Welcoming Schools: ABCD in Action

When Ron Dwyer-Voss asked the question “What are the best or most interesting ways you have seen schools become welcoming places that connect with their surrounding communities?” he got an interessting discussion going on ABCD in Action. Here’s one reply from veteran educator Jim Welling that’s a great example of steps at one urban school that, in his words, “would benefit ANY of our kids, anytime, anywhere.” 


I have witnessed many successful programs over the years, and I have observed that our greatest successes in relating to communities began with a basic respect for our constituents—by deed, not just words.

One quick example: when I was a young principal I returned to the city school that I had attended as a kid.  It was a school with a student population of 70% African-American and Hispanic, 30% white and 98% free lunch.  The neighborhood was primarily challenged by the lack of jobs and resulting poverty.  We realized that many of the parents had not had great experiences themselves, in school, and thus they were often absent from parent gatherings, or defensive or outwardly hostile to school activities.  It was only when we assured our families that they were indeed our clients and treated them as such that they became supporters.

When I first arrived at the school I asked the faculty and staff what one problem they would fix immediately if they could.  Perhaps only elementary school folks can appreciate this, but they said the general chaos that met them everyday at lunchtime was a huge challenge.  Lost lunch tickets, playground problems, grumpy cooks, all were symptoms of an issue that impacted the educational atmosphere.

We changed the mindset from thinking about deficiencies to focusing on real-life positives.

I began a discussion with the adults before school started that year by asking what positives (assets) do the kids in this neighborhood bring to school that we could reinforce and build upon.  Instead of thinking about the deficiencies in their home lives first, we changed the mindset to include some real-life positives.  For example, kids from this neighborhood knew how to care for younger brothers and sisters and they could be trusted to go to the store and bring back correct change.  I had always wanted to experiment with a family style lunch program, so applying our knowledge of what the kids “brought to the table” along with the knowledge of what our adults were willing to give in order to have less lunchtime stress we were able to implement the following (although some of our colleagues thought the new principal was nuts!).

  1. In the past, lunch recess always took place after the kids ate.  This encouraged kids to eat fast and go outside as quickly as possible.  The constant movement created noise and havoc.  We changed that to recess first, then lunch.
  2. We eliminated lunch tickets so they couldn’t be lost.  (Duh! If everyone was on free lunch we didn’t see a need for tickets.  It was much more efficient and easier on teachers to keep track of the exceptions.)
  3. Grumpy cooks were grumpy because the only interaction they had with their “customers” was at the end of a spoon while they line-ladled their way through three lunch periods. We did away with lunch lines by having the kids come from the playground directly to the lunch room and be seated.  Actually, before they sat, it gave me a chance to call on at least two different kids per shift to tell us what they were thankful for that day.  (So sue me.) It also gave me a chance to commend the students for their contributions and to mention any concerns that may have arisen lately.  It also gave me a chance every day to tell them in person how much they were loved by their parents, teachers and community…evidenced by the meal and school that was provided.
  4. We changed the playground dynamics by sending sixth grade to recess and lunch with first graders.  (‘Tis true.) Fifth graders went with second graders, and third and fourth graders went together.  Numbers of fights and arguments were reduced to where not one child was sent to the office all year because of a lunchtime altercation.  The school secretary could hardly believe it.
  5. We held training for the older kids (grades 4-6) to learn how to be table captains, calling upon them to join in the important work of helping the younger ones learn.  They were in charge of the younger kids assigned to them.  When it was their turn to take charge, they came in from recess early to set the tables.  (We did away with institutionalized trays.)  One of the rules we agreed upon was that every child (including them) needed to try some of every offering.  They needed to ensure appropriate table manners were taught and followed.  The food was served in proper bowls and was passed around the table.  The table captains understood that their responsibilities including soliciting comments and input from all at the table so everyone had a chance to take turns and share their thoughts.  (We don’t often teach “speech” in elementary schools, and this really allowed younger kids to develop confidence in front of their older school mate “heroes”.)
  6. When the table groups felt confident and competent, they were allowed to invite parents, school board members, congressmen, local sports celebrities, etc. to join them for lunch as their guests.  Believe it or not, many teachers chose to join the kids during their lunch times because the interaction was so civil. Because everyone ate at the same time, and cleaned up at the same time noise was reduced significantly.  Conversations were actually held at a normal tone, in a room with 150 kids eating lunch.
  7. At the end of the meal the table group was responsible for clearing the tableware, removing waste, and cleaning their places for the next group.  We found during that year that the students drank 1/3 more milk, ate more nutritious food, and the entire waste from 450 kids including paper could fit in one regular waste barrel.
  8. The grumpy cooks deserve a lot of credit for moving from the kitchen during lunch to being present in the lunchroom with the kids since there were no more serving lines.  They delivered frozen treats for dessert at the right time, surveyed the kids for likes and dislikes, became more creative with their menus, joined in discussions when invited, answered questions about food and cooking, touched kids instead of spoons.  They became resources to the students and as a result didn’t need to be grumpy any more.  They loved their new role.  Smiles ensued.
  9. When lunch concluded, the teachers took their kids directly back to class.  Instead of losing valuable instructional time due to sweaty, revved-up kids, arguing about recess issues—teachers often used this time for reading to the kids or reflecting upon how we were accomplishing our objectives and what yet needed to be done that day. In other words, good use was made of this “found” time.

What was accomplished at this urban school would benefit ANY of our kids, anytime, anywhere. 

How does this relate to the original question?  The parents and grandparents (and politicians) enjoyed the tangible evidence that their children were benefiting from a public school that invited them to be part of a first class effort.  This program garnered much positive attention in the press and on TV.  An urban neighborhood isn’t often portrayed for its positives.  Not only did we grow community support that year because of the lunch program, but it allowed us to enjoy our first Parent/Teacher Organization with hundreds attending one of the meetings.

I can still remember how I felt when one of the local politicians, intending a compliment, said, “Isn’t this great for THESE kids?!”  I have been a principal in upscale communities, too.  I can assure anyone, what was accomplished at this urban school would benefit ANY of our kids, anytime, anywhere.


For the whole discussion thread, go to ABCD in Action http://abcdinaction.ning.com/forum/topics/welcoming-schools

Home page photo: US Department of Agriculture

About the Lead Author

Jim Welling
Jim Welling is a lifelong resident of northern Indiana. Most of his professional life has been lived as an educator—teacher, principal, staff developer, consultant. His interests include healthy family development, travel, photography and bringing attention to "wrong headed" educational reform attempts. Having survived a serious illness he is embarking on an encore career as editor and publisher of GoodSports, a new magazine dedicated to parents of children, ages 5-15.

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