How a PTO connected students with community during COVID

Like so many students this past year, the 7th and 8th students at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, were in a hybrid mode of learning due to Covid restrictions in their school.  They spent two days in the school building in small group pods and three days learning remotely from home. The three days at home were extra challenging, as only one of those days they had zoom class with their classmates, while two whole days were alone at home with email based assignments. 

When my 7th grader left school at 2:30pm on Tuesdays, he did not return to the normalcy of school and friends till the following Monday at 7:30am. That is a long time for a 7th and 8th grader to stay self motivated and positive. 

Eventually, something had to be done. I was part of a group of parents connected to our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) who worked together to provide opportunities for students in our community.

Let’s get organized

The fall of 2020 wasn’t too hard.  The weather was tolerable for outside masked activities and everyone was still adjusting to this new schedule. But when the days grew dark and the temperatures dropped, many middle school parents began to report concerning behaviors for their children.

Some kids were finding refuge in their rooms playing video games and not changing out of their pajamas. Others reported that their kids were less engaged with daily activities, not wanting to talk as much to family or friends.

And even more started to share their concerns about depression, complacency, and substance abuse.  Students were even caught sneaking out, smoking pot, and sexting. 

By the end of February, parents were reaching out to other parents for support.  What was normal? What should we do?  How can we help our kids?  Do we need to seek counseling?  Local organizations began to report a marked increase in requests for counseling and therapy services for our youth.

And a small group of parents connected to the PTO decided we had to do something.

After a one hour call on a Sunday morning in early March, this small group had developed an action plan. We would organize, fundraise, and communicate an engagement plan for these middle school students based on the ideas that we all know “Covid Sucks”  so let’s do something. 

Making it happen

“Get Out! Get Creative! And Get Involved!” These kids needed to play outside with friends, help our community with service projects, and use their artistic minds to create, and so this group made it happen. And it was inspiring!   

In two weeks, this PTO group raised over $3,000, got multiple community organizations involved, and launched the program.  It was a simple yet effective grassroots effort.  The program plan was as follows:

Every 7th and 8th grader got a short Google slideshow every Monday morning for 4 weeks.  That slide show linked them to 3 different activities/challenges happening that week. 

  • Activities to GET OUT included bike rides, forest fort building, dodge ball, lawn games, and just outdoor fun (fully masked and distanced).
  • Challenges to GET CREATIVE had students building cardboard creations taking photos of outdoor sculptures, and creating laundryscapes.
  • Opportunities to GET INVOLVED had students volunteering with local organizations.  If students participated, they were entered into drawings for cash prizes.  Screen shot of a PTO slideshow engaging students in fun

Slide decks describing the weekly challenges were sent out on Monday mornings.

By the end, 85 students participated 395 times in these activities.  That’s roughly one third of student in grade 7 and 8!

It takes a village

In that short period of time, the “village” came together.  The CBMS PTO became the lead organizer and fundraiser for the project. The Town Cemetery Commission hosted 45 students in 2 different cemetery clean ups.  The Conservation Commission had students identify special outdoor places in our community and write up short advertisements to why these are special. Hannah’s House, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting mental health, became a significant organizing partner and funder. The MakerSphere, a local nonprofit dedicated to foster creativity in our community, hosted the creative challenges but also did the prize drawings and the weekly video announcements.  Mud City Adventures, a local outdoor recreation group, hosted all the Get Out activities in a safe but adventurous setting. The Alchemist Foundation gave a generous donation for the cash prizes. And many community members volunteered either time at activities or organizing to make the whole program happen.  

By the April school break, one month into the project, the reviews from parents and students were in.  We heard “wow, how did you do this?”, “this was great”, “my kid really needed this”, and “thank you”.

The truth is, it wasn’t that hard: it just took some legwork and creativity. 

It also punctuated the importance and nimbleness of grassroots community organizing.  The PTO group didn’t ask permission, they decided that something needed to get done, so they did it.  They identified the need, and sprung into action.

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The new normal

As we begin to return our schools to some form of “normal” in the fall, I hope we don’t forget these important lessons learned over the last year.  Our communities are filled with amazing people and organizations that have resources to share and needs to be met. These real world learning experiences are vital for kids to feel included, empowered, and needed.  Kids need more opportunities to try different things, not just more of the same. That we don’t need to wait around for someone else to address or solve problems.  If you see something that needs to happen, you can start to do it. 

And it will be even easier if you ask others in your community to help! 

How can we keep promoting community-based learning for middle school students?

Author

hudsondana@comcast.net'

Dana Hudson

Dana Hudson is a parent, educator, community activist, and farmer. She lives with her husband, 8th grade son, 5th grade daughter and a menagerie of sheep, rabbits, chickens and dogs on their small family farm in Waterbury Center VT.

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