Organizing – It’s Contagious!
By Amy Jordan and Nathan Allen
Great things happen when educators, administrators and parents work together to make their community stronger.
Just ask Kristi Smith, a physical science teacher at Hellstern Middle School in Springdale, Arkansas.
Smith was a participant of NEA’s Center for Organizing first Education Summer in New Orleans. She joined 40 other educators from seven states to learn organizing skills through classroom-based instruction and in-the-field practicums. Partnering with the St. Bernard Association of Educators, the Education Summer participants conducted home visits with educators and their neighbors to raise awareness of the Association in a community that is still rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.
Inspired by those home visits, Smith returned to Springdale and met with her principal, Todd Loftin, to share her experience of getting out in the community and talking about their public schools. Smith suggested the educators at Hellstern do the same thing before the first day of school.
Forty teachers and education support professionals signed up to take part in the community outreach event, visiting incoming 6th graders and their families at home to welcome them to Hellstern.
“Had I not attended the Education Summer program in New Orleans, I wouldn’t have even thought of doing something like this back home,” said Smith.
Video: Hellstern Neighborhood Outreach
With Loftin’s help and support from the Springdale Education Association, the team rounded up five school buses and collected addresses of all the incoming 6th graders. Volunteers in the 7th and 8th grades met new students (so they would know someone at the school prior to starting) and parent partners baked over 500 cookies to package in deliverable treat bags.
During the home visits, the education organizers talked with parents about what their kids should expect on their first day of school and met with the incoming students to answer any questions that they might have.
“At first I was a little apprehensive of going to homes of incoming students, but to my surprise they were respectful, open about asking questions, and in some cases we were able to reconnect with former students,” said Kerri Packwood, a 6th Grade, English and language arts teacher at Hellstern.
Immediately feeling the success of their visits, the education organizers started going to any house that appeared to have kids living there. When they visited a home without children, they spoke about the continuing need for the community to support its public schools.
“I was excited to get out and let parents know that we care enough to visit with them, thank them for their support and welcome their kids back-to-school,” said Sheilah Swanson, a computer lab manager at Hellstern. “This is a good trend that other school districts should replicate over the summer to keep parents and the community abreast about their public schools.”
After visits with more than 100 parents and students, the teams loaded back onto the buses to head back to Hellstern and had a cookout where they shared their stories and experiences.
“This is something that I would totally do again and I hope that this becomes a yearly event. We want the students to be excited to come back to school,” said Packwood.
Video: Hellstern Middle School: Back-to-School Community Outreach Project