July 5, 2023

Building Connections at Edwards

It all started with a simple idea from one person shared to make a difference in the lives of young students. When Sungjae (David) Lee, a senior at Ames High School, expressed this idea, little did he know that a teacher was listening. Really listening with the intent to make an impact at her own school. What resulted is a heartwarming story that is a testament to the power of a simple idea and the difference that can be made when we come together to spread kindness.

“I was with my group during strategic planning and we were just talking about values and goals,” said Lee. “And I had the idea about connecting students at an individual level so that they have an adult figure in their life that’s been through the process already of going to high school or middle school and to help them navigate through academics, give guidance on emotional support, and items we don’t always talk to our parents about.”

What Lee didn’t know is that second grade teacher at Edwards Elementary, Laura Clausen, was listening intently and began forming an idea. In a time when it often seems like students face more challenges than ever before, Clausen knows a thing or two about taking a holistic approach to education. She immediately knew she could make a difference in her own school. 

“We were talking about how sometimes something happens and it’s really hard and you need to just have an adult listen to you,” said Clausen. “I thought, we could totally do that and we could model that, and it could grow from there.” 

The program put together by Clausen is simple yet effective. Every adult in the school, including teachers, administrators, and support staff, selects 6-7 kids who attend Edwards. They are then responsible for connecting with their students weekly through notes, conversations, sharing treats, really anything. The notes are specific to each student and are aimed at helping them develop self-confidence, resilience, and a positive attitude towards their learning and the adults in their building. Once Clausen had her plan together, she presented it to the Principal at Edwards, Jessica Sharp.

“She had a plan including action steps that could be put together immediately,” said Sharp. “It just kind of blew my mind. She pulled up her leadership boots and just made it happen.”

The notes are not just a formality, but a means of building meaningful relationships with the students. Clausen encourages adults to get to know their students on a personal level, to understand their strengths and challenges, and to show that as an adult in their lives, they care. This helps to create a safe and welcoming learning environment where students feel valued and supported.

The benefits of this program are seen the minute one walks into Edwards Elementary. Students and adults look happy, enthusiastic and it’s clear they feel more confident and motivated to learn. The hope is that while working on making sure each student feels seen, this leads to better academic performance and a more positive attitude towards school.

“I love it. That first time students got notes, there was just a little buzz in the hallway,” said Clausen. “Kids were talking about the letters and who they got one from. It’s an amazing feeling.”

The program hasn’t been without a few challenges that Clausen and others have been able to easily resolve. One was making sure they had a plan for when a staff member might leave and who would then take care of building a relationship with that student. Another was the challenge of getting every kindergartener a chance to have their note read to them if they couldn’t read it themselves. The task of writing back for these littlest learners at Edwards became equally as difficult. 

“We realized we were making these big old long letters and our kinder babies can’t even read them,” said Sharp.

Clausen worked with the kindergarten teaching team to share examples and strategies for staff and how to better communicate with kindergarten students. At times this means making the text more accessible for these students by utilizing pictures instead of words. 

“I’ve learned as I go that I need to make it easy for people,” said Clausen, who sends out various ideas to all staff in the building every-other week. “I try to give them tools and prompts for what to write or talk about with their students to get to know each other better.”

Sharp said she looks forward to both giving and receiving notes and connecting with her students. Sometimes it is just a “hello” in the hallway, and other times it’s a note sharing information with her that helps get to know her students. It has reminded Sharp that even one step, no matter how small it might seem, can make a big ripple in the lives of her students. 

“We often hear you can’t change the world alone, but one person connected with another person and possibly detoured another person’s life positively,” said Sharp. “To think of the capacity of that, all from one brave moment of a high schooler sharing his thoughts.”

The sense of community in the school has increased since the program began. By getting to know the students on a personal level, the adults in the school are able to develop stronger relationships with them. The sense of belonging and connectedness is crucial for the emotional well-being of students. Lee was recently welcomed at Edwards Elementary to see the impact his idea had on just one school within the District. 

“I did not know this would be possible to do at an elementary level,” said Lee. “I did not know Laura (Clausen) was going to bring this here and actually get the whole staff involved and take my vision and speak it into existence. This turned out better than I thought it could be.”

Lee’s idea is a simple one of identifying a mentor and a mentee. He wanted mentors to understand firsthand what it’s like for students to go through the system of education. 

“We talk a lot about issues students have and what we need to do to solve them at a higher level,” adds Lee. “Most of the time, we don’t really know what the problem is or we see it through an administrative lens. We don’t know what’s going on inside a student and what is motivating them to act a certain way.”

According to Lee, taking a little time to get to know students allows mentors to get a glimpse of what students feel and what they are going through. By understanding their experience, it allows mentors to know better how to help students get through tough issues. In the end, the mentee gets connected to adults within their school which allows them to access resources better. 

”It links them to other people that help them get what they need,” said Lee. “Starting this early on even if only for a year, that personal connection will last their entire K-12 education. They will feel they can go to the person at any time for help.” 

Both Sharp and Clausen see how the program helps to foster a culture of kindness and positivity in the school, and they know students feel more connected to the adults there. Teachers and staff focus on getting to know their students but also offer encouragement and positive feedback, which reinforces the values of respect, empathy, and compassion. In the end, this helps to create a school environment where students feel safe and supported, and where everyone is encouraged to be their best selves.

“He made an impact on her,” said Sharp. “Which has trickled down and made an impact on 82 staff members and 462 children.” 

As the school year approaches its end, we asked Clausen if she felt this would continue into the next school year. 

“Yeah, I don’t think you can quit this,” said Clausen. “I think this is a forever thing.”

This program is a shining example of how schools can help students thrive not just academically, but emotionally and socially as well. By building connections with students, teachers and staff become approachable and available. It only furthers to strengthen the learning environment where students feel valued and motivated to succeed. When asked how he felt about the possibility this could trickle over to other buildings in the District, Lee said not to think too hard about it and to spend that energy getting the adults on board. 

“The only reason why it worked here is because everyone got on board.” said Lee. “If you love the idea enough and you have a relationship with people, they will see that it is of value to you and then will fall in love with it too.”