A high school finds an unusual way to connect to its community.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Finding the proper kinship between a school and the community that supports it can be tricky. Woodstock Union High School Principal Greg Schillinger is acutely aware of the benefit of establishing an appropriate balance; he knows the school needs some autonomy to properly carry out its mission, but he also realizes the value of tapping into the non-financial resources of the community. “A school is a refection of its community,” he says of the necessarily symbiotic relationship, “and the community is a by-product of the school.”
So Schillinger is always ready to listen to ideas to weave the community into the life of the high school, in ways that help both the students and community members. As a result, a few weeks ago, he christened a “Community Booth” that has been installed in a lobby of the Woodstock Union High School and Middle School (WUHS/MS). The Booth will be a place that outside groups can use to share information with students.
The seeds of the idea for a Community Booth were planted over a year ago when Jim Grossman, Outreach Coordinator for the Woodstock non-profit Ottauquechee Community Partnership (OCP), began going to the school to meet with a student group seeking to curtail use of tobacco among teens. At the conclusion of each of their almost weekly discussions, Grossman would sit in the meeting room, with the door open, to collect his thoughts and to plan the next gathering. The positive interaction he had with kids passing by prompted him to move to the lobby, and work at a computer “help” desk that was situated there. In a world where communication is largely a tangle of emailing, texting on cell phones, and writing on virtual walls, the value of face time, real human-to-human contact, soon became apparent. Grossman, who before long acquired the nickname “the lump in the lobby,” was able to get more kids engaged in the anti-tobacco group and in other projects as well.
“Kids have told us that the reasons they got involved with stuff was because Jim asked, and then Jim asked again,” says Jackie Fischer, Executive Director of OCP, “Some very powerful work came out of that asking.”
The notion to take the “lump in the lobby” concept a step further and formalize it began to take hold when the results of Vermont’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that 48% of students at WUHS/MS do not feel valued by their community. That’s not unusual, a comparable percentage of teens across the state share the feeling. However, a group of WUHS/MS students hoped that they could find ways in this community to increase the number of kids who do feel valued and do regard themselves as contributing members of a larger “village.” With the help of Grossman, Fischer, and school officials, the students facilitated a series of dialogs in town from which the “Community Booth” idea eventually gelled.
The Woodstock “Glad Rags” group provided funding for the “Booth” from their semi-annual clothing sale and carpenter David Wall constructed it. Physically, it’s a large desk that sits in an area where the Middle and High Schools intersect, so many students from all grades pass by. The idea is for representatives of community groups with projects of interest to students, like service or mentoring programs, to sit at the Booth during proscribed school hours, and distribute brochures, answer questions, or just chat. “It would be kind of like Lucy’s ‘The Doctor Is In’,” says Fischer, referring to the “psychiatrist’s” booth made famous in Charles Shultz’s Snoopy cartoon.
“It’s a safe place for community members to be in the school,” adds Grossman, who acknowledges that adults can sometimes feel intimidated by teens and vice versa, “it’s a sort of demarcated space where both groups can understand the rules of how to connect.”
It is a place, he says, where a wide variety of groups such as the Rotary Club, the Thompson Senior Center, Relay for Life, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association and others can productively provide information to students and get them engaged in valuable projects.
Sharon Earn and her colleagues from Sustainable Woodstock’s East End Action Group, for example, have been working on a plan to develop a public park from the town-owned property long known as the “east end jungle.” The group has been soliciting input from many sources, but was puzzled about how to effectively approach local teens. When Earn learned of the newly completed Community Booth, she saw it as a great vehicle to get feedback from important stakeholders. After a presentation at school later this fall to educate kids about the preliminary plans for the park, she hopes to use the Booth to engage students in sketching, brainstorming, and other assessment exercises.
Principal Schillinger realizes the newness of the Community Booth makes it difficult to project exactly how its role will evolve. He is hopeful that it will become a meaningful bridge between students and residents.