Satnan: School’s decorations have roots in service

December 1, 2012

Smith-Cotton Junior High School is giving off a holiday glow thanks to some stuff that was found on the roof.

Principal Wade Norton told me that over the summer, he had building head custodian Dean Collins lead a tour of the facility, including the roof. There they found a collection of large metal frames; Collins said they were holiday decorations built by former teacher Kim Graves and some students.

“We just let it go and left them there, but about a month ago we said, ‘Let’s put them back up,’ ” Norton said.

Collins and assistant principals Jason Curry and Stephanie Jackson removed the old lights, strung the frames with new lights and affixed them to the building. There is a blue Christmas tree, a red star and “Season’s Greetings” spelled out in white script across the top of the building.

Norton said it took four or five hours to take the old lights off and restring the frames.

“There was a cut hand on Mr. Curry, but it didn’t take too long at all,” Norton said.

I called Graves to learn about the decorations’ origins.

“We made them in 1994, ‘95, somewhere in there,” he said. “I had become the A+ Schools coordinator, and we were implementing curriculum changes, including initiating a more aggressive service learning program.”

The service learning programs’ purpose is to search out unmet or undermet needs in the community, Graves said, and in looking at what then was the high school building, “it could use a little Christmas, so we thought we would add some lights to a building that the community holds in high regard.”

Graves recalled that metals instructor Gary Waner and students Brock Simon and David Smith, among others, were involved with the project. The students engineered and constructed the pieces and determined how to suspend them safely.

“In service learning, you try to take skills that students possess and give them a chance to hone it, or introduce them to a new skill set,” Graves said. “They learned the ‘plan your work, work your plan’ routine. ... There were a lot of unique problem-solving opportunities there.”

Years removed from the classroom, Graves still has a place in his heart for service learning.

“I am appreciative of the many staff members who, in the mid- to late ‘90s, employed service learning as a teaching methodology,” he said, specifically citing Donna Poort, who “took on converting those World War II veterans pictures in the hallway into an actual volume of researched stories about real people, with real historical documentation.”

“Teacher after teacher up there ... decided to use real problems and real challenges as a curriculum base,” he continued. “It means so much more to students when the problems and challenges they face are real and the outcomes are real.”

As an example, he noted that when trees were planted in front of the school, math students came out to help dig the holes, and afterward measured the average angle on the sides of holes and calculated the volume of dirt that was displaced.

“When teachers look for opportunities to blend service with learning — I am such a disciple of that methodology, it excites me still,” Graves said.

He moved from the high school to Whittier school in 1999, and he said that was the last year the decorations were used until Norton and his crew put them up last week. Graves has yet to see the display — his father, Ken Graves, recently became ill and died Tuesday.

Norton said residents were driving by the building and commenting the next day.

“They say, ‘Those are nice, new decorations.’ And we explain there is nothing new about them — the only thing new is the lights. and we explain where they came from,” Norton said. “We hope Mr. Graves drives by, we hope he sees them so he knows that the work he put into them is still being used.”

Graves said he is “very pleased that Wade has resurrected this project.”

“What Wade has done has rebirthed a Christmas tradition from a time ago,” he said. “We looked at Smith-Cotton as our house, and we wanted to provide some type of Christmas spirit for the community and for passersby.”