Collaboration Produces Enrichment Resource

Engagement to Enrichment Resource Reflects Community Collaboration
Posted on 10/08/2020
This is the image for the news article titled Engagement to Enrichment Resource Reflects Community CollaborationThe close of 2019-20 and start of the 2020-21 academic year were supposed to be primarily focused on rolling out a new English Language Arts curriculum for elementary students in the Weakley County Schools’ system. Instead, the pandemic prompted a community collaboration that saw area teachers and coaches not only introducing the ELA materials but creating a customized curriculum specifically focused on their rural West Tennessee students living through the COVID-19 crisis. 

In mid-March Weakley County Schools academic staff stood in their shared office suite discussing what would come next. Schools had just been ordered to close. How to even reference COVID-19 was still being debated. No one was yet masked because no such guidelines existed on the state or federal level. Nervous laughter peppered the conversation as is often the case when people used to being in the know have no clue what steps should now be taken.

The Director of Schools stopped in the doorway taking in the ping-pong pace of discussion.

“Will we still be expected to test?”

“Are we going to see the same setbacks we see during the summer slide?”

“Too much of Weakley County still doesn’t have internet access. We can’t go online.”

“I can’t imagine sending home packets of homework. Parents are stressed already.”

“Teachers are stressed.”

“Students are stressed.”

And then Director Randy Frazier injected, “No matter what, we must remember the social and emotional well-being of students and staff. Right now, that’s the priority.”

He pointed out that Weakley County’s ten schools were only a few days away from spring break when doors closed March 17. After that, preparing for Tennessee’s testing would begin, then the tests, leaving only a few weeks of reviewing, field trips and whetting students’ imaginations for the coming year.

“We may start the next academic year a bit behind, but it’s nothing we can’t make up,” he underscored. “Our response right now has to be simple with the hope of keeping students engaged. That’s it.”

Brainstorming began. Betsi Foster who oversees data collection for instructional purposes mentioned a formula she uses with her own children in summer – 3/40: one 40-minute segment of reading and writing, one 40-minute segment of math, and one 40-minute segment of purposeful play.

Terri Stephenson, instructional supervisor for pre-K through fifth grade, saw the potential in its simplicity. Donald Ray High, instructional supervisor for middle and high school, noted that the brevity might have a chance with some teens so it was worth trying.

Karen Campbell, the director of communications, took on the task of crafting one page age-level focused handouts that would explain the 3/40 Engagement ideas and offer suggestions from supervisors.

And all agreed the meal distribution sites – which would ultimately see the nutrition staff, faculty and volunteers serve more than 425,000 before schools resumed in August – were the best point of contact.

After thousands of one-pagers were added to bags of breakfasts and lunches, supervisors acknowledged that once these resources were in hand and basic needs met, many families might still wish for more. So pages of links frequently used by teachers were added to the Weakley County Schools website.

Both the printed resources and the online pages included tips on how to “flip” everyday moments into learning adventures – walks to count items of a particular color, cooking to practice reading and math; suggestions for self-care and a reminder to ask for help.

The resource page concluded with this note: “Parents and caregivers need to know that our focus at this time is on keeping children engaged in learning, not making trained educators out of those who are overseeing that learning. The COVID-19 crisis is having an impact on every aspect of life and everyone. We urge you to take care of yourself and caution you not to add to your stress by comparing yourself to others. You’ll be teaching your child a great lesson as you model learning alongside them. Even when you are saying, ‘I don’t know the answer to that one’ you are helping ease their anxiety and showing your child that learning isn’t about having all the right answers.”

Within a week of brainstorming, the resources were in hand or online. Then a text message took the idea to a new level.
“Would you like to run the piece you are handing out to families with meals in the paper?” wrote Sabrina Bates, then with the Weakley County Press.

“How much would it cost?” responded Campbell who had worked with the twice weekly newspaper before assuming her role at the school district and was aware of local journalism’s tight budgets.

“We got this,” she replied.

After the piece appeared, taking up a half page of valuable space, a second text came from the Press. This time the business manager authored the offer. “Would you want to continue to provide suggestions each week?” Lynette Wagster wrote.

Campbell took the inquiry to the district staff. Would a full page each week be something staff wanted to take on?
Stephenson immediately said yes noting that for younger children a printed resource was ideal. High reasoned that teens were more likely to take advantage of the online suggestions.

Soon, Campbell was providing the Story for Young Readers (as it was also observed that some homes were without an adequate supply of children storybooks) and Purposeful Play, Stephenson was working with Karen Fowler, the preschool consultant on preschool suggestions, and reading and math coaches Jessica Wade and Megan Moore rounded out the plan.

