like Outreach to Teach are just another way for educators to show how much they care about students no matter what community they are in.
“This project shows that NEA, GAE and our local associations are working together with communities to create great public schools,” said Calvine Rollins, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, of Outreach to Teach.
“An event likes this helps pull the community in,” continued Ramon Reeves, President of the Atlanta Association of Educators. “When they see the educators are stepping up and taking pride in their school, they take pride in their school, too.”
And it’s not just giving back to the community that makes Outreach to Teach so valuable for everyone who participates. It’s the opportunity for future educators to get advice from those with lots of experience and for the retired educators to get new ideas from the student members.
“Yes, there is the benefit of helping out this community, but then there is also the help to us students being around retired teachers,” said Alexis Ploss, a student at Manchester Community College in New Hampshire. “This is helping us grow because we have an opportunity to ask them questions as we work.”
For Gary Mehok, a retired teacher living in Arizona and participant in Outreach to Teach the past 8 years, the feeling is mutual. “I love working alongside the college students. They have all these great ideas and enthusiasm. It’s something I look forward to every summer.”
While Outreach to Teach is all about giving back to the community and providing an opportunity for future and retired educators to learn from each other, perhaps the most important part of the day is that it’s fun. Even with the early morning start time and hard labor.
As first time participant Rayshaun Ward, a student at Delaware State University, described of the experience, “it’s amazing. This is a family-oriented environment and just a lot of fun.”
The proof: “When you’re retired you don’t want to get up early. But I did today,” said Linda Ellington, a retired teacher from Arkansas.