Jennings, Mo., is a place where special things happen.
A young boy was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug and, at just 10 years old, became a small business owner and best-selling author.
A young girl who was injured in a car accident was empowered to create and implement a seat belt safety awareness program, saving lives and spreading the word in her community.
A mother received her high school diploma and started a nonprofit community garden – partnering with local police officers – as a way to bring her neighborhood back together after her son Michael Brown’s tragic death six years earlier.
All of these stories have one thing in common: none of them would have been possible without the dedication of the teachers and administrators in the Jennings School District.
Welcome to Jennings
Located just north of St. Louis, Jennings is one of the poorest school districts in the nation. 100 percent of the students qualify for free meals, and 73 percent of the district’s families qualify for food stamps. Some of the students are homeless, some are without parents and many have experienced violence at some point in their young lives.
Dr. Art McCoy, the district’s superintendent since 2016, has spent the past few years not only improving conditions for those living in his district, but making sure the improvements are sustainable. The district has two health clinics – every child in the district gets free health care. Two shelters provide homeless students with a warm bed and a roof over their heads. Families in need are given food every day, courtesy of two food markets the district operates, with food provided by local grocers and the St. Louis Area Foodbank.
“I’m really proud of our district for being the only one in Missouri that has the level of wraparound services that we do,” McCoy says, pointing out the district’s offerings in and out of the classroom. “That, in a nutshell, is really what makes us unique.”
Along with these immediate and urgent community needs being met, Dr. McCoy and the teachers in his district have a much longer-term aim in mind.
“We’re looking at the difference between community service and charity,” says Carmen Stayton, a special education teacher for Jennings. “Charity is, ‘Oh, we feel bad for you and here’s something to help fix it right now,’ while community service is actually changing the direction our community is headed. As important as the immediate things are, they’re just a Band-Aid fix. At some point, the wound is going to continue to bleed and the Band-Aid won’t be enough. We need systemic change in parallel.”
Easing the burden
To help teachers in Jennings and across the country take on this challenge, Walgreens worked with ME to WE in 2019 to create WE Teachers: a no-cost program for educators across America that equips teachers with the tools they need to address critical social issues in their classrooms – identifying the source of the problems, rather than simply treating the symptoms.
“One of the priorities of both Walgreens and the WE organization is to create sustainable change and sustainable impact,” says Dana Glim, director of brand marketing for Walgreens, who helped to develop the program. “So when we were looking at the WE Teachers program, it was really important to us to find out what we could do that would be beneficial for the teachers and for the students, and can be used for years to come.”
Walgreens worked with WE to build a curriculum that would help teachers talk to their students about social issues, such as gun violence and bullying. The program includes modules addressing emotional well-being and showing teachers how to create positive learning environments for trauma-affected students so they can better understand the social issues affecting children in and out of the classroom.
When the program launched, Jennings, which had been a WE Schools district for the past few years, was one of the first districts chosen to pilot WE Teachers.
“I was instantly sold on the fact that WE is a very unique organization that is centered on change and empowerment,” says Dr. McCoy. “It’s a much larger vision than I’ve seen with most other programs.”
In addition to the curriculum, WE Teachers provides support to educators through the WE Teachers Award, celebrating teachers who have an impact on their communities. The award includes a $500 Walgreens gift card to help them get classroom supplies, provide snacks and treats for students, or obtain additional teaching resources.
“We wanted to rally behind teachers as members of our local communities that often go above and beyond for their students, and that can sometimes mean paying money out of their own pockets to facilitate a resource in their classroom,” says Glim. “The program is intended to take the burdens off teachers and their pocketbooks and allow them to use the money in whatever way they need to support their classroom.”
Stayton was one of the recipients this past December.
“Most students in our district walk to school, so in the winter, attendance can be challenging,” she says. “I used my award to incentivize attendance. I bought notebooks and pencils and little treats my kids would like – things I would normally have paid for myself.”
But Stayton didn’t stop there. She used part of her WE Teachers Award to host workshops, helping to educate some of her fellow teachers and using the toolkits provided by WE Teachers to help them begin to understand the role that system dynamics and social issues play in their students’ lives.
“She took the material and hosted Saturday workshops where 30 to 40 teachers would come and learn how to use the WE Teachers curriculum to evaluate the students’ need for a systemic solution as opposed to one-off solutions that help just one kid,” Dr. McCoy says, of Stayton.
The speed of the need
Just about every school district in America is facing unprecedented challenges right now because of COVID-19, but in Jennings, the challenges were there long before the virus. But they also had the strategies to overcome them.
“We were well-prepared by being the first school district in the state with strategies to help respond to trauma by focusing on well-being,” explains Dr. McCoy. “So we already understood that well-being framework and we were already supporters and champions of that.”
Thanks to rapidly produced COVID-specific toolkits from WE Teachers, Jennings teachers had additional support. The district was also ahead of the curve in terms of providing technology to a community whose members were largely without internet access or computers – essential learning tools in the time of COVID-19.
“We were blessed to have had an initiative from 2016 that allowed us to have technology for grades three through 10 by 2017, and we had planned to have it for K through 12 by 2020,” Dr. McCoy explains. “With the help of Walgreens, some of the $25,000 that was given to our district as part of WE Teachers Awards was used by teachers to help purchase Chromebooks and get Wi-Fi hot spots for students.”
Dr. McCoy and his teachers continue to look beyond the short-term needs of the district.
“As a school system, we have to take this opportunity to do with education what had not been done before,” he says. “It has to be an individualistic approach. During COVID, we had to close the digital divide. Now we must take this opportunity to continue to try to meet the need at the speed of the need for every kid. We must come through this better than we were before.”
Even a global pandemic couldn’t stand in the way of Dr. McCoy showing his teachers just how much they mean to him, his district and the community. Teacher Appreciation Week runs May 4 to 8, and Dr. McCoy wanted to share the love for all of the teachers in his district this year. So instead of providing individual awards to specific teachers, Dr. McCoy pooled together the WE Teachers Award money and divided it up between all of his teachers, giving each a gift to help support their teaching efforts during this difficult time. Held in a parking lot in order to comply with social distancing and to keep everyone safe, the teachers of Jennings School District gathered for a celebration as unique as the district itself.
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