Battle Creek Elementary Brings the Community to School
At Prairieview Elementary in Battle Creek, the Developing the Community School Project uses a holistic approach to achieve school success.
At first approach, Prairieview Elementary School
in Battle Creek is like most any other elementary school. Walk up the sidewalk to the main door, and the chatter and laughter of children resound from the playground at right. Inside the 1930s building, bells ring, and the long tiled hallways suddenly fill with the clatter of steps, giggles and banter, whoops, and happy hollers. Teachers emerge from classrooms and herd the children into neat lines, instilling order.
"Michigan's governor Snyder attended this school," Don Hoaglin says with a smile. He's the principal of Prairieview Elementary. He rushes from a meeting with a group of parents to talk to a teacher about a child making something of a ruckus down the hall, and back to his office again to take a moment to talk.
"That child you hear shouting," he says, nodding toward the hallway outside his office door, "could be a case of ADHD, could be something else. With the community resources we have, we will try to find a way to help."
He's referring to a grant the school received in 2011 from W.K. Kellogg Foundation
. The grant has supported the school's efforts to become what Hoaglin refers to as a "hub" in the community. What he means by that is that Prairieview Elementary School has become more than just a school to these children. It is part of the Developing the Community School Project.
"The school is often a center of the community, and so we built on that," he says. "We've engaged the entire community to take care of these children in a holistic approach. These kids have a lot of stressors in their lives. When we give them one place to go for what they need, one building, that alleviates a lot of those stressors."
Back to the child who is repeatedly shouting for his mama down the hall. Hoaglin explains his mother had just been in the school to pick up the boy's brother. He wanted to go with mama, too, but he had to stay in school to finish the day and was not happy about it.
Hoaglin taps his fingers on a pile of file folders on his desk. "We have 273 kids here. Seventy-eight percent of these kids are on reduced price lunches. They come from families with a very low income, a lot of single parent families, a lot of unemployment. We just brought in a new student--this is his fifth school in one year."
Stressors. The kind that make you shout for mama down the hall.
The Developing the Community School Project is headed by Hoaglin with a team of others: Andy Helmboldt, community facilitator; Sharon Davids, school nurse; and Pete Brady, school social worker. Their goal is to help connect the school, the children who attend it and their families, with whatever they need to succeed in life. Faith organizations, health care, businesses, services--"We are even offering tax preparation services this year," Hoaglin adds.
Andy Helmboldt is an extension of the school principal, going out into the community to make the necessary connections. "We work to prevent kids from falling through the cracks," he says. "It can be different for every kid, so our job is to figure out what that child needs and connect them to the community resources that can meet that need."
The child in the hallway has calmed. The difference, Hoaglin and Humboldt explain, is that the teacher is not alone in handling an upset child. If the need arises, the nurse can step in if medical care is needed, or the social worker, offering counseling. Are there deeper issues at hand that need to be handled? Is the child healthy? Is the family getting what it needs?
"Since starting this project, the school atmosphere has become much more relaxed," Hoaglin says. "We've seen a drastic decline in discipline issues."
"We give you that prop to lean against," Humboldt adds. "Teachers or parents know they can get the support they need. It takes the pressure off everyone."
The resources are often out there, Hoaglin and Humboldt say, but people may not know about them. With this holistic approach of caring for the whole child, not just the academics, hurdles can be cleared that might otherwise stand in the way of learning.
Humboldt talks about making arrangements with a local church that had warm coats and mittens to donate, but wasn't sure how to find the neediest children and families. "They wanted to help and didn't know how." He made the connection with the school, with the neediest families whose children attended the school, and the coats found new owners.
Another similar effort was a Wellness Fair and Community Picnic, organized by the school and bringing together representatives of community resources to meet with the families of the neighborhood. It was a fun occasion that simultaneously introduced people to education about healthy lifestyles and nutrition. Addressing more than just the health of the student, the fair was a way to teach good health habits to the families to which the students belong.
Not all the programs they bring to the school succeed. "We tried to start a dance class," Hoaglin says. "But we consistently had low participation, so we dropped it. We judge the needs of the community by the successes of the events and go from there."
Surveys from several years ago gave the project its starting point. "We asked what people wanted and needed," Hoaglin says. "People wanted more activities after school. They wanted the library to have summer hours. That sort of thing."
"It can be a challenge to teach kids that are so transient," says Humboldt. "School for them is a lot more than reading, writing and arithmetic. We need to build relationships, get away from operating as silos. It seems like the obvious thing to do, just common sense, but it takes time to accomplish."
Another line of children trot by the principal's door, on their way to lunch. Most of them are smiling, happy to be in school, and it shows. Among them is the boy who was upset earlier, but he's calm now. His needs today have been met.