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BKW awarded for its ‘community connections’

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BKW students, faculty and BOE members pose for a picture at the Innovation Awards event.
Top Row: Helen Lounsbury (BOE member), Mark Tidd (Teacher), Vasilios Lefkaditis (BOE President), Molly Tiffany (Teacher), Michelle Pahl (Teacher)
Bottom Row: Current 3rd grade students who participated in last year's 2nd grade Community Connections program.

On Thursday, Sept. 27, a group of young BKW elementary students stood proud as their school received a $5,000 check for its “Community Connections” program as part of the first Be the Change for Kids Innovation Awards at the University of Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE).

Designed to award districts that are sparking student interest in math, science and technology, BKW was also named an innovator for operating the program on a limited budget. BKW’s Community Connections program was implemented with less than $1,000 and was one of three winners among 38 entries.

“We called on districts to marshal their resources, collaborate and look for new ways to deliver educational services,” said Thomas Nespeca, the president of the New York State School Boards Association, the organization that co-developed the awards. “We asked them to show us innovative programs that can be replicated by other districts throughout the state at little cost to the taxpayer.”

While BKW’s Community Connections program does this, it stands apart in one vital way: it calls on members of the community to collaborate with the district, harness their expertise and create a truly interdisciplinary and interactive learning environment.

Throughout last year, the BKW second grade teachers welcomed community volunteers into their classrooms, often requiring the teacher to plan their visits ahead of time and sync the volunteer’s demonstrations with the current lesson plan. For example, visitors from the local Emma Treadwell Thacher Nature Center came to BKW to talk about birds and trees during the second grade’s life cycle unit, and another time to talk about fossils during their rock unit. Kathy Brown, a local hobbyist, came in to teach the kids how to make maple syrup in conjunction with a science lesson.

“It’s so encouraging to use the resources in your own community” said Second Grade Teacher Molly Tiffany, “It provides opportunities for the students to connect to the lessons in ways only your unique environment can supply.”

“Providing these extension pieces to our lessons enrich the curriculum in ways I never thought possible and really helps the material sink in” said Michelle Pahl, another BKW second grade teacher. “They also help us align our lessons to the common core standards.”

While the award from the CNSE and the New York State School Boards Association focused on curriculum geared toward math and science, the Community Connections program operates on an even wider scale, providing community volunteer connections in the arts and humanities as well. Last year, Mrs. Tiffany called on a former student, who travels to Tanzania to teach about music and conservation, to come back to BKW and help teach about geography and the arts. Ms. Pahl involved a close friend and fellow educator who recently moved to Alaska to pair up pen pals for their students and connect the classrooms via Skype, allowing Pahl’s class to learn about Alaska in more ways than a book could teach. Many local volunteers have also come through the classroom doors, showing students how to sew, act and create online storybooks.

The $5,000 from the Innovation Awards will be used to develop more programming opportunities like these throughout the entire elementary school and also increase field trips to more local places and continue the idea of immersive lessons. The BKW PTA has also been an integral part in supporting the initial funding of Community Connections and will continue to be involved.

Helen Lounsbury, a BKW Board of Education member, worked with the second grade teachers and administration to write the submission for this award.

"Over the years, BKW teachers have offered many innovative programs and received much recognition for doing so.” said Mrs. Lounsbury, “Recently, Mr. Tidd, Mrs. Tiffany and Miss Pahl brought further honor and recognition to our District by becoming the first New York elementary school awardees for the prestigious Be the Change award. It was my pleasure to submit this award on their behalf."

See right hand column for videos from the Innovation Awards press conference


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Videos from the Be the Change Innovation Awards:

NYSSBA’s video of BKW receiving the award

CNSE’s video of the students touring the college