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Central High volunteers shine in pandemic

by Cynthia Howell | May 10, 2021 at 6:57 a.m.
The parent-teacher-student association at Little Rock Central High School kept active throughout the pandemic school year. Students and staff paid tribute to the organization in a video. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

When a global pandemic handed out lemons to a 2,400-student urban high school this school year, the Little Rock Central High's Parent Teacher Student Association turned the challenges into a slate of awards from the Arkansas PTA.

The PTSA for the landmark high school has received the state PTA award for Outstanding PTA Unit and other top unit awards for safety and communication in this 2020-21 year in which the majority of Central students have been remote learners away from campus.

"Our PTSA's approach to this pandemic year was to rally together to do everything that we could to support our students, their families, our teachers and staff," Jennifer Ronnel, president of the Central High organization, said recently.

[Video not showing up above? Click here to watch »]

"In sum, we tried to do as much or more than we do in a 'typical' year," said Ronnel in providing a long list of the PTSA's wide-ranging activities.

Just part of that list includes packing food boxes, e-blasting information to 4,000 subscribers, measuring classrooms to ensure adequate space between desks, hosting membership meetings by Zoom, and purchasing 3-D printers, microphones, a laptop, software and even yoga mats at the request of teachers for their classes.

The PTSA project list also includes an expanded Angel Tree campaign to provide holiday meals and gifts to students and families in financial straits, partnering with a local business to help students with college applications and ACT college exam preparation, and initiating the first Project Period that provided feminine hygiene products to students in need.

There is a pandemic twist to the state PTA's 2020-21 award program: Central's PTSA was the only nominee for the awards.

"Regrettably they were the only unit that submitted [for] awards," Melinda Kinnison, immediate past president of the state organization, said last week in confirming the awards to Central's PTSA and to individuals at the school.

"But that does not take away from their accomplishments and the support that they give their school and that their school provides for them," she said. "In fact, to us, it demonstrated their ability to continue to advocate for their students," said Kinnison, who also described how the covid-19 pandemic has all but decimated what is supposed to be a 25-member state PTA governing board.

"When we were thrown into the chaos of determining how to survive a pandemic and educate our children, volunteers had to tend to the needs of their families and they were overwhelmed," Kinnison said. "Even members that stayed on were generally unable to fulfill their job duties. Our current board is down to six," she said.

The state organization, however, has been able to charter a higher than usual number of school PTAs, Kinnison said, and it was active in petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture for flexibility in circumstances in which school meals could be distributed to students.

At Central, throughout the year, the PTSA was in constant communication with Principal Nancy Rousseau to offer help in a year in which state and Little Rock school district operating plans were fluid, Ronnel said.

"We had to have Plan A, B, and C. There were lots of what-if's and we kept busy playing out the different scenarios and planning for in-person activities throughout the summer in case we got to be back together in a socially distant, safe way."

The PTSA members conferred with school staff in identifying and carrying out safety measures within the school, such as adding two lunch periods to improve physical distancing, measuring classrooms to ensure safe distances among desks and creating signs to direct traffic flow in the hallways.

In the 2019-20 school year, there had been 160 different volunteer opportunities and the volunteer hours totaled more than 150,000, Wendy Wood, a parent and chairman of the school's volunteer program, said in letter in support of the PTSA's nomination for the different awards. But in the 2020-21 school year, many of the traditional volunteer opportunities morphed into new ones.

PTSA members could not work inside the school. They couldn't help with recruitment open houses for students and parents. Nor could parent volunteers work in the school office -- contrary to the standard past practice of having four volunteers a day, five days a week, on hand to answer phone calls or greet visitors.

But PTSA members could and did spend hundreds of hours packaging and delivering student meals that were prepared at the Clinton Presidential Center in partnership with the World Central Kitchen, Ronnel said.

They also aided in communication with informational e-blasts, social media posts and video messages from Rousseau to students and their parents.

And as last school year ended, the association volunteers helped with the drive-thru drop-off of textbooks, computers and materials from students and with the distribution of yearbooks and diplomas.

Weeks later, the volunteers again staffed posts outside the school to help distribute schedules and instructional materials to students for the new school year that many would spend at their homes.

The distributed materials included information on how to join the PTSA and how to sign up for the e-blasts, and how to connect to the monthly PTSA Zoom meetings -- featuring programs on mental health resources and college financing in a year when college representatives were largely unable to visit the school in person.

"We strengthened our partnership with our Central High guidance department to ensure we were doing everything we could to support the growing number of students and families facing tough economic situations," Ronnel said.

Megan Eves, the PTSA treasurer this year, said in her letter supporting the Central PTSA's nomination for the state awards that the targeted campaigns were the most vital.

That included raising $3,600 for the Angel Tree initiative to provide food and gifts to families in need. About $1,200 was raised in about two weeks for the Project Period that made feminine hygiene products available to students, Eves said.

The volunteer organization also partnered with community member Carla Kenyon to help students -- some at no cost -- with their applications to Governor's School, essays for college applications and ACT college entrance exam preparation.

"Thanks to our successful 'Pass the Hat' fundraiser and donations from partners like ARVEST Bank, we met our budget and awarded over $7,400 in teacher grants, just like a 'normal year,'" Ronnel said. "We were extremely proud to be able to support our teachers who were working so hard to pursue excellence for the benefit of our students and who presented ideas for creating an even more outstanding learning environment, regardless of the pandemic."

As the 2020-21 school year nears an end, the PTSA news at Central keeps coming.

At the organization's May 18 membership meeting, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine Black students who desegregated Central High in 1957 and is a winner of the Congressional Gold Medal, will be awarded lifetime membership in the National PTA, Ronnel said.

That meeting -- like other PTSA meetings this school year -- will be on the Zoom platform.

A week or so later, the PTSA will host an event to present state PTA awards to individual winners and to honor the staff in general.

"We maintained our commitment to showering our teachers and staff with appreciation each month -- treating them to ice cream, BBQ, fried catfish, and more," Ronnel said. "We are going to blow it out for them this month to celebrate the end of this year.

"Our teachers were so brave serving on the front lines in August when we went back to school and have worked so hard to connect with our students who were not accustomed to the virtual platform for learning. We have tried to help keep their morale up with reminders of how appreciated they are. Our 'Pass the Hat' fundraiser gave us the funding to show our appreciation throughout the year."

State PTA Awards to be presented to individuals affiliated with Central later this month are:

• Arkansas PTA Administrator of the Year -- Earnest McGee from Little Rock Central High School

• Teacher of the Year -- Christopher Dorer from Little Rock Central High School

• Heroic Effort -- Jennifer Stalls from Little Rock Central High School

• Children's Champion -- Clarke Tucker from Little Rock Central High School


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