New Tools for Schools

School districts invent new ways to serve their students and the broader community.

The services that schools provide these days go way beyond the traditional “three Rs”. They also reach deep into our communities. One example is the Whitney Point Central School District’s Early Eagles initiative, a pre-literacy program for families of infants and toddlers. 

Whitney Point launched Early Eagles because teachers were finding that when three-year olds join Whitney Point’s full day pre-kindergarten program, their language skills vary widely. “Some of them have very little vocabulary, and others have vast vocabularies and very different life experiences,” says Jo-Ann Sexton, the district’s assistant superintendent. The new program aims to even the playing field for the youngest students, and to forge strong connections between families and school. 

Early Eagles invites parents to Whitney Point’s family resource center to learn about topics such as vocabulary-building, developing motor skills and how best to read to young children. A $15,000 grant from the Community Foundation funds outreach activities, including welcome packages for families. Some of the money goes to add books for babies and toddlers to the resource center’s library. The grant also helps with expenses such as speakers’ fees and refreshments. 

At Spencer-Van Etten Middle School, a $2,254 Community Foundation grant supported startup costs for a new course on biotechnology in agriculture. Offered to seventh and eighth graders, the class serves as an introduction to programs in general agriculture and agricultural mechanics that students might take in high school, says Dewitt Grove, the middle school’s biotechnology teacher.

The class also lets students work in, with and for the community. “We’re going to tap maple syrup in our town park,” Grove says. “We’re going to grow vegetables in the community garden. We’re also going to work on small engines, such as lawnmowers and snow blowers, that community members bring to us.”

All that hands-on activity offers a chance to learn about natural science through direct experience. And students enjoy seeing the results of their labor, such as the picnic table that some of them built in the school’s flower garden. “They’ll go over to it and say, ‘We made that!’” Grove says. “And they want to keep it looking nice. They take pride in what they’ve been doing in the community.” 

Students at the Unadilla Valley Central School are also getting out into the world, thanks to the district’s community service initiative. Nursing homes, the Farmers Museum and Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, Bassett Hospital—many nearby venues offer a chance to learn while helping to improve life in the community, says district superintendent Robert Mackey. 

In part, this program is designed to help students build important social skills such as resilience and empathy, Mackey says. “One way to do that is to serve others and not expect anything in return.” Educators also hope that volunteer opportunities will engage kids in new ways—a critical goal at a time when rates of mental illness among young people are soaring, he says. 

A $10,000 grant from the Community Foundation will pay mainly to transport groups of students by school bus to the sites of afterschool service projects. The district has also earmarked about $1,000 to help with efforts such as a holiday craft project at a nursing home, Mackey says. “We would buy the supplies and materials for the kids to use with the adults.” 

School-community collaborations may also extend to health care. The Windsor Central School District, for instance, is working with United Health Services (UHS) to provide telemedicine in school. The goal is to help students get health care without losing time in class or making family members lose time at work, says Scott Beattie, the district’s assistant superintendent. 

When a student feels ill, the school nurse uses a computer and web cam to connect with a UHS physician over the internet. The doctor performs an exam with hands-on help from the nurse. A parent may also participate on line or by phone, or the nurse may follow up with the parent afterwards. 

The school uses telemedicine only if a family has signed up for the service. The Windsor district is using a $6,000 grant from the Community Foundation to educate families about its telemedicine program and drum up interest, creating a video and using social media to spread the word. 

Windsor’s telemedicine initiative is part of a broader commitment to the community schools movement, says Beattie. Once the service is firmly established, school officials hope they can make telemedicine available not just to students, but to community members at large. 

“The school district is a central hub of the community,” Beattie says. “It’s leveraging the assets that we have to better serve our students and families.”

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