One thing Great Bend USD 428 school board members have missed since the COVID-19 pandemic began is the custom of holding monthly luncheon meetings at the various schools in the district. On Tuesday, the custom resumed, in a fashion, when board members held a Zoom meeting with Park Elementary School Principal Phil Heeke and his staff.
Noting that this is School Board Appreciation Month, Heeke began by thanking the board “for keeping us and our kids in school. Thank you very much.” Heeke also praised the teachers and support staff working in the classrooms and with remote students.
“Looking at our quarantines, we are at zero students in quarantine and also we have zero students that are currently testing positive,” Heeke said. “That’s the first time in many months. Back in December, our high was 29 students at one time in quarantine. So that is some excellent news and I noticed throughout the district things have been trending downward in that way.”
A semester of reconnecting
Because of the pandemic, Great Bend schools closed at Spring Break in 2020, with only remote education until the start of the fall semester. Heeke’s report focused on the social and emotional learning challenges this year and the school’s response.
“When we look back to the start of the school year, we knew that reconnecting with our students was going to be huge,” he said. “We knew we would have to really get very creative and do lots of different things to reconnect with our students because, back in the spring, we didn’t get to really see them. In the fall, we were so excited that we would be in person and we’d get to work with our students. So we really put in place a lot of social-emotional learnings in our building.”
Family Support Worker Alana Blessing and Technology Specialist Angela Petersen shot some video clips for a 16-minute video Heeke shared with the school board, narrated by Library Aide Adam Hatten. Its title was, “A Day in the Heart of a Park School Tiger.”
One thing the school offers is a “lunchroom beauty salon” where Park students can freshen up every morning.
“A lot of times, you can learn a lot from a student when you’re doing their hair,” Blessing said.
“Mornings are a time to share your feelings in a safe and caring environment,” Hatten said, as the video showed students and teachers visiting about non-school topics before hitting the books.
The video also showed students learning to use “self talk” as a strategy for calming down. Opportunities to share thoughts and feelings help students learn to regulate their emotions.
Students also have opportunities to learn new things outside of the curriculum. For example, one student in the video said, “We’re using our recess time to make bracelets to give to other kids and make them happy.”
Blessing is also the owner of Rudy, a golden retriever who serves as Park School’s official therapy dog. You couldn't have a video about a day at Park School without showing Rudy.
Since 2015, Great Bend schools have used testing to provide a system of prevention, early identification and intervention to ensure every student learns math and reading skills. Students sometimes work in smaller intervention groups of two or three as they receive help with areas where they are struggling to keep up.
While the intervention groups help students who are struggling academically, “some of those kids are the same ones who struggle socially,” Blessing noted. The small-group settings allow them time to open up and can help with behavior issues.
Heeke said the school also helps its students by providing opportunities to be outdoors. One student in the video commented that being outdoors is great because masks can come off, making it easy to breathe fresh air.
“We’ve utilized the outdoors a lot this year at Park School,” Heeke said, mentioning the school garden and other amenities.
Finally, there are times for giving and receiving words of affirmation. As one student commented, “I have friends. There are people out there who care about me.”
Heeke noted that staff members and students have also learned a lot of new technology during the pandemic. He ended the program by presenting an online post-it board created with the program Padlet. Park’s Padlet had messages of appreciation for school board members.
Board members commented on the presentation.
“It makes me proud to be a Park Tiger!” said board member Lori Reneau.
Board member Deanna Essmiller added, “It’s so nice to be back (in the schools), seeing what they’re doing in the buildings.”
Now that Park School has “set the bar” for a Zoom meeting with the board, Superintendent Khris Thexton said more of these meetings will be held. In February, Great Bend High School is scheduled to be the featured school. The actual meetings take place at the District Education Center.