School of the Week: Bennett Elementary School

Picture this… Four elementary school girls gripping karaoke microphones, singing their hearts out to one of their favorite pop star’s— Selena Gomez—hit songs. Watching their performance, it looks like the girls are in the comfort of their own home, or maybe at a friend’s house, but surprisingly these students are in their school cafeteria.

Lunchtime at Bennett Elementary School is not your average “lunch hour” according to Principal Josette Buendia. Bennett’s lunchtime is infused with singing, laughter and support from classmates and staff much like the culture of the school.

As students enjoy a deliciously balanced lunch, provided by the Office of School Nutrition, they are able to take part in a daily lunchtime karaoke session open to all. Students transform into confident performers with encouraging cheers and back-up from the rest of their classmates who are attentively engaged in each performance.

“Look at what’s happening during lunch,” said Principal Buendia, as she pointed into the cafeteria. “Students are engaged in their peers’ performance; they are cheering and encouraging them! This lunchtime activity is ultimately allowing students to leave lunch with a positive mindset, and when they return back to class, they are re-energized and ready for the second half of their school day.”

“Welcome to my little corner of sunshine!”

Buendia, who is a fourth-year principal at Bennett located in vivacious Southwest Detroit, likes to refer to her school as her “little corner of sunshine!” Buendia expressed that when she was in school, staff members did not know her name, her birthday or other little things that young students are excited about. But at Bennett everybody knows everybody, and the school really acts as a community within a community.

“Bennett students are the sweetest, most caring kids you will ever meet and it is our goal as teachers to help kids get to their next level,” said fifth-grade teacher Joey Stamper.

Bennett is 100-plus years old and truly embodies the meaning of a neighborhood school. There are no students bused to Bennett, all of the students live within six blocks of the school. The entire staff works together to positively impact teaching and learning.

“The staff here at Bennett is highly motivated, which creates a great learning and teaching atmosphere,” said fourth-grade teacher Sandra Limmer.

Not just playing, but educating!

The bright and colorful classrooms at Bennett infuse energy into learning. Students have access to the latest in technology, including a state-of-the-art computer lab, Promethean boards, iPads, iPad minis and Netbooks ensuring students are exposed to 21st Century learning in all subject areas. Teachers also regularly attend technology-based Professional Development training.

“You have more options when you have a high-quality, technology-rich education,” Buendia said. Bennett has consistently met and exceeded Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) each year since 2001 and is a recipient of the Skillman Foundation Award and Good Apple Award.

Thomas Cieslik, fourth-grade teacher and 20-year Bennett veteran, expressed that Principal Buendia not only pushes students to perform their best, but teachers as well.

“For our Accelerated Reading and Math program, each class receives a certificate for 100 percent participation. As you walk around our school, you will see the certificates on display outside of the classrooms. Teachers are proud to showcase their students’ hard work as well as boast a little healthy competition,” Buendia said.

Bennett also has many community and university partnerships including the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, Madonna University and Oakland University. Students also participate in many extra-curricular activities to explore their interests beyond the traditional classroom including choir, soccer, basketball, photography and vocal music.

Playworks Program, a national non-profit organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of children by providing organized physical activity for students, has an active presence at Bennett. Playworks stops the chaos on the playground and accelerates learning by providing and organizing healthy, safe and inclusive play.  For an example, if two students race to the front of the line during recess, they immediately do a quick “rock, paper, scissors” and whoever wins, wins. No questions asked and no time wasted!

“We cannot afford to lose any instructional time,” Buendia said. “Programs such as Playworks have educated our students with alternative ways to handle situations, which would potentially lead to conflict.”

Bennett has a strong reputation within the community and has a strong parent support system. According to Buendia, teachers and staff, many of whom are fluent in Spanish, pride themselves in superb customer service and creating a welcoming atmosphere for students as well as parents. Bennett offers dozens of parenting workshops in its own warm and inviting Parent Resource Center, managed by Detroit Parent Network.

Because the majority of Bennett’s students and families speak Spanish, Deicy Barajas, Bennett PRC Organizer, said she has a goal to close the English-Spanish language barrier.

“Bennett is a wonderful school to be at and what really makes the community flourish is the parents. We have dedicated parents who are always here and ready to help at any time,” Barajas said.

Bennett also offers a Community School program, where schools across the district provide specialized community-based services and extended hours as part of the district’s new Strategic Plan.

“Hi-Ho-Hi-Ho, it’s off to CLASS we go!”

Every day you will see Bennett students hauling rather hefty sacks from one end of the building to another. What is in those sacks? One may wonder…its fresh fruits and vegetables!

The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program is an initiative Bennett has participated in for the past four years. This program allows students to broaden their taste buds by receiving pre-packaged fresh fruits and vegetables for every student, such as jicama, butternut squash, broccoli, raspberries, blueberries, radishes and many others.

“How cool is it to see kids walking down the hall with blueberries and radishes instead of hot cheetos,” Buendia said.

The Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program is essential to the community because it is free to students. Living in the city makes it hard to find inexpensive fresh fruits and veggies, so many children grow up reaching for quick snacks like chips out of convenience and accessibility.

So what’s so special about Bennett?

“We believe in providing positive reinforcement, compliments, and praise whenever possible to help raise self-esteem. Students are asked to remember to be kind to one another, make kind choices, and use kind words always,” Buendia said.

When asked why Bennett? Principal Buendia simply, yet excitedly answered: “We have wonderful teachers, a rigorous curriculum, we are engaging our students to become excited about universities, and we attend off-campus field trips to open students’ minds to new ideas. But most importantly because every day is a good day at Bennett!

Something you didn’t know…

Bennett has a strong partnership with Gleaners Community Food Bank to offer a variety of programs. Cooking Matters programs for students and parents provides cooking classes to teach healthy recipes using healthier choices and fresh produce. The Weekend Backpack program is where food is sent home each Friday so students and their families can have food for the weekend. The Weekend Backpack includes cereal, canned fruit and vegetables, pasta, beef stew, tuna fish and milk. Snack Packs allow food for classrooms and after-school, which include canned fruit, crackers, granola bars and snacks “to take the edge off” as students get hungry during the school day. A Monthly Food Pantry includes 50 pounds of food consisting of potatoes, carrots, apples, dry goods (pasta, rice), canned goods, cereal, fresh whole chickens and more. Finally, to give back to the tremendous support from Gleaners, Bennett students visit the Gleaners Detroit distribution center once per year to help pack food for less fortunate families as part of the Kids Helping Kids Program.

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