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Open for breakfast, lunch, and learning: Alumni educators partner to provide for Illinois students

Teachers handing out supplies

Principals and Illinois State alumni David LaFrance (Oakland Elementary School) and Jennifer McGowan (Sheridan Elementary School) distribute supplies to community members during the first week of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic .

How do we maintain some semblance of normalcy?

It’s a question on the minds of millions of Americans during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. For many families, schools are the first places they turn.

“A lot of parents are trying to figure out how to provide individual meals and the technology to ensure their kids can learn at home. We’re working to take care of some of that because it means one less stressor,” said David LaFrance ’19, principal of Oakland Elementary School in Bloomington, part of District 87.

“It’s not necessarily a ton, but it can provide that support and that hope to families when they are going through a crisis,” said LaFrance, who is also a P-12 administration doctoral student in the Department of Educational Administration and Foundations at Illinois State.

He joins a network of Redbirds serving as school administrators working the frontlines with their staffs. Three in Illinois share how they are providing products, services, and solutions to their students.

Chicago Public Schools—William H. Brown STEM Magnet School

The positive reaction from families when school staff call to check in on them has been one of the most gratifying aspects of the closure for Latoya Lyons ’99.

“They are really excited to hear from us. This personal touch engages and re-motivates our kids,” said Lyons, who is principal of William H. Brown STEM Magnet School in Chicago’s Near West neighborhood.

About 98 percent of Lyons’ students are on free and reduced lunches.

In addition, her families often do not have technological devices beyond a cellphone, which Lyons noted is “not a proper medium to learn anything or complete any work for extensive periods of time.”

She has leaned on her school’s partners to fill the gaps. The James Jordan Foundation stepped up to provide food for families seven days a week and equipped each eighth grader with a laptop. The school also had enough devices, primarily iPads, to lend out to each student. Other nonprofits and a faith-based organization have provided financial support, including gift cards to grocery stores.

“Filling these needs helps to avoid huge instructional loss due to the extended time away, but the social emotional piece is so important too,” Lyons said. “We are continuing to be a connection for our kids. We’re letting them know that we are thinking about them even though they are not in our school. We know that an unpredictable crisis like this one can lead to high amounts of stress and anxiety, so we’re focused on bringing as much normalcy to their lives as we possibly can.”

Bloomington-Normal and surrounding communities

Near Illinois State’s campus, Kingsley Middle School operates one of Unit 5’s busiest hubs for providing resources to families during the outbreak. The district is one of the largest in the state, covering 210 square miles and serving more than 13,000 students. In partnership with the Midwest Food Bank, HyVee, and the Eastern Illinois Food Bank, Unit 5 is providing families with more than 1,000 meals daily.

Man on phone

Ridgeview Elementary School Principal Ben Hutley follows up with his school’s families following Illinois’ school closures due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Kingsley Principal Stacie France M.S. ’03, M.S. ’16, said the school’s layout has made it possible to have two car lines. Food is delivered without contact in one, with a technology handoff in the other.

“This allows us to maintain social distancing guidelines,” she said. “We’re focused on keeping everyone safe,” she said.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought unprecedented challenges to the school. It has also increased France’s appreciation for the skills and knowledge she developed while going through Illinois State’s rigorous principal preparation program. In particular, she’s using the distributed leadership approaches she learned to empower her staff and get everything done.

“In a situation like this, nobody’s doing it alone. Everybody is taking a small piece and doing their part. I have been super proud of my Kingsley staff and how they have each one of them stepped up in their own way to lead,” France said. “And that’s what happens when you trust your people.”

Amidst the seriousness of the situation, France and her 60-plus staff continue to laugh a little. “It always lightens the load. We have tried to also find moments to laugh at ourselves and try not to take ourselves too seriously.”

Ridgeview

The importance of laughter is appreciated as well by Benjamin Hutley ’01, M.S. ’17, principal for Ridgeview Elementary School. Each week since the outbreak, his kitchen and office staff members have chosen a song for him to perform that matches the menu item for the day. He does it, with enthusiasm, for the entire community via YouTube and social media.

“It’s pretty silly, but as long as it keeps people laughing during these times, then I’m not above a little embarrassment,” he said.

Ridgeview is situated in rural Central Illinois. The district covers 198-square-miles and 600 students. The building Hutley works at serves all grade levels. A federal meal grant provides breakfast and lunch to all its families. Without the food service and the dedication of Ridgeview’s kitchen staff, educators, and bus drivers, Hutley said these closures would have resulted in a large hit to household budgets.

“Most of all, we can see the gratitude when we deliver the meals,” he said. “No one expects to see their principal at their house dropping off lunch, but it’s a welcome surprise for some.”

Editor’s note: Redbirds are doing an amazing job of collaborating and inspiring others during this crisis. Share the ways your school or district is managing the COVID-19 outbreak at Alumni.IllinoisState.edu/Update.