School, town both 'Enriched by Change'
October 27, 2007
Lexington's Pershing Elementary kindergarten teacher Janelle VerMaas talks with students and parents at a 7:30 a.m. session of Together for Children. Photo by Malena Ward.
A Lexington school’s attention to the whole community, not just teaching children, has earned it the 2007 Nicholas Michelli Award for Promoting Social Justice.
Principal Jerry Bergstrom and kindergarten teacher Janelle VerMaas accepted the award on behalf of Pershing Elementary School earlier this month at the National Network for Education Renewal Conference in Charleston, W.Va.
The award recognized the school’s efforts to engage school and community patrons through leadership training; study circles researching issues such as community attitudes, immigration and “boundary breaking” by high school students; a teacher-parent program called Together for Children and quarterly school-sponsored family activities.
Other projects have included efforts to form a multicultural commission as an advisory board to the city council and expanding the Lexington Welcome Center to include a skilled immigration specialist, something recommended by study circle participants.
“This setting has embraced diversity as a social good, as opposed to a problem to be dealt with,” National Network for Educational Renewal Executive Director Ann Foster wrote in the award notification letter.
Award reviewers noted that Pershing’s work has become part of the community culture.
“Clearly, the demographical changes in Lexington — the high poverty levels, cultural diversity, mobility and language barriers — have presented the community and its schools with formidable challenges,” Bergstrom said.
He said Lexington has changed in the past 15 years from a 97 percent Caucasian community of 7,500 to a diverse city where 60 percent of the 11,000 residents are immigrants or their descendants and 15 percent of the elementary students are Caucasian.
One in three students learn English when they come to school and 78 percent of children come from poverty. Meanwhile, 40 percent of parents speak little English and about one-third are illiterate or have limited education.
Bergstrom believes the Lexington community has been “enriched by change,” with people of many cultures having opportunities to address issues together.
It was the teachers’ frustration with low home-school communication that led to a partnership between Pershing Elementary and the University of Nebraska at Kearney. They received a National Network for Educational Renewal-sponsored grant to find ways to improve school-parent relationships.
In 2003, a committee of school, community and UNK representatives identified “a sense that many voices were not being heard” and a lack or parent participation in their children’s education. So, more than 150 people were invited to work on parent participation projects.
Small groups worked on issues as study circles meeting at school, the library or a local church.
“The candor and honesty which characterized this series of conversations was enlightening and challenging,” Dennis Potthoff, a professor and chairman of the teaching department at UNK, said about the study circle on immigration issues.
A study circle looked at “boundary breaking” by high school students, which resulted in a series of student-planned events providing opportunities for students to be with youths not necessarily in their circle of friends, Potthoff said.
The “Together for Children” program, which started in kindergarten classrooms, invites parents to attend 30- to 45-minute meetings at which their children’s teachers talk about concepts and skills taught in the classroom.
“Then, parents can practice at home one-on-one with their child,” VerMass said.
Parents can ask questions and meet other parents, with translators available to enhance communication. “When children see their parents coming to school, it shows the child how much their parents value education and them,” VerMass said.
Parent Ena Palacios said she’s learned ideas to make school work fun.
“My daughter is pleased and likes it when I come and participate,” Roxana Lizama said. “It has been of much help to me.”
Pedro Prado said he and his wife have met new friends at the meetings with other parents.
“It’s nice because you hear of other parents’ experiences with their children’s learning process,” Amed Vazquez said.
Quarterly family activities are scheduled outside the school day, but tied to school themes: a reading rodeo, multicultural Christmas and “Pershing Choice Awards” to recognize student authors. Attendance has ranged from 320 to 480.
“Without question, activities implemented at Pershing School have helped to create momentum and support for community-based initiatives,” Potthoff said. Unintended benefits have been serving as a model for programs at other schools and forging a link between LPS and UNK, he added.
“The dream and the hope is that we can engage everyone in the democratic purposes of our city and school district,” Bergstrom said.
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