Cultivating Culture: Clarkson aims to "Be the Story"

Cultivating Culture: Clarkson aims to "Be the Story"

By Tyler Dahlgren

Setting the Scene

Lee Schneider’s made-for-television movie begins here, at sunset deep in the dunes of the Nebraska Sandhills.

The second-year principal’s arms are fully extended to reach his motorcycle’s gorilla ape handlebars.

His do-rag flutters in the wind as he drifts down a steep hill, picking up more and more speed with each line of “I Need a Hero” Bonnie Tyler belts out in the background.

Are you laughing yet?

It’s okay, so was Schneider’s Clarkson staff, gathered for their first official meeting of the 2017-18 school year.

“At you, not with you,” school counselor Jennifer Kappel quipped with a smile.

Chuckling is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. This is an icebreaker, after all, and not before long teachers willingly began carving out plots to their own made-for-TV flick.

Share the story. Be the story.

Schneider pitched the new motto at that first meeting, and the Clarkson staff has embraced it since. Every good movie has a signature song, he said. Every baseball player has a “walk-up” song that puts them in the mood to rope a base hit. Schneider has all of Clarkson’s teachers’ songs in a spreadsheet.

“I’m ready to do work. It makes me smile, makes me happy,” Schneider said of his self-selected Bonnie Tyler ballad. “Everybody does better work when they’re happy. It gives you a chance to reflect on your story. Where did you come from? How did you get here? What does your future look like?”

Schneider has been at Clarkson for seven years now. The school is the cornerstone of the community along Highway 91. He left NCSA’s Administrators’ Days in July wanting more transparency.

Be the story.

“Our ultimate goal is communicating to the community,” Schneider said. “It’s a small community, and many people prefer to get their news in the newspaper on their doorstep. We have really made a big push with social media. We want to make sure people know what is going on in our school.”

Schneider knows his students do great things. He sees it every day. No reason to be shy about it, he tells them. Be proud and broadcast your accomplishments.

“You see all the teachers talk about their story, and students in turn share theirs,” said Sara McEvoy, a junior with an exciting story of her own, which we'll get to in a second. “It creates a better bond between us.”

Family Atmosphere

Kappel has a dozen years of experience at Clarkson, where the students have always been “amazing.” What has strengthened through the years are the relationships between staff and students.

“We are very much a family,” Kappel said. Our staff has an attitude of ‘I get to go to work rather than I have to go to work’. I really feel that is due to the relationships we have with our peers and our students.”

One thing Schneider respects about Clarkson superintendent Rich Lemburg, who also serves as the K-6 principal, is the way he cultivated a sense of family. If you need anything, Schneider said, just go in and ask.

Tami Sayers is in her second year of teaching middle school English at Clarkson and has seven years of experience altogether. She is a graduate of Clarkson, and, during her interview process, felt at home once again. She'd found what she was looking for.

“There was just a very positive feel,” Sayers said, noting that Lemburg started to instill that culture during her senior year of high school. “The staff knows one another outside of school. We care about one another and there is empathy there.”

Proof sits on the edge of Schneider’s desk in the form of a massive fantasy football trophy, awarded to the winner of a staff-wide league. Clarkson teachers take pride in meeting and developing friendships outside of class.

“People care about what is going on. Albeit if there is a death in the family or a new birth, people know,” Schneider said. “That is a perk of being in this size of school. We care about what is going on with one another and our students. We live it. We mean it.”

Inevitably, it spills over to the students. During passing periods, the hallways are filled with hooting and hollering, high fives and plenty of laughs and smiles.

Some of those high fives are shared between seniors and sixth-graders. Some between juniors and fourth-graders. That’s what’s so cool about facilitating a supportive culture in a small school. With everyone in one building, the support knows no bounds.

Students Taking Charge

McEvoy was heading into her sophomore year when the idea of a student mentorship program first popped into her head.

She bounced ideas off her father and eventually approached Kappel with the basic description, and together the two came up with a model for what would come to be known as Patriot Pals.

A minimum of two times a month, high school students will meet with an elementary kid to have lunch and provide guidance. Sometimes, they’ll sit in on their Patriot Enrichment Program (PEP) session, a 30-minute window that Kappel and staff transformed into a block for teachers (and community members) to pass on life skills that lie beyond curriculum such as woodworking, babysitting (with high-tech simulator dolls borrowed from ESU 7), cake decorating and anemology. PEP is a story of its own, a chance for teachers and even administrators to travel beyond typical coursework and into their hobbies. Lemburg, for example, ran a session on chess.

“Whatever the kid likes, we do that with them,” said Kappel. “It kind of builds a bond so the kid can have an older friend to look up to.”

McEvoy said the staff and her fellow students were receptive to the Patriot Pals idea from the start. Though class sizes are small (there are 13 students in McEvoy’s 2019 graduating class), the program has seen tremendous participation. Last year, 17 Patriots volunteered.

“We pass the elementary kids in the hallways all the time, and it’s nice having high schoolers and elementary students saying hi to one another,” McEvoy said. “In turn, they come and support us at our activities, and we support them in theirs. It’s a cool deal we have going on.”

This year, with the direction of Schneider and business teacher/Clarkson-Leigh girls basketball coach and football assistant coach Matt Murren, Clarkson students formed the “American Outlaws”, the school’s devoted student section at athletic contests.

“That made the student body closer,” McEvoy said. “It’s fun being at volleyball games and having them behind you the whole game cheering you on.”

Murren has played a significant role in Clarkson’s push to “Be the Story”. Now in his sixth-year, he oversaw the production of a Clarkson Public School promo video last school year and helps students put on the “Crazy Clarkson Public Schools Newscast”.

“We started making newscasts to promote what we have going on at school,” Murren said. “Different segments with different interviews just to let the community see what we are doing. We wanted to share our story.”

Murren also helps with the special education program, coordinating the production of some pretty cool music videos that turn high-needs students into on-screen stars.


“Our Special Ed program is fantastic,” Lemburg said. “Matt does a great job with them.”

The newscasts are a way for students to voice their opinions, Murren said. Every kid gets a say. As he’s found out, Clarkson students are ready and eager to show and tell what is going on inside the school.

“It kind of blows up that argument that small schools can’t offer this or that,” Schneider said. “That’s just not true anymore. Through all of these different mediums, we are able to reach out and provide just as many experiences as bigger schools.”

Up to the Challenge, Every Day

Things aren’t always easy in a small school.

I visit many, and am usually amazed by the time I leave. Amazed with the character of the kids and by the humbleness of the staff.

Instilling culture, embracing challenges and staying positive takes a collaborative effort. Schneider, the principal, even teaches a couple of classes.

Clarkson doesn’t seem to shy away from obstacles. If it benefits their kids, the staff would rather plow right through them.

Aside from a handful of other duties, Murren will sometimes drive the school bus. Instead of an additional chore to shoulder, he sees it as an opportunity.

“Every kid comes from a different situation,” he said. “Relationships is a big word and in a smaller school you build them with each and every kid.”

After the visit, I walked back through the front doors and into the parking lot, excited to get to work on a new story.

The sun was shining down brightly on Clarkson Public School, as Schneider greeted a pack of students that had pulled up in a Patriots van at the same time.

One by one, they piled out, all smiling, laughing and ready for school.

“Some kids’ days may not start out the greatest, but as their teacher, you can be the influence that brightens their day,” Murren said.

Just a couple of hours at Clarkson had brightened mine.