When the local arts advocacy group Weakley Arts Can (WAC) learned of what was initially deemed an “engagement” resource, co-president Katie Mantooth and members Elizabeth Emmons and Allegra Riley stepped in to provide additional materials that would be featured within the paper as well. They fashioned activity sheets from content secured by WAC co-president Julie Hill from Brad Foust, District Fine Arts Specialist with Bartlett City Schools. Each week of what would have been the school year, the focus shifted from visual art to music to theater to dance.

To offer a full color page of what is ordinarily a 14-page newspaper was a substantial contribution, but Wagster and graphic artist Beth Cravens who pieced together each page from the stories, puzzles, photos and graphics supplied by the team never wavered.

Frazier gratefully purchased 750 copies for distribution as well as covered the cost of the ad space the arts-focused elements were taking.

When what would have been the 2019-20 school year concluded in May, the engagement resource was ready to wrap up as well.

“But we know from data each year that students show a decline we often refer to as the ‘summer slide,’” observed Stephenson. “And, from the feedback we got after our drive-by surveys of users who were picking up their meals, we saw a need to continue.”

Wagster and Cravens readily agreed to the same arrangement – a full color page with 750 copies purchased each week. Additional writers were added to the team. Teachers Tiffany Frazier, April Fishel, Mikaela Roberts, Lisa Whitworth and Danielle VanCleave participated in a writers’ conference to map out the themes for the summer and librarian Amy Lawrence wrote each of the stories off which activities were based.

Weather, graduation, July 4, travel and even the Tennessee’s tax free weekend served as the launch pad off which students would find phonemes and compound words, decipher musical codes and sales receipts, and make solar oven S’mores and watermelon volcanoes.

In all, 16 weeks of material were compiled.

As schools prepared to reopen in person on the delayed date of August 17, the hoped-for engagement seemed to be at its end as well.

Until inspiration struck once again.

While working on what would be the response for Weakley K-5th grade students should the COVID-19 positive cases or quarantining students and teachers demand remote learning, Stephenson, Moore and Wade had an idea. Why not turn the engagement resource into enrichment?

“We had already learned through a spring survey that at least a quarter of our students had little to no access to reliable internet,” said Stephenson. “So planning for our kindergarteners through 5th graders took on the look of a tool kit with ELA materials, math manipulatives and other resources collected in colorful plastic boxes. At a moment’s notice, our students could pick up and go.”

What was lacking was anything in print that would allow students to go even deeper with enrichment activities.

“We talked about doing something ‘like’ the engagement piece of the summer and that’s when it hit us and we asked what it would take to transform those 16 separate pages into one cohesive piece,” she added.

What it took was a few more hours of the original team editing and adding to, and Cravens’ graphic expertise bringing it all together.

The 20 pages of enrichment was printed by the close of September and students who families opted for the Monitored Distance Education option during the new year have already received a copy to enhance the activities they are completing either online or on computers which have been loaded with the personal learning platform.

“If we must go to remote learning, the enrichment resource will be included in the toolkit,” Stephenson explained. “And if we never do, we have a great resource for our students next year. No matter what, we are pleased.”

At a socially-distanced gathering of collaborators in October, Cravens summed up the experience from the Press’ perspective, “It’s a good use for newspapers,” she explained. “We’ve always used newspapers in education but this just stepped it up a notch. I was proud to be a part of it.”

Mantooth who attended the gathering as a representative of WAC agreed part of the significance of the project came from the collaboration, “I think it’s important that our community is a part of our schools and our schools are a part of our community,” she said.

Addressing the representatives of business, arts, and education in a brief celebration of a project that, due to the pandemic precautions had never gathered in the same room since the launch, Frazier expressed his appreciation.

“We started this effort with the goal of providing our students with engagement and now enrichment,” he noted. “Because of what each of you brought to the work, we have seen success. We are truly grateful.”

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Weakley County Schools are currently offering in-person classes with an online option. Following strict safety protocols have helped keep quarantines and isolations low enough that no disruption of on-site learning has occurred thus far. To recognize the efforts of the business, arts and education communities to produce the Weakley County Enrichment Resource, WCS staff organized a socially-distanced photo opportunity. Seen here with the recently compiled tabloid of their work are Amy Lawrence, Lisa Whitworth, April Fishel, Jessica Wade, Megan Moore, Karen Campbell, Katie Mantooth, Terri Stephenson, Beth Cravens, Randy Frazier and Danielle VanCleave. Not pictured are writers Mikaela Roberts and Tiffany Frazier.