D.C. Everest Area School District Superintendent Kristine Gilmore’s “Our Equitable Push for Backpacks and Mental Health” article was recently published in the AASA School Administrator “Our Best of 2019-20” magazine. The article was first published in June of 2019.
IMAGINE STANDING IN the shopping mall, in a slow-moving checkout line, watching as friends and neighbors pass by freely. All you want is to grab a backpack full of school supplies and move on. But minutes, then hours, pass.
Your child tries to hide as one of her friends walks by. You shuffle your feet, acting as if you didn’t notice, and brush her hair back. You smile shyly as your neighbor stops to chat. You’re almost to the front of the line, so you check your bag, yet again, to ensure the documents establishing your family’s financial need are still there. It would be terrible to have waited all this time, in public, only to be turned away.
We decided there had to be a better way to help low-income families.
In the D.C. Everest schools, our administrative team, known as Team DCE, went to work on a solution. We revamped our Fill-A-Backpack-Fill-A-Need program. Team DCE volunteered last summer to fill 750 backpacks with free school supplies and then set them out at our end-of-summer open houses at each school where anyone with a need could simply grab a backpack and go. No documentation necessary and no long lines.
When someone in our schools needs help, they shouldn’t have to prove it, and they shouldn’t have to climb over barriers to get that assistance. Need can strike any family at any time, and financial strain can be temporary or long-lived. Someone loses a job or suffers a debilitating injury; undergoes an expensive medical procedure or loses a spouse; or is forced to relocate because of a fire.
No matter the reason, at D.C. Everest we believe no family should have to bear the burden of proving it is in financial distress to get financial assistance to obtain school supplies, participate in an extracurricular activity, compete in a sport or access learning materials or mental health services.
Team DCE has made a concerted effort to launch several equity initiatives — removing as many obstacles as possible for our students and families — so that all of our students, no matter their socioeconomic status or personal situation, have equitable access to the opportunities we offer.
This year, we lowered the costs for all families with more limited and more cost-effective lists of required school supplies. We eliminated participation fees for clubs and sports at our junior high and middle school. To help families in the summer, we provide free breakfast and lunch for any student in our district who stops by one of our cafeterias.
In addition, a free summer program gives every student in kindergarten through 12th grade opportunities to explore new interests, advance their skills and pursue their passions. Throughout the summer, we provide students with easy access to reading and math materials via our Rolling Readers program. The van tours the district and students stop by to choose books, borrow math games and pick up a backpack full of food.
We’ve also established student pantries in our schools that allow students to freely — and anonymously — visit the pantry for food, toiletries, shoes and clothing.
To ensure all 6,000 students have access to technology and personalized instructional and learning tools, we provide iPads to every D.C. Everest student. The iPads provide students with 24/7/365 access to myriad tools that best suit their learning styles. Better yet, students can demonstrate digitally what they’ve learned in a manner that is most comfortable for them.
Finally, Team DCE joined the United Way Partnership for Youth to launch an initiative that ensures all students, not just at-risk students, can access mental health services at their school and that students have continuity of care as they advance through our school system. By giving students and families access to regional specialists trained in adolescent mental health, we hope to remove barriers (such as absences from school or work) that could prevent students from receiving the help they need.
We have a long way to go to remove barriers, but we are making a difference one day at a time.
KRISTINE GILMORE is superintendent of D.C. Everest Area School District in Schofield, Wis. Twitter: @suptgilmore