Start Early. Start well.

December 18, 2023

Connecting School and Families: How DC West Elementary Embraces the School as Hub Model

Dee Acklie, center, familiy facilitator and home visitor at DC West Elementary School, guides two moms and their kids through an activity at the Valley Public Library.Dee Acklie, center, familiy facilitator and home visitor at Douglas County West Elementary, leads two mothers and their kids through an activity at the Valley Public Library.
By Erin Duffy 

Kelsi McIntyre moved to Valley, Nebraska, from Louisiana on a Monday for her partner’s new job.  

By Friday morning, her daughter Ellie, 3, was playing bingo—brightly colored gummy bears subbed in for bingo chips—with other kids at the Valley Public Library.  

Family facilitator and home visitor Dee Acklie filled McIntyre in on the early childhood services offered at nearby Douglas County West Elementary School.  

“We’ll connect you with the preschool staff,” Acklie assured her.  

Earlier that morning, a handful of parents gathered for muffins and coffee at the school’s Falcon Family Café as Title 1 reading specialist Rosita Krauel reviewed the reading curriculum. Together, they practiced sounding out words so younger children could progress from reading short, simple words like “my” and “the” to longer compound words like “popcorn.”  

“I like to use the same terminology they use at school at home,” parent Janae Robinson said.  

This is what stronger family-school-community connections can look like under the School as Hub model.  

Kelsey Nabity, Linsey Bellinger, and Jeffrey KernsKelsey Nabity, Linsey Bellinger, and Jeffrey Kerns
Douglas County West Elementary is one of 10 “School as Hub” schools within the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan. The plan is a collaborative effort of the 11 school districts that make up the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties to develop early childhood programs for young children and families, especially those living in poverty.  

One key piece of the Superintendents’ Plan is the School as Hub concept, which envisions schools as connection points where families and children from birth to third grade can access early childhood education and services.  

Home visitors from local elementary schools might visit families with new babies to demonstrate the importance of reading and talking to infants. As they grow, kids can opt to attend a preschool program at the school and then transition to Kindergarten, creating a through-line of consistent, quality education.  

Staff from the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, which helps implement the Superintendents’ Plan, coach teachers and principals on effective leadership, early childhood, and family engagement practices.  

The Douglas County West district draws from the towns of Valley and Waterloo in the northwest corner of the Omaha metro. The area is a mix of modest neighborhoods, rural acreages, and sprawling lakefront homes. About 30% of elementary students qualify for free or reduced lunch.  

Over the past decade, the elementary population has grown by more than 60%, leading the district to replace its only elementary school with a new, larger building. And yet, staff believe the school community is more in sync with parents and families than ever.  

During flooding in March 2019, the school housed displaced residents and supplied food. Every holiday season, staff and students from preschool through fifth grade pack food baskets delivered by local fire and rescue squads and community members. Anonymous donors write checks to clear students’ negative lunch balances.  

“If you wanted a Hallmark movie about what a community is, it’s DC West,” elementary principal Jeffrey Kerns said.  

Acklie, the family facilitator, fixes toys and broken zippers inside the school’s family room, where she stocks extra clothes and snacks for students and families in need.  

She leads the drop-in play groups at the public library, an old bank in Valley’s downtown, for preschool-age children and their parents. Acklie and a librarian set up different play-and-learn stations, with recent sessions focusing on reading.  

Acklie has helped families find warm winter clothes and referred them to speech therapy.   

“I can serve as their connector,” she said. “It’s easier to call the school and tell them you need something when you’ve had a positive experience with me.” 

The School as Hub approach has reinforced to teachers and families that learning begins long before a child enters Kindergarten.  

Rosita Krauel, Title I reading specialist at DC West Elementary School, meets with parents at Falcon Family Cafe.Rosita Krauel meets with parents at the Falcon Family Cafe.
Kerns remembers inviting families to tour one of the school’s three preschool classrooms. Acklie and Buffett Institute staff explained the room setup and play-based learning.  

“We invited parents to get down on the kids’ level and play and then they explained the purpose of this,” Kerns said. “That moment there, I thought that was a great example of how we’re going in the right direction—the parents are asking questions and they’re modeling those skills and strategies at home.” 

Several teachers and Buffett Institute staff attended training in Iowa on the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching, discipline, and student engagement. This school year, teachers implemented classroom “Morning Meetings,” a series of social and academic activities intended to build a stronger sense of belonging among students.  

In Mattie Subbert’s first-grade class, students started the day by greeting the classmate to their left and right, listening intently as each shared what they were looking forward to that weekend. (Highlights included blowing a giant bubble with gum and playing with a new puppy named Honeybee.) That builds community, said Tonya Jolley, the Buffett Institute’s instructional program administrator.  

Jolley has become a familiar face at the school—kids recognize her and say hello to her by name. She works closely with school and district administrators, Kerns, and teachers; provides consulting and coaching; and helps analyze school data and support district action plan goals.  

In the first-grade classroom, students squared off in games of rock-paper-scissors, read a paragraph on a whiteboard and added missing punctuation, and closed with a class cheer and a question from Subbert.  

“How are you going to be a kind friend?” she asked.  

Kerns has written plenty of monthly newsletters to families with little feedback. But when he shared about the Morning Meeting, the responses poured in: families loved it.  

“Test scores are important, but we have a holistic approach to educating children,” he said.  

The Morning Meeting is just one way the school is nurturing positive relationships among students, staff, and families, said Linsey Bellinger, a parent and the school’s speech-language pathologist. Research shows a warm, welcoming school environment can benefit students on multiple levels—mentally, physically, and emotionally—and prime their brains for learning.  

“I think, how fun that the thing that we chose to implement in the building is joyful,” Bellinger said.  

At the library, Acklie finished up the playgroup with story time, reading “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” as the kids identified the colors on the page.  

As she closed the book, Ellie looked up at her hopefully.   

“One more time?”  

Erin Duffy is the managing editor at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and writes about early childhood issues that affect children, families, educators, and communities. Previously, she spent more than a decade covering education stories and more for daily newspapers.      
Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Erin at 
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