Where Seeds are Sown: Committee reaches out, connects with Chadron community

Where Seeds are Sown: Committee reaches out, connects with Chadron community

By Tyler Dahlgren

The Committee 

Chadron Public Schools have long leaned on strategic planning, a necessity for similar western Nebraska towns where stakeholder input carries substantial and influential value.

Vice President of Chadron’s Board of Education, Sandy Roes speaks candidly about the importance of engagement.

“We live and die by collaboration,” Roes said. “We don’t have the resources to duplicate, so for us to survive out here, we have to be partners.”

Forthright, and resourceful, she points out.

“Yes, we have limited resources, but we certainly know how to use the resources that we have.”

Partnerships with community organizations and Chadron State College are, in a way, the lifeline of Chadron Public Schools.

Under the direction of 2016-17 NASA Superintendent of the Year Dr. Caroline Winchester, the district has shifted its approach to community engagement, becoming proactive and even developing a Community Outreach Committee tasked with instigating conversations with the 70-percent of the Chadron community not directly connected to the school system.

The committee included board members like Roes and also community members. In the works since last spring, they now have a trifold pamphlet and business cards to hand out. One of the board members came up with a slogan, and it stuck.

“It’s more than you can see from the street.”

“We now have a response for when people come up to us in Walmart and bring up something negative they heard or saw on the news,” Winchester said. “Our response now is ‘Well, that’s not the Chadron Way.”

The proof lies within Chadron’s transparency.

Folks might attend a few ball games or drive by one of Chadron’s buildings and assume public school is the same as it was when they were growing up, Winchester said. One key push the new Outreach Committee has made is in promotion. Things have changed, for the better.

“We have gone to different little coffee groups and have had the opportunity to be affirmed that we are headed down the right road or to receive input as far as where our community feels we could go,” Roes said. “Those conversations are very important. They plant the seed so that we can do the implementation.”

Implementation is perhaps the most important step in the process. It’s certainly the most time-consuming. If the seeds are sewn through conversations with stakeholders, then they are dug in the ground during implementation.

When do those seeds sprout? The Community Outreach Committee is providing the answer to that question.

“If you don’t follow up with your stakeholders, there isn’t an understanding of what was completed,” Roes said. “Showing them what was done can validate their input and give them a feeling of ‘I was a part of the solution’. It takes a lot of guts sometimes to come forward and voice a concern about how things are going and what needs to be done to improve it.”

The Partnerships

Chadron’s programs wouldn’t be able to function without the partners the district has made in the community. With funding hard to come by, that’s more reality than opinion.

“We are in continuation grants at all three of our after-school sites, which means we are partially funded,” After-School Director Lorna Eliason, who works with Nebraska 21st Century Community Learning Center Grants, said.

The school’s finest resource, conveniently enough, sits right down the street. Chadron State College, with an enrollment of about 3,000 students, and Chadron Public Schools have a strong bond, each benefitting from the other.

“What haven’t they provided us over the years?” Eliason said. “If we didn’t have those Chadron State students, I don’t know who I would hire.”

Eliason said that about 30 CSC students worked at the three different after-school CPS sites. There were at least that many volunteers, too. CSC offers internships through CPS, awarding a credit for a certain amount of time worked.

“They bring a lot of energy, and our students love having those young college students in our buildings working with them,” Eliason said with a laugh. “They kind of like me too, but they don’t like me as much as they like them.”

Chadron State provides programming and services. Students often visit the campus to check out the geology museum and the Physical Activity Center to take part in Jump Rope for Heart. The CSC Rodeo Club recently hosted a group of CPS students to study agriculture.

Volunteers come from the college’s math department, where one professor even requires her students to volunteer.

“The college students are really good about asking their clubs and organizations to do something with us,” Eliason said, before mentioning a couple of additional partners. “UNL Extension has been a partner from the very beginning. They do incredible programming for us. “Keep Chadron Beautful”, they have always been on board doing recycle, reduce, and re-use type of education with our kids.”

The partnerships are mutually beneficial, too. One student, when the afterschool programs started 17 years ago, spoke with Eliason about how valuable of an experience working with Chadron public school students was. The program better prepares college students for the professional world, and there have been plenty that join the CPS teaching staff after receiving a diploma from CSC.

“It’s always a two-way street,” Eliason said. “All these organizations have youth programming that they need to do. Guess what? We’ve got the kids, ready and waiting. They do a really good job with the education piece. It’s a win-win.”

The Results

Winchester gives two specific examples of tangible proof that the push for community connection and partnerships ultimately benefits the students of Chadron.

FFA- “One of our partnerships is Dawes County Joint Planning, which brings together all of the government entities and anybody, really, to have conversations. Sandy (Roes) was instrumental in getting this started. They have several goals that they want to set for the Chadron community. One, of course, was about agriculture, so conversations started there about ‘Well, why don’t we have FFA?’ and ‘Can we bring FFA back?’. We had lost $1.6 million, so we didn’t have extra money to just hire an ag teacher. It took us awhile, but we were able to bring FFA back after being gone for 50 years through not only conversations with the community, but one of the ag professors at the college at the time, Chuck Butterfield, worked with us and even rearranged the college schedule so that our kids could take college classes. Our big hang-up was needing to have a certified ag teacher on-site. Two of our teachers, one with an animal science background and one with an industrial tech background, volunteered to see if they could get provisional endorsement, which they did.”

Fine Arts- “We had parents that wanted additional fine arts. We lost $1.6 million. We had people that chose to retire. We really squeezed our fine arts program down to bare bones. They wanted more choral music, more art, and so once again having those conversations with stakeholders, sowing those seeds, we couldn’t get it done right away, but an opportunity eventually came up. Our middle school principal was switching to block scheduling, and at the same time he had someone retire in an area that was heavy in staff especially compared to fine arts, so we did some rearranging and we were able to bring back a half-time choral teacher and a half-time para at no additional cost to the district. All students can now take music at the middle school.

“Those conversations are so valuable because lots of times, we don’t have the money to throw at solving a problem, but we sow those seeds in our mind and opportunities come down the road.”

Chadron may be in a sparsely populated part of the state, but the schools are no longer operating on an island. They simply cannot afford to.

“We are not a silo,” Roes said. “We see ourselves being a part of community wellness. We see ourselves as a part of economic value and the entire community. We are just one cog in the big picture and we take great pride in that.”

Eliason’s pride in Chadron’s schools is personal. She had two sons graduate from CPS, one in 2010 and the other in 2014, and she’s been a part of the after-school program since its inception 17 years ago.

“I have been working with youth for a long time, and I am just so excited to be able to provide students with the opportunities that my kids had,” she said.

After all, this all comes back to the students. In Chadron, it always has.

“When we are talking about the strategic planning process, we are focusing on the kids,” Roes said. “We are not individuals, we are a team, and the kids are a part of the team.”