FORT WORTH Instead of taking finals, turning in textbooks and watching movies, almost 1,200 students from Hillwood Middle School spent the last week of the school year (May 30 to June 2) giving back to the community around them while learning new skills and interests.
Students got to choose from 28 different projects, each of them sponsored by a Hillwood teacher with a passion for a project or charity.
From helping with horses at an equine therapy center or making a documentary, to building furniture, crocheting hats for newborns and supporting police officers, kids got the chance to learn new skills and help others.
Eighth-graders got either their first or second choice among the projects while seventh-graders got one of their top five options, said Kathleen Eckert, Hillwood principal.
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"This is a chance for them to learn all the ways they can give back to their community," Eckert said.
The Hudson Foundation gave a grant to the school for the three and a half days of "YES," which stands for Year End Studies. Most of the funds – about $10,000 – went for transportation for students to go on field trips.
Learning on the go
Most of the 28 projects included a field trip aspect.
For instance, "Horsin’ Around," a project sponsored by history teacher Mike Stitt, involved 40 students going to White Bridle Equine Therapy at Rocky Top Ranch in Keller.
Stitt worked at Rocky Top Ranch at age 16, helping with horses and assisting kids in therapy.
Now he owns horses. He brought his horse to school May 30 to show students different riding skills and basic horsemanship. The next day, they headed to White Bridle to help muck out horse shelters, pull weeds and paint.
Veronica Conley, an eighth-grader, said she wanted to come help out with horses because she hopes to have one of her own soon. She also liked White Bridle’s mission of helping people with autism.
Veronica said, "I think it’s a really cool therapy program. My cousin has autism, and I’m glad this is here for kids like him."
Another project, "The Chronicles of Yarnia" sponsored by math teacher Meredith Akers, helped students learn to crochet, with squares they made going to Warm Up America for blankets for those in need or hats for newborns.
Eighth-grader Inara Khalid already "kind of knew how to crochet." She said the project was a great way to help children.
Teachers got to show students the missions they support.
Daniel Nelson, a math teacher, helped students build coffee tables, which they would sell to raise funds to help orphans in Haiti. Nelson and his brothers founded a charity, I’m Me (imme.org), to assist orphans.
English teacher Stefanie McKethan helped students make baby blankets that would go to babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at Medical City Alliance hospital.
McKethan’s son Zachary spent time in the NICU after he was born.
"I just knew it would be something personal to give back to the medical professionals who saved my son’s life," she said.
Science teacher Dena Graham got to supervise kids as they "virtually adopted" dogs in the Apollo Dog Rescue shelter in Justin.
For the virtual adoptions, students made dog toys from rags braided together or old socks and tennis balls, and created colorful posters encouraging people to adopt their pup.
Lydia Sturgeon, eighth-grader, said she chose a shepherd lab mix named "Garth."
"My animal had an owner that passed away and the other family members couldn’t afford to keep him," Lydia said.
On May 31, the students were going to visit the Justin shelter to get to interact with their dogs personally.
‘Good work ethic required’
Eckert said the YES effort came out of a visit to Washington, D.C., last year where Hillwood educators received recognition for the school being a "National Middle School to Watch," a program launched by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grade Reform.
Staff members had been thinking about urging students to do a one-day service project, similar to an effort by Carroll’s Dawson Middle School, when they heard about a McCracken Middle School in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where students spent about a week in action.
The Greater Keller Chamber of Commerce gave the school a grant so six Hillwood educators could go to South Carolina to "see how it worked," Eckert said.
Amanda Spillman, an English teacher, was one of the educators to make the trip.
"You don’t realize how much coordination this takes until you’re actually developing all the projects," Spillman said.
She said that a lot of businesses, charities and civic groups partnered with the school to help pull off the many projects.
"It’s been really neat to see those partnerships happen," she said.
On June 2, the last day of school, students manned displays about their projects so parents could see the many good works from the week.
In addition to learning new skills, one of the main goals of the projects was to encourage teens to give their time and effort to help others, Hillwood educators said.
"All these kids came with the idea they wanted to work," Stitt said. "We even put it in the job description: good work ethic required."