School of the Week: Neinas Elementary School

They just keep coming back to Neinas Elementary School

Each day, the educators and partners at Neinas Elementary School build upon the school’s foundation of nearly a century of service. They work to meet the educational and social needs of the 270-plus students and their families in the tight-knit southwest Detroit community.

And everybody – it seems – just keeps coming back.

The families keep returning.

Students learn in the same classrooms as generations of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

The volunteers keep returning.

Universities, churches, clothing donators, food providers, former teachers, Forgotten Harvest, Bridgepointe Community Partners, The Detroit Institute of Arts and even a national news network have maintained long-lasting partnerships.

Even staff members return if needed once they have separated from the District. Bilingual teacher Julia Ortiz happily returned from Puerto Rico this past year to provide Bilingual educational support to the students.

“My mom sat in this desk.”

“Just about every child here has had a family member attend Neinas,” says Principal Natalia Russell. “That ties us together and creates a sense of belonging. From the student’s perspective, knowing that ‘my mom sat in this desk’ helps them to take ownership of what they’re doing in school.”

Inside the well-kept historic structure, individualized student-focused, hands-on and integrated science, technology, and language programs take place alongside recycling and social work services for a population whose families occasionally struggle with insurance issues, temporary homelessness, and deportation.

Hands-on Science Inside and Out

The science curriculum spans a roomy classroom filled corner to corner with plants, experiments, desert ecosystems, nesting habitats, stuffed critters, solar system models and measuring devices. Walk through a door in the back of the classroom and you will come upon a rooftop experimentation station of birdseed-feeding experiments and more. Right now students are studying the effects of soda pop in plants’ soil pots and the impact on plants’ photosynthesis when a substance is applied to its leaves.

The only thing keeping Science Teacher Amy Lazarowicz’s students from making the ad-hoc rooftop a complete classroom garden is the district’s completion of a 9-foot section of safety fence.

Lazarowicz, one of DPS’ master science and technology teachers, says, “It shows our students how things happen naturally. What would otherwise be hard to replicate for students in an urban setting grows naturally in their midst,” she says, using as an example several mounds of moss on one corner of the pebble-stone roof. “They might say, ‘oh, it feels just like carpet,’ rather than just reading about it or viewing it online.”

The Neinas ground level outdoor classroom is just below the rooftop classroom. It lines the southern side of the school campus and is already a fully developed, year-round, part-natural laboratory/part-urban oasis that is well beyond a collection of raised planting beds. Now, in December, the gardens are put to sleep with mulch. But learning has not stopped. During this time, students study the decomposition process and identify the winter birds paying a visit. The family of the departed teacher who created the main garden 14 years ago still returns regularly to the school to assist in its maintenance.

“Extreme” Community Ties

“The ties are extreme with the community when it comes to Neinas,” Principal Russell says. “Our community support is phenomenal.”

DTE Energy recently provided winter warmth through the contribution of winter coats for students, and families can depend on weekly food donations from Forgotten Harvest. Help is literally just around the corner with community partners like Courage Church and E&L Supermercado, the local grocery store whose building and parking lots wrap partially around the school campus just over the fence from the school garden.

Additionally, the Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition, and the University of Michigan-Dearborn are among the partners in the science curriculum.

The university has a wide range of connections to the school, with one University of Michigan-Dearborn professor even holding weekly summer college classes and developing project-based activities at Neinas. Projects include movable garden beds and mini-irrigation systems that will eventually be used on the rooftop garden.

Even when the university partners are not on site for one of their repeat visits, the young students have perpetual reminders gearing them to higher educational aspirations. The desks in second grade teacher Deidre Davis’ classroom – where a student-led, math lesson was being delivered in Spanish and English, are each named for a state university.

In writing, fourth grade students receive regular visits from reporters and editors at Bloomberg News to work on writing projects. Students gain exposure to jobs within the newsroom while building a rapport with those professionals. This experience ends with a culminating annual trip to the service’s high-tech Southfield newsroom.

“Your children will be constantly learning” and family needs will be addressed

“I tell our parents, at Neinas your children will be constantly learning,” the principal states.

Family needs are met by the Michigan Department of Social Services “Success Coach,” which is a social worker stationed at the school as part of the DPS/DHS Pathways to Potential program. Principal Russell refers to Success Coach Shannon Ramsey as “a very valuable member of our staff.”

And for families pursuing their GED, a program is held right at Neinas. Last year, the successful parents who earned their GED certificates were able to participate in the commencement ceremony at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School. This allows those parents and individuals to obtain, sustain or advance their employment.

Russell says she has a great team in all respects, from the teachers and coaches to the partners and parents, and even the engineer, known to crawl through vents and ducts to get the job done.

Ready to begin the next 100 years with Smart Boards and new bilingual immersion

In addition to planning generational observances of the school’s 100-year anniversary in 2016 with families and alumni, the principal, teachers and parents are eagerly working at a major curricular enhancement aimed at meeting the needs of the community and ensuring a strong future in terms of enrollment stability and growth.

Smart Boards will be expanded to every classroom. And starting in Kindergarten next fall and expanding annually to additional grades, Neinas students will receive dual language immersion as the school establishes new connections to sister-school Academy of the Americas, less than a mile away. Students who complete the Neinas elementary dual language program will have the opportunity to matriculate to the expanding Academia’s high school level programs.

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