The Breakfast Club: Lincoln Elementary staff strives to "make kids smile, every day"

The Breakfast Club: Lincoln Elementary staff strives to "make kids smile, every day"

By Tyler Dahlgren

Every student at Lincoln Elementary in Hastings deserves high expectations, and the school’s staff is passionately adamant about providing them.

No matter the odds. Principal Cara Kimball and her pack of tight-knit teachers don’t pay any attention to those anyways. With a staggering 93 percent of their student body below the poverty rate, Lincoln’s staff can’t afford to.

“We are all in,” Kimball said. “We are all working together. These are our kids and we are going to do whatever it takes.”

There’s roughly 330 students that attend the school, kindergarten through 5th grade. The vast majority of them qualify for free or reduced lunch. The student population is highly Hispanic, and there’s lots of mobility.

Lots of barriers, too, but excuses are a thing of the past.

“I think there were times where those factors were used as an excuse for why our kids didn’t quite do so well,” said Instructional Facilitator and 19-year teacher member Becki Kulwicki, noting a staff-wide shift in philosophy towards more purposeful classroom work. “No matter what, whether these kids come from rough homes or not, we still have high expectations for each and every one of them.”

Circumstances matter. They always will. The harsh reality for Kimball, Kulwicki and Lincoln teachers is that their students often come to them with little expectations.

“We have kids that haven’t been to preschool, or learned letters or how to tie their shoes,” Kulwicki, who taught kindergarten for seven years, said. “You would have some kids come prepared, and then you’d have kids that had never held a pencil in their hand, and don’t know the difference between a number and a letter.”

Making goals is an important outlier for success. That part hasn’t been all that difficult. If you have kids that want to do well, Kulwicki explains, then you’ll have kids that do well.

The power of realizing one’s own potential should never be underestimated, and that’s what they’re working towards at Lincoln Elementary.

“It’s amazing that sometimes the kids that come from even the most troubling and unstable homes come with amazing attitudes and the desire to learn,” said Kristie Wellensiek, who shares the same title as Kulwicki and has been at Lincoln for 17 years.

Their teachers have high hopes for them, alright, and it’s not long before Lincoln’s students start to believe in themselves, too.

It’s become a culture that drives itself.

No matter the odds.

Staff shows up to Lincoln early, and so do the students.

Gathered in the gymnasium, they wait for their respective teachers to pick up their class. Then, it’s off to the breakfast line, where hot and cold options are provided to every student at the school. There is always fruit, and there is always milk.

“We’re trying to engrain some healthy eating habits and make sure their brains and bodies are ready for the day, regardless of what they’re getting at home,” Kimball said. “We get what we get, and we figure out where we need to go from there.”

The universal free breakfast program started the year before Kimball arrived from Omaha under former Lincoln principal Montessa Muñoz, who installed something similar at her previous school in Arizona.

In classrooms throughout the school, teachers and students eat breakfast together and then dive into lesson plans. Jeff Schneider is the district’s Director of Business and Finance, and he wishes you could see it.

“That program is an absolute credit to the Lincoln staff,” Schneider said. “Once they piloted it, and after a year of training, the staff said ‘Do not take this away from us!’ They show up early, and they stay late. It doesn’t work unless the entire staff is on board.”

Wellensiek, who taught third-grade for 15 years before moving into the facilitator role, comes back to something Muñoz used to say.

“We can’t control what happens outside of school. We have to work with what we have when we have them here. We have to make the most of that time we have with them.”

Prior to the breakfast program, students would routinely show up to Lincoln tired and hungry, in no state to learn. It’d have been easy to surrender under the circumstances, but doing the exact opposite was the only option.

“We know our kids need us,” Kulwicki said. "I need to be there for the kids every single day. If you want to go to work, and you know that you are needed and wanted, that makes all the difference."

Nothing else matters.

“It is a privilege to serve the kids we have because we know they have needs,” said Hastings Public Schools Superintendent Craig Kautz. “Without those needs being addressed, they can’t perform.”

Kautz was in Hastings when the schools were not as diverse and the poverty not as severe. He will tell you that meeting the challenges presented by those factors has only made the schools in Hastings, and the community as a whole, better.

“People understand that kids need to have their basic needs met,” Kautz said. “At one time, we could have said ‘That’s somebody else’s problem’, but the culture here now says ‘That’s our problem. Now what are we going to do about it?’”

Hastings Public Schools in a principle-based organization, Kautz feels. Results are used to show teachers the difference they make in the lives of their students are very, very real. Teachers, in turn, become motivated by that.

So a simple breakfast in a classroom day after day becomes something so much more than what it appears on the surface.

“We worry when we are not in school,” Kimball said. “Summer is difficult. Long breaks are difficult.”

The holidays are difficult. For some, the most wonderful time of the year isn’t very wonderful at all. The tree isn’t lined with presents, and the two-week break is filled more with uncertainty than leisure.

“It’s difficult because kids are uneasy right now,” Kimball explained. “They know they are going to be home, and they might not have breakfast, and they might not have lunch. I don’t know if they’ll have dinner. I really hope they do.”

To generate cheer, and to combat that uneasiness, Lincoln’s staff tries to shower their students with positives.

“We try to point out all of the things they are doing right,” Kimball said. “That is something we work on school-wide. In the commons, we have paws with every student’s name on it, and they earn stickers to put on their paw.”

It might be something as small as a sticker that makes an impact in a student’s life, and, especially at this time of the year, Kimball says the importance of a positive impact cannot be overstated.

“We want to give them a reason to smile every day.”

As a young teacher, Wellensiek remembers Lincoln being a closed door type of place, devoid of collaboration and teamwork.

"When our district started going through the Professional Learning Communities (PLC) process, that changed everything," she said. "We began working more collaboratively, not only district-wide, but building-wide."

Now Lincoln is like one big family. No, seriously. Every adult in the building is responsible for a "family" of 8-10 students, from kindergarten to fifth-grade.

"There's at least one student from every grade level in those families, so it's always fun and interesting to see how they interact," Wellensiek said. "You will hear them passing each other in the hallways and saying 'Hey, he's in my family!'"

It's neat to watch positive relationships build over the years, Kulwicki said. Students keep their families throughout their time at Lincoln, welcoming a new kindergartner each year while having to say goodbye to outgoing fifth-graders.

"When the fifth-grader leaves, it's almost like a sibling leaving," Kulwicki said. "The families are always excited to welcome the kindergartners, and to help them to breakfast and their rooms on that first day."

Each year, two graduating Hastings High School seniors that attended Lincoln come back and speak with their old elementary school about the importance of becoming involved in school and associating themselves with a good group of friends. This provides hope, Wellensiek said, and a vision for the future, to high school and beyond.

Last year, eight Lincoln Elementary alumni were on the Deans List at Hastings College. Four of them had perfect 4.0 grade point averages. At the end of every school year, when the newspaper publishes all graduating Hastings High seniors, the Lincoln staff excitedly searches the pages for the faces of former students, who get congratulation cards in the mail.

When she goes to athletic events, the first thing Wellensiek does is scan the program for familiar names. It's a source of pride.

"Because they are always ours," Kimball chimes in. "They never stop being ours."

The culture in Hastings is caring and student-oriented, but it doesn't drive itself after all.

Everyone involved has a hand on the wheel.