One fish, two fish: Eastern Montgomery schools together on reading night

Photos by Liz Kirchner
Shawsville Middle School fourth grader Olivia Wilbon reads Dr. Seuss’s “To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” to a library full of Eastern Montgomery Elementary School students. Reading together builds social and intellectual skills, bonding children to caregivers. Eastern Montgomery schools are working together too to build community and ease transitions.

Liz Kirchner

A key indicator of a successful middle school experience is a positive transition from elementary school, but that transition is often bumpy.

This summer, the three schools in eastern Montgomery County got together to go beyond lone Back-to-School nights, working to involve all the schools, all the families, all year in the education of their kids. And often, there’s cake.

The red, yellow, and blue cake read ‘Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!” and families played Boggle word games in the balloon-filled cafeteria/auditorium.

Older kids read Seuss rhymes about elephants on Mulberry Street to a library full of little kids, long lists of good books came in English and Spanish, and enthusiastic sixth graders used touch-screen white boards to explain the correct usage of the apostrophe to impressed parents.

It’s Reading Night at Shawsville Middle School and it’s brought together Eastern Elementary with SMS in a first-of-its-kind gathering that is structured to strengthen school and community bonds, smooth school-to-school transition and recruit the whole community in the education of its kids.

The March Reading Night is one in a series of community outreach evenings that SMS has held throughout the school year, often with dinner, and always welcoming little brothers and sisters, relieving parents of baby-sitting worries and instilling all kids early in the idea of a friendly school.

Math Night, in January, brought families together for pizza, puzzles and card games; on Science Night, in February, students extracted DNA from blackberries and kiwis, explained the movement of water over land to their parents, talked about the trout they were raising and scanned the wild night sky over Ft. Vause with telescopes searching for Sirius, the Dog Star.

March’s Reading Night was held in conjunction with nation’s 21st Reading Across America Day and Dr. Seuss’s 108th birthday, celebrating the author who encouraged millions of people to Hop on Pop and to revel in reading and social justice.

April will present History Night when families will work on their Personal History Trees.

These playful nights full of games and family are, in fact, a systematic effort to engage Shawsville parents and caregivers in education.

Sweetened with cake and Seussian rhymes, it’s all part of an integrated, “whole-community” focus that Shawsville Middle School is using to improve instruction, recruit entire families and raising student achievement as everyone works steadily to regain the school’s full accreditation status.

And it seems both reading, and the larger effort of educating, are better together. While these family events were first launched by SMS Principal Andy Hipple in his first year at the school, he said that engaging the community is a team effort and he recognizes the critical roles of Eastern Elementary School Principal Denise Boyle and Eastern High School Danny Knott, and the whole community, too.

“All three principals in this community work hard to bring the community together around our schools,” Hipple said. “We made a conscious decision this year to make a difference. We know that these children are only ours for a short while. Helping to have them ready for the next step is all of our collective responsibility.”

In the auditorium, while families are playing crossword puzzles around her, Boyle, red hair, blue eyes and a green coat, visits with clamoring former students, taller than she is now and she talks to the families about the growing Eastern Montgomery community.

“We want to make sure all three schools do activities together. If you have other ideas to create a deeper sense of community,” she tells them, “call me and let me know. I work late. We want to bring our communities together.”

The three principals began finding opportunities to link the schools last year.

They held joint Back-to-School Nights and hot dog suppers on the same day, but they staggered the times so that if parents had children in all three schools they could get to all three schools.

“We decided to further expand our joint community events with the Dr. Seuss night,” Boyle said. “And we are currently looking for more opportunities in the future.  Our goal is for families to see our schools and community as a support for all.”

Enthusiastic sixth graders in Mr. Rezac’s English and Language Arts class raise their hands to volunteer to explain correct apostrophe usage and mistakes. Rezac uses high-tech white board, social media memes, and .gif technology to engage and teach.

While study after study says that reading with kids helps them feel close to the people they’re reading with, understand the world around them and be empathetic citizens of the world, nationally, only about a third of American fourth graders read at grade level according to the National Education Association, and Hipple has spoken about how these evening events work to build a bigger, sturdier education system that recruits the entire community.

“There was a disconnect between students and families working together. One of the things we’re trying to do is get families back involved in school,” he said. “School is about learning, fun and relevance.”

Some families have students in all three schools, and connecting those schools is key to kids moving from one to the next.

“Having all three schools be part of everyone’s life. It’s so important. Because once they leave our school, they’re going to Andy and once they leave Andy, they’re going to Danny,” Boyle said.

The schools themselves are neighbors, little more than a mile apart.

“If you go through the field we’re right there,” said Miss Boyle and Mr. Hipple laughed, “As the crow flies.”

SMS’s parent-involving community outreach are specific to Shawsville, but don’t need to be said Hipple.

“I just started these at SMS. It is possible to duplicate these activities, but to my knowledge, they have not been duplicated,” he said.