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Next step: engaging the school community

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The Timberwolf Trample is a fundraising event that encouraged the school community to turn out for a day of volunteering, fundraising, exercising and picnicking. Photo by Lola Mae Images, courtesy of Kris Aman.

Instead of getting a call home, a parent with a student at Leopold Elementary School might get a knock on the door from Jeremy Thornton, the school’s parent liaison.

The role of a parent liaison was reintroduced to the district three years ago, and Leopold is one of four schools in the district with this position. Along with Glendale, Falk and Mendota, Leopold has been identified as a key school in the district where improvement in parent communication is necessary.

“[Superintendent] Jen Cheatham calls the parent liaison positions ‘the X factor’ in closing the achievement gap,” Thornton says.

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A student crosses the finish line at the 10th annual Timberwolf Trample. Photo by Lola Mae Images, courtesy of Kris Aman.

Thornton describes his job as connecting the community and school to make one cohesive entity. To narrow  the achievement gap, “family involvement is key,” he says. “Every family needs to be on the same page.”

He spends about 12 to 15 hours visiting homes of Leopold students to communicate with parents about attendance issues, behavioral problems and any other concerns about the student.

At school, Thornton works with students on an individual basis. He mentors 5th grade boys to help them transition to 6th grade, coaches a basketball and soccer team and plans events like movie nights.

“Relationships needs to start early on,” Thornton says.

For Thornton, a thriving neighborhood needs a local community center, which the area around Leopold lacks. Thornton’s goal is to turn the school into “the hub for this community” with every type of parent involved.

To make this goal a reality, Thornton helps organize Open Schoolhouse. This program is held every Tuesday during the school year and offers parents, families and students activities and resources to bring together the school and the community.

Classroom teachers can find it difficult to connect with parents in addition to their in-school responsibilities. But that’s where people like Thornton or Madison School Community and Recreation’s after-school coordinator Samy Clausen-Rupert can step in.

Clausen-Rupert leads group activities and extra academic lessons after the school day ends. The program is funded through a grant, and qualifying students can attend at no cost.

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As Leopold’s parent liaison, Jeremy Thornton spends about 12 to 15 hours visiting students’ homes to communicate with parents about attendance issues, behavioral problems and any other concerns. Photo by Abigail Becker, Madison Commons

About 75 students ranging from first to fifth grade attend the program regularly, and Clausen-Rupert says she connects with every family.

“I get to see almost every family,” Clausen-Rupert says. “It’s a good pipeline to have, a lot of face-to-face contact.”

To continue moving Leopold forward, increasing outreach is key. Assistant Principal Mathew Thompson says turnaround schools have a “strong community component,” and Leopold is “poised for some really big jumps” next year.

Leopold’s Parent Faculty Organization is a critical piece of this outreach. Kris Aman, PFO president for the past three years, says she has worked to create community-building events that are not centered around fundraising or recruiting volunteers.

“I think we have accepted engagement isn’t just coming to meetings,” Aman says.

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Kris Aman, Leopold’s Parent Faculty Organization president, has made an effort to engage the entire school community through events like the Timberwolf Trample. Photo by Abigail Becker, Madison Commons

The 10th annual Timberwolf Trample held in May was an example of a fundraising event that encouraged the school community to turn out for a day of volunteering, fundraising, exercising and picnicking.

“We have found one big event to be more effective than many little ones,” Aman says.

Aman has two children attending Leopold and one who graduated from the elementary school. She is familiar with all aspects of the school including the Dual Language Immersion Program.

To communicate with families, Aman uses a Facebook page and an email newsletter that is separate from the school. But she says the organization still misses a portion of the school’s population who do not use email or Facebook or who don’t have regular access to the Internet.

“I think we’re ahead of where a lot of schools are, but we have to be or we would be missing many more families,” Aman says.

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