A dozen kindergartners sat in a circle on the floor. Clutching whiteboards and markers, they waited for their next word.
“Hop,” kindergarten teacher Diana Tabares said once before repeating it slowly, stressing each individual sound with a tap of her fingers. “H… O… P.”
“Why are we tapping out sounds?” Tabares asked the group of students.
“Because we need to learn our letter sounds,” kindergartner Randy Ramjag eagerly answered.
“And learn how to read better and write better.”
“And what else?” Tabares probed.
“And spell better,” another student shouted.
When the last school bell of the day rang at Lincoln Elementary on Wednesday, over 100 students stuck around — to tap out words, make gifts for Mothers Day, finish homework and exercise their math facts.
The students in Lincoln’s after-school program spend about 45 minutes working on homework before heading to an hour of small-class time with teachers, and a final hour of activities with the Boys and Girls Club.
Larry Grimmer, who has worked at Lincoln for nearly 10 years, oversees the extended school day.
Walking from one room to the next — eight classes in all — Grimmer chats with teachers and aides and greets students by name.
As Lincoln’s community school coordinator, Grimmer also manages the school’s parent engagement efforts and team approach to identify students at risk of falling behind or struggling to catch up.
Standing outside his airy, tall-ceilinged office, where he marshals the financial resources of grants and district resources to create a true community school, young students literally hang from Grimmer’s leg.
“A critical piece of a community school is to serve, to make time to learn,” Grimmer said. “We have a safe place for kids to be from 2:15 to 5 p.m. We are providing what otherwise would cost a lot of money. We want it to be an extension of the school day.”
In classrooms upstairs, older students stretched and danced as they counted by 5s and 10s — up to 100 and then back down to zero. In another class, students spread out reading on couches and rocking chairs; at a table, a group read out parts from a Founding Fathers-themed script.
“The play is about George Washington, and he’s being the president,” third grader Veverlyn Marrero said. “He’s being the president, and he’s going from state to state.”
“They were getting ready for his… remember his – what’s that big word?” second grade teacher Gretchen Zebrowski asked.
“Inauguration,” the students around the table all said in unison – Veverlyn loudest of all.
“That was special because it was the first time we had a president and not a…?” Zeborwski continued.
“A king or queen,” third grader Dovien Delarosa said.
The school — the only one in the district that will continue next year to fall under the state receivership law for “struggling” schools — had 50 percent staff turnover this year as many teachers fled under the threat of the state law that gives a superintendent expanded power over personnel and program decisions.
But those who stayed, with a “belief and passion for Lincoln,” doubled down on the community school model that defines the Robinson Street elementary school. Under the leadership of new principal Laura Buzas, Lincoln has focused on engaging parents, increasing relationships with outside agencies and always keeping the students at the fore.
Every day a behavioral team — school psychologist, social worker, behavior specialist and others — meets and goes through a list of struggling students. A pair of family engagement coordinators welcome parents to school, point them to outside resources and keeps in constant communication with families.
(The school is finishing its first year of a grant that helps fund the community model. The first three years come with $500,000 in funding and years four and five come with $250,000.)
“It’s about the full child — all of a child’s needs in and out of school; the child is a part of family and community,” Buzas said. “The goal of a community school is to make the community a thriving place to be. We want to make transience a thing of the past, because families want to stay long term. Once at Lincoln you want to stay at Lincoln.”
Arrows painted on the walls at Lincoln lead to a room downstairs and around a corner. There, Damonni Farley, family empowerment coordinator, welcomes parents and family members to their own room. They come to use computers, grab a cup of coffee or just chat with Farley about their students and their lives.
“A community school isn’t just a change in how you operate; it’s really a change in mindset,” Farley said. “The mindset has to be relationship driven.”
And Farley operates in the currency of relationships. He visits families at home, calls on mom or dad to check how things are going when a student is late or absent or forgets to do their homework. He recently visited a parent in jail to provide an update on their kid’s academic progress.
“Just because a parent is incarcerated, they don’t stop being a parent. We don’t want them to feel like they have a lot of catching up to do. We want moms to really be on the same page when she comes home.”
Shakira Walton, a mother of two Lincoln students, was visiting the parent room last month after school as her son, kindergartner Jakari Duran played a game on the computer and chatted with Farley.
“A lot of these boys, just have their mom, they need someone who looks like them and cares for them,” Walton said. But it’s not always about the kids. Walton said she sometimes has a hard time explaining herself but that Farley “understands where I’m coming from.”
The parent room has a broad mandate. Anna Durham, a grandma to a Lincoln student, used the parent room to write her first novel, “Shades: Thug Life.” Dedicated to her 16-year-old grandson, the novel is about a young killed during a robbery, telling his story from the grave.
“I wrote it right there on those computers,” she said, nodding to a bank of computers available to student families. “I sure did.”
With a major redistricting looming, however, parents and teachers at Lincoln are concerned that the community they have built at the school may come tumbling down. Because of its high concentration of poverty and proximity to Keane Elementary School, Lincoln was one the schools most impacted by changes; it will see more turnover in students from the redistricting changes than nearly any school in the district.
And in the school that state law defines as Schenectady’s most struggling, parents are asking why they have to move to a new school, leaving their family room, parent coordinators and teachers — their community.
“I understand every reason why [the redistricting] is the way it is — I understand 100 percent,” said Jess Kanciruk, Lincoln PTO president. “Do I like it? No, because I want my child in the school down the street, where my whole family has gone.”
But Superintendent Larry Spring and other district leaders say all of its schools are headed down the Lincoln road of a community model. Spring noted that the entire district — not just Lincoln — is changing with redistricting. He did concede that not every school was as far as long as Lincoln in providing the extra supports but said everyone’s new schools will be receptive to those ideas.
“All of our schools are aiming to this notion of a community school; it might not be exactly as parents find it at Lincoln but those things they like from Lincoln, we are striving for at every school,” Spring said.
For teachers, connecting more with parents helps bring everyone working for the kids together.
“It’s a community working together; it’s not just us,” fifth grade teacher Lauren Devery said. “It shows that it’s not just us in the classroom — it’s everyone.”
Some teachers said showing students that parents are welcome in school helps bridge the divide between home and school life.
“It’s letting the student see that what happens in school carries over to home and what happens at homes carriers over to school,” fifth grader teachers Shannon Ausfeld said.
And when it came to receivership and the massive staff turnover that brought in a whole new batch of teachers, remaining teachers had a simple answer: we stayed and that’s what matters now.
“Of course I was scared, but these are my kids,” Ausfeld said. “I’m not leaving them.”
All through the day — from the first bell at 8:15 a.m. to when the last after-school student leaves at around 5:15 p.m. — the message of community is often repeated. By 4 p.m., Lincoln school staff has largely ceded the kids over to the Boys and Girls Club which, with about a dozen staff and 10 reading volunteers, finish the day with snack and activities and a clear message of good behaviors and manners.
“We try to reinforce a sense of community — helping one another rather than fighting one another,” Boys and Girls Club site director Gia Sciocchetti said.
On Wednesday, the students painted pictures and made flowers out of colored tissue paper — gifts for mom.
“We’re supposed to give our mothers something on Mothers Day,” first grader Victoria Ketchmore said.
“It’s an important day for mothers,” second grader Mikala Moore agreed.
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.