Trevor Norris was so busy imagining the steel of the Titanic’s hull ripping open as it collided with an iceberg, the panicked passengers running for lifeboats as icy water engulfed the ship, that he couldn’t hear his mom. Tracey Norris had asked if he was enjoying the chance to visit Kennedy Elementary School’s library during summer vacation. But this incoming Kennedy 2nd grader, sitting silently in the school library, entranced by a book about the Titanic, had just answered her question without uttering a word.
Thanks to a diverse team of community partners committed to preventing summer learning loss and ensuring students receive supportive services, Kennedy is a beehive of activity, a far cry from years past, when it sat empty during the long school break.
For the first time, Kennedy is host to a summer Boys & Girls Club, where 120 kids are keeping their brains and bodies engaged. Certified teachers lead themed units so the students can hit the ground running in August. An AmeriCorps member serving through Communities in Schools of Northeast Kansas is acting as a summer librarian, running story hours and organizing book clubs.
Every morning, Kennedy kids are getting exercise through the new summer Marathon Club. And they are learning about healthy eating during the Kids in the Kitchen class led by AmeriCorps members serving with the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department and Harvesters.
The picture wasn’t always this positive at Kennedy. Three years ago, when Cris Anderson became principal, Kennedy was known more for its problems than for it successes. Nearly 80 percent of the school’s 380 students qualified for free or reduced lunches. There were more than 1,000 office referrals for behavior issues. The Kansas State Department of Education Report Card for 2010-2011 revealed that almost a third of Kennedy’s students were not proficient in reading and math.
“There are a lot of stressors for kids who come from home environments where they are living in poverty,” Anderson explained. “That comes to school with them. They don’t waltz into school with everything being OK.”
It was clear to Anderson that the needs of her students far outstripped the capacity of her staff. She knew she had to look outside the walls of the school to get the social service support her students needed to overcome the obstacles that might keep them from succeeding in school, and in life.
“I’m not sure where it happened, but my path crossed with the United Way,” Anderson said. At the time, the United Way of Douglas County was transitioning to a community impact approach of providing financial and volunteer resources for teams of agencies working on collaborative initiatives in education, self sufficiency and health.
Anderson began meeting with the consortium of education and social service experts funded by United Way that were focused on helping elementary students in Douglas County become proficient in math and reading by 5th grade so they are more likely to graduate from high school. Kennedy was an ideal site for the United Way team to focus some pilot efforts and make significant change.
“Our desire is to find the most effective way social services can support the academic success of all students in Douglas County,” explained Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the United Way. “One way is to work at the elementary school level to address the academic challenges that poverty brings.”
One of the team’s first steps was to reestablish a Boys & Girls Club afterschool program at Kennedy to extend educational opportunities beyond the school day. In three semesters, club enrollment grew from 40 to 100, all of whom spend an hour a day digging into Power Hour kits filled with educational activities to help them meet state standards.
United Way funded a Communities in Schools site coordinator to provide case management services for 78 students during the 2012-2013 school year. Using United Way funds, the Girl Scouts launched special staff-led troops that helped Scouts increase their reading scores. Douglas County AIDS Project leads a Healthy Habits class for Kennedy 5th graders. And Big Brothers Big Sisters is recruiting long-term mentors for kids at Kennedy.
“I could not be giving my kids the club experience, the mentoring, the case management without these agencies,” Anderson declared. “I just couldn’t do it. I know what we need, and what I’d like to do, be we have limited resources.”
All the work is starting to pay off. In her second year, Anderson said the number of office referrals decreased by 80 percent. The school also celebrated a 20 percent gain in its state math assessment and a 10 percent bump in its state reading assessment.
“It’s a beautiful model, an example of how a community has invested in its children,” Anderson shared. “My kids and parents don’t know all the behind-the-scenes stuff that is going on, but they see the difference.”
Micki Chestnut is Director of Communications for the United Way of Douglas County.