As summer vacation ends, many Cedar Trails Elementary students will be headed to school not just with new backpacks, but with classmates and teachers with whom they’ve already formed friendships.
Kent School Services Network and Resurrection Life Church hosted a back-to-school kickoff picnic at Cedar Springs Mobile Estates on Aug. 25 to help break the ice for new and returning students and their families with dancing, painting and hot dogs.
“Since nobody’s in school during the summer but we’re working, we decided to go into the community to continue our work,” said Jodi West, KSSN community school coordinator.
KSSN helps families prepare their children for preschool by making home visits to assess students’ needs. Coordinators West and Jennifer Willette have also spent summers reading to children at Cedar Springs Mobile Estates, a location West said was ideal for a back-to-school kickoff.
“It’s dense housing,” she said. “Cedar Springs is so sprawled out and so rural that we don’t have a city hub that can serve people, so knowing that (Mobile Estates) houses about 190 of our students K through 12, plus little ones that we don’t know about yet, we just thought this would be a pocket to serve.”
Bringing school staff into the community creates a bridge that is often difficult for families to cross, West explained, especially for low-income communities who don’t always have access to educational resources.
“We know this population is underserved,” West said. “Thinking about the summer slide academically, but then the social and emotional piece as well, people need that check-in.”
Red-headed 4-year-old Ayden Smith starts preschool this year, and as he ran around the lawn during the picnic in pursuit of a football, his mother, Aleisha Smith, said she knows firsthand the importance of having an educational support system.
As a junior, Smith dropped out of high school. When she became pregnant with Ayden months later, she turned to teen parent educator Shelley Bauer, who worked with her to finish high school during her pregnancy, raise her son as a high school graduate, and go to college.
Now, as Ayden gets ready for his first day, Aleisha is approaching her last in Grand Rapids Community College’s Corrections program.
“It was very hard for me to go to school,” Aleisha Smith said. “They need more influential people like Shelley, people to keep it going. This is the first time I’ve seen teachers out here the way they are.”
“These are familiar faces that they’re going to see in the future.”
Bauer said she hopes bringing educators into the community can help build bonds.
“They can see us in a different environment than school,” she said. “We can be friends inside school, outside school and we can carry on relationships well beyond school.”