Last weekend was a family wedding weekend for my family, with my sister’s youngest son getting married. I have officiated quite a few weddings, but it is different when there is a family connection. Weddings are one of those very special times, for the bride and groom, of course, but also for extended family and old friends who have the opportunity to reconnect. Much of the “older generation” of my family has passed on, so when I get to see my siblings and their children, my cousins, and my grandson, it really is a special thing. I have used the word twice already in different forms, but it really is about connection.

I have been blessed to know a multitude of passionate, dedicated educators the last thirty years, and without exception they have had a special connection to their work. The energy of youngsters, being able to see them grow and mature before one’s eyes, and knowing that one’s efforts enrich others’ lives all contribute to people who work in schools feeling connected to their work. Of course, there are challenges that can take people’s minds away from these important connections. That’s why, in my role, I value getting out into our schools and classrooms to reconnect with students and staff so much.

Connection is important for students, too. There is lots of research and people will tell you through their own experience that students who feel a connection to school are more engaged and are much more likely to be successful. I have read that the number one predictor of success after high school is involvement in extracurriculars. I know that research shows that students who are involved in music have higher average achievement scores. I believe strongly that giving students opportunities to work together, speak in front of groups, and learn about leadership serves them the rest of their lives.

I see positive examples of connections being built in our schools every day. I will offer up just a few in this blog, but I know that there are many more.

At Emerson Elementary there is an annual Culture Day that is a great celebration. Teachers organize the theme and activities, and students have an exciting day full of guest speakers and activities. Emerson happens to be the elementary school where the district’s English language learners attend, but Culture Day is a celebration for everyone. Last year Emerson studied American culture, and everyone realized how much there is to learn and appreciate about our own nation. Other years there are speakers, food, music, etc. from across the globe. What a great way this is to connect with each other and with various cultures!

At Laura Ingalls Wilder Elementary this year each day begins with a “Wilder Roundup,” which is a designated time first thing in the morning. During this time students and staff have twenty minutes to have conversations, build relationships, and learn and practice social skills. The school has committed to prioritizing climate and culture and is implementing a system called Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) to establish positive routines and reinforce desired behaviors. Special events throughout the year, such as the “Indy 500” (sponsored by Hy-Vee Kids’ Fit), a mid-year celebration where every student will receive an Indianola t-shirt, and the end-of-year Build a Bike activity all bring the entire school together and help students feel connected.

Irving Elementary has a strong identity because of its uniqueness as a year-round program, one of just a handful of schools in the state with this innovative calendar. Parents and students who choose this option and educators who work in this setting feel a strong connection and express it frequently as #Irvingstrong. When the ability to continue having year-round school was in doubt because of legislative calendar debate, hundreds of parents, students, and staff rallied and went to the State Capitol. Local legislators worked together to ensure that an exception for year-round schools was included in the legislation. Part of the schedule for Irving includes “intersession,” which is a fall and spring break for students and staff. However, many students and staff choose to get together during this break for fun and exciting learning activities and field trips. Intersession gives everybody time to step away from prescribed curriculum, be more creative, and reconnect with the fun of learning.

Whittier Elementary, recently named a National Blue Ribbon School, is a place that really understands connection as well. Whittier is where all of the district’s preschool students attend, as well as two sections of grades K-5. The staff at Whittier are intentional about making important connections. For example, the whole school celebrates when a student returns from a serious medical challenge. During Homecoming Week the school invites high school students to eat lunch with elementary students and play with them at recess. Getting a photographer on the roof for an all school photo or having Mr. Johnson show up with a shaved head or football helmet on are just normal occurrences. Whittier Elementary won their Blue Ribbon School Award for test scores, but they understand that there are more important things.

Indianola Middle School is a very impressive facility, but when I think of Indianola Middle School, I think of people, not a building. Because this is the first time many students are together, in a setting more than twice the size of their elementary schools, middle school staff are very attentive to getting students connected. The first day of school I saw signage and helpful adults at every school intersection, helping students feel comfortable and find their way. Each grade level has its own wing and is divided into teams. The belief that everyone can be a champion for someone is instilled in and internalized by students and staff. There is a continuum of supports for students, a variety of activities and clubs, an opportunity for students to go above and beyond with the Distinguished Achievement Award, and special events like the “Sprinkling Happiness” project. Indianola Middle School knows that middle school is an important time of growth and maturation for students and works hard to help everyone feel connected.

Indianola High School, like our other attendance centers, is a place of high expectation and high achievement. While this is true, our staff and students know that the high school experience is about much more than test scores. IHS is constantly looking for new ways to help students connect. Recently a successful job fair was held in the North Gym, connecting local business and industry with prospective future workers. Within the last couple of years new clubs have been formed, such as the creative writing club, sewing club, Interact service club, and UNICEF club. Clubs help students connect with peers who have similar interests, and these new clubs join an impressive group of existing opportunities for students. IHS has thriving and successful FFA and DECA organizations, for example; and our extracurricular teams in sports, music, and drama not only give students a way to connect but also bring the community together.

I started this blog writing about family and, like any family, a school is going to face challenges. There are going to be moments of dysfunction. Lots and lots of hard work is required. In the end family is going to be there for each other and pick each other up, though. Our schools serve over 3,600 students and employ over 500 people in a community of almost 15,000. Things happen in people’s lives. Challenges occur. I feel blessed to be in a school and in a community where people support each other and work with each other. I often say, “Indianola is a great place to be.” Today I say it is a great place to be connected, and I hope we all seek and nurture connections.