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North Star’s efforts to keep school in-person honored

North Star School District staff were recognized Wednesday with a day of appreciation at the high school, thanking them for their “frontline” efforts to help the district’s students maintain in-person classes through the challenges of a pandemic-centered academic year.

Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodial and administrative staff, teachers and coaches for the district’s schools were treated to a luncheon at the athletic field, along with T-shirts, prizes and the opportunity to socialize and celebrate the collective achievement.

The “Cougar Connection Day” was organized by the district’s Catalyst Action Team, aka “CAT team,” which was created at the start of the school year. Donations from local businesses paid for the day’s activities.

Launching a new program

The district created the Catalyst Action Team as part of a multi-year plan to train staff at the elementary, middle and high school levels in the Trauma Skilled Schools model, created by the National Dropout Prevention Center to decrease student dropouts and negative behavior in school that is related to stress and trauma that children are most likely experiencing. Locally, Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 is partnering with the National Dropout Prevention Center to provide this training.

A group of staff from each building — elementary, middle and high school — were trained in the Trauma Skilled Schools model this year, said Suzie St. Clair, the district’s director of special education and CAT team leader. Starting next fall the training is to be provided to all staff in the high school, followed in subsequent years with training for staff in the middle and elementary schools.

“Part of the training was, you were supposed to come up with what’s called purposeful practices, and that is providing opportunities not just for your students to feel safe at school, but for your staff (as well),” St. Clair said. “Because of the year we had with COVID-19, we felt like it was a really good idea to plan something for our staff and so it morphed into this big (event).

“We were going to do it in each building and then we decided (to) do a culminating activity at the end of the year to show our appreciation for everybody that worked so hard to keep us face to face all year long. I think we are one of the only districts in the area that were face to face all year. We had a few little shutdowns – four days at the middle school, a week at the high school – but for the most part, we were able to stay open all year long.”

Making a difference

Louis Lepley, the school district’s superintendent, thanked the staff for their “frontline” efforts to maintain in-school instruction this year because each day their individual contributions provided stability and security that many of their students do not receive when they’re not in school.

Because 54% of the district’s students qualify as “economically disadvantaged,” Lepley said, the reality is that for some of these students, their meal at school is their only substantial meal of the day. For some, the shoes and clothing that they wear to school aren’t adequate for school or the particular time of year, especially in winter.

Even a simple greeting or a willingness to listen can make a world of difference, Lepley said.

“Every day, you are frontline workers,” he said. “It starts with our bus drivers. That first interaction in the morning sets the tone for that student when they get to school. It continues through the lunch line — those interactions that our students have with our cafeteria workers is fantastic. Our custodial, maintenance (staff) in the hallways, is fantastic. That helps those students through the day. Those positive interactions mean the world to our students, because not all of them get that kind of interaction at home. Again, that’s part of the reality for some of our students.

“That’s why we are here. That’s why we work so hard to stay in person throughout the year. It’s because of all of you. When our kids come to school and they need a hug, you give them that hug. You give them that pat on the back. You give them an ear when they need to talk to somebody. That’s what makes you a frontline worker. Every day, every single one of you, from our bus drivers to our coaches and everyone in between. That’s why I love all of you and I appreciate the work that you do. The greatness that you bring to this job every day means the world to me and the world to our students. So thank you.”