Every school year Church of the Resurrection teams up with our partner schools to provide them with support during the school year. Through our partner school series we will look at each school and preview their needs and goals for the upcoming school year.  We talked with Troost Elementary School’s volunteer liaison Doug Harris. Before Doug retired, he was the principal at Leawood Elementary School.

How did you get involved with Troost Elementary?

After I retired from the Blue Valley Schools, I still wanted to work with children in some capacity.  Something I had been thinking about for a long time was getting involved with the Kansas City schools.  They had had several superintendents, lost accreditation, lost enrollment, closed schools, and the future did not look very promising. I wondered if the knowledge and skills I had in suburban education would transfer to urban education.

One day in the church bulletin I read that Resurrection needed a school liaison for Troost Elementary.  I was excited to read that!  My experience as a teacher and principal, plus working with a very active Parent Teacher Organization at Leawood Elementary, would be a good background for providing support to Troost.  I knew I could quickly learn the needs of the school, and then begin using church resources to help meet those needs.

The first semester was really a learning experience for different reasons.  Troost had a new principal and several new staff members.  They were extremely busy with just the day-to-day activities of the school, and were not familiar with the partnership with Resurrection.  They also were in the first year of a School Improvement Grant from the State of Missouri, which had expectations and guidelines for improved attendance, behavior, and academics, and took even more of their time.  So it took time to reestablish our relationship.  I really wanted to build rapport and trust with the staff, to be present and available without being pushy, and to begin taking steps forward in our partnership.

One of the first things we did was present holiday gift boxes to the students.  Resurrection had put together some wonderful items in individual boxes for the children—crayons, pencils, a hat and gloves, etc.--and these were extremely well-received.  Looking back, this activity helped set the tone for re-establishing a wonderful partnership.  The boxes showed that the church was truly interested in helping meet the needs of the students.  Setting up our classroom volunteer program was next.  Volunteers came from the congregation, some retired Blue Valley teachers, and a few people from a church near Troost.  By spring we were able to provide each teacher with a volunteer at least one morning a week.  In addition, we provided school t-shirts for all the students and staff, sponsored a Book Fair, Teacher Appreciation Week activities, and much more.

A unique and defining moment for our partnership was the Bless the School renovation project this past summer.  The church had previously done this major project at Troost about five years ago.  When the project returned this year, it meant refurbishing much of the school through painting, carpeting, building classroom shelving, installing new window blinds, marker boards and bulletin boards, murals, and sprucing up the grounds.  Nearly 700 Resurrection members participated!  What a wonderful commitment by the church and congregation to the school!  It really was blessed!  And now I hope we can continue to improve and have a model school-community partnership—making a difference at Troost Elementary!

Troost is losing around 75% of its staff members for the next school year.  Many of those were Teach for America teachers.  Can you speak to what that will mean for the school?

Kansas City schools have many Teach for America teachers.  They generally are recent college graduates.  Some were education majors, but many were not.  They go through a rushed program on teaching the summer before they begin, then serve for two years in many urban areas around the country.  Troost lost teachers because their two-year commitment had ended, plus some retirements.  It was disappointing to lose teachers familiar with all aspects of the school and had served so well.  Yet the principal was excited to hire new teachers and have a new beginning with staff who hopefully were committed for the long-term at Troost.  Thus, no Teach for America candidates were considered this time.  She is now taking steps to prepare them for the new school year, to building a collaborative environment, and focusing on school goals, particularly literacy.

I am confident we can make a difference through our support of these new staff members.  We assisted the principal in finding a location for a day-long retreat with the staff before the school year began.  We are now helping them acquire the tools they need for their classrooms, and helping the students be prepared to learn each day.  This includes backpacks, school supplies, and uniforms, and will soon include the Friday food backpack program.  I am excited to get our volunteers started, too, and hopefully grow that program to provide even more assistance in classrooms.  We can turn the issue of many new staff members into a positive with our common vision for Troost.  I'm hoping our partnership will not just take steps forward, but leaps forward!

What can volunteers do to get involved?

There are a variety of activities available, depending upon the interest and available time of the volunteer.  Some school support activities take place at church, such as filling the Friday food backpacks and preparing incentive goody bags for the children.  For those wanting to be more directly involved with the schools, they could volunteer to help with special activities at the schools such as Book Fairs and classroom parties.  For those willing to make a weekly commitment, they could sign up to be classroom volunteers.  An example of this would be spending one morning a week assisting in a particular classroom.  Volunteers who do this often seem to get attached to their classrooms as they get to know the teacher, the individual children, their needs, and the routines.  The teachers appreciate having a person to help in the room, with small groups, and one-on-one with students.  The children love to have an adult who can call them by name, show an interest in them, and be a good listener.  If we want change to occur, ultimately that means what happens in each classroom, each day, for each child.  There are even some after-school tutoring opportunities available.  Schools need to be intentionally inviting places where students are engaged, places where students want to be rather than have to be.  It's obvious through their test scores, attendance rate, and behavior issues that there is much to be done.  But we have seen signs of improvement!  So now we need people to step forward and be willing to serve!  And I might add, this isn't just rewarding for the school—those who volunteer are also rewarded!

You can contact Doug by emailing him at pjh223@sbcglobal.net