‘A community school’: North Elementary opens its doors

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 6, 2016

By Rebecca Rider


SPENCER — For a long time, it was nothing more than a dream: the school doors open in the evening, the building a place of refuge and every parent fully involved in their child’s schooling.

But now, North Rowan Elementary is trying to make that dream a reality. In the past two weeks, the school has started a Tuesday-night program called Engage, which aims to pull families together and teaches parents education-support strategies that can be used at home.

“This came from one of my dreams,” North Rowan Elementary Principal Katherine Bryant said looking out over a crowded cafeteria, “We are going to be a community school.”

Bryant said that now, the school is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. North Rowan hosts a homework help academy on Tuesdays and Thursdays until just after 5 p.m. — and now it’s hosting a meal each Tuesday evening.

“In years past, when school closed, the doors were closed,” Cybil Jones, PTA president said.

But she and Bryant want to see that change. Engage may have been Bryant’s dream, but Jones helped give it wings. After talking with Bryant, Jones went home and started working on Engage. The program is an official 501(c)3 non-profit, and Jones said she’s started collecting funding to provide meals.

They launched the program on Sept. 27, and Jones said they had over 200 people RSVP for the first meal. This week, that number was approximately 250. While only about half of those show up, Jones said it’s still incredible.

“I’m thrilled that they’re just walking through the door,” she said.

Bryant said that many parents have a negative image of school — often because of a bad experience. But she wants to change that.

“I want to change the perspective of school,” she said.

And slowly, she’s seeing progress.

At 5:30 on a Tuesday, parents walk up the sidewalk to the main doors, which are thrown wide open. They trail spouses, grandparents, high school students and toddlers, and are greeted at the cafeteria door with a smile.

The meal, sponsored by someone in the community, is free, and the families sit together at the long tables in the cafeteria, talking and chatting. Students who attended homework help grab a plate of spaghetti and sit together, waiting to be picked up for the evening. When their parents come, they grab a plate, too.

Bryant said Engage is a “no-judgment” event. Anyone is welcome, and the school does a free raffle for T-shirts and sweatshirts, and even gives away canned goods or fresh produce.

It’s only been two weeks since Engage kicked off, but so far the school has had donations from Communities in Schools and grandparents, and the Catawba College Cross Country team volunteered its first night to play games with the students. This week, the meal was provided by local church members.

“It’s becoming a community effort and that’s what makes me happy,” Bryant said.

Engage is two-fold. The free meal provides much-needed food to a community that is largely food insecure. North Elementary is a universal breakfast and lunch school, Bryant said. But its main purpose is to engage parents and guardians in their child’s education.

Each Tuesday, Bryant gives a short walk-through of games or activities parents can do at home with their children that will help them in school. Standing in the middle of a crowded cafeteria, Bryant walks parents through simple math games that can be played with a pair of dice, gives reading tips or available explains technology and apps.

For some parents, the short sessions are a blessing.

Chenaughka Jackson said she loves the program. The tips are simple, and it allows her to spend time with her kids for dinner, and then again at home.

“I really think it’s a good program,” she said.

Claudia Salazar said that she’s found the tips helpful, and has been using the suggestions for reading to help her forth grader, Kevin Alvarado.

The Thompson family said that Engage is a “worthwhile” event.

They heard about it from Jones about a month ago, Wes Thompson said.

“We knew right away we wanted to be involved with it,” he said.

Thomson said it reminds him of times when the community would sit on their front porch every evening, visiting and chatting with neighbors.

And some simply come for the food. James Welch came with his grandson, Gabriel, to take advantage of the free meal, and said he hopes that Gabriel’s parents will attend.

“It’s always good to get involved with kids’ schooling,” he said.

Bryant and Jones hope that the program will continue to grow, knitting everyone into one family.

“This is what we need,” Bryant said, “family community. And we’re building that at North.”

Jones said she would love to have each Tuesday-night meal sponsored by a different member of the community. Anyone interested in sponsoring the meal or volunteering with the event should contact North Rowan Elementary School at 704-639-3042. Those planning to attend the meal should RSVP by filling out a form sent home with their child.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.