Myers-Wilkins Elementary School is a school of firsts. It was the first school in our city to be named after not one, but two strong Minnesota women (Ruth Myers and Marge Wilkins). It was an early convert to teaching foreign languages in Duluth elementary schools, teaching both Spanish and Anishinaabe before immersion schools were even in existence.

It was also the first school in the state of Minnesota to adopt a Full-Service Community School model. “We saw a need to establish better conditions for educational equality,” said Kathy Bogen, the interim administrator of the Duluth Community School Collaborative, a nonprofit organization founded in 1998 at what was then known as Grant Elementary School.

Dan Wilson, the program director of Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Banks, holds 10 of the 3,354 pounds of fresh produce that was distributed at a Community and Family Night at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School this year. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Dan Wilson, the program director of Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Banks, holds 10 of the 3,354 pounds of fresh produce that was distributed at a Community and Family Night at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School this year. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

The FSCS model recognizes that academics is only one aspect of a strong educational setting. In order for a child to succeed academically, their social and health needs must be met, their family must feel involved, and they should feel their education is tied to their community. In other words, the school should ensure the needs of the whole student are met, not just their academic needs.

For example, in 2018, 74% of the student population at Myers-Wilkins qualified for free or reduced lunch programs, indicating a high rate of poverty. Hunger is one important factor that greatly reduces a child’s ability to learn. “Over the past 20 years, educators have come to understand that it is circumstances outside of school that influences a child’s time inside school,” Bogen said. She points out that outside circumstances lead to increased absences from school, lower test scores and lower family engagement in the student’s education.

Jamie de la Cruz, the American Indian Home School Liaison for both Myers-Wilkins and Lowell Elementary Schools, displays beadwork some of her students created on March 13. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Jamie de la Cruz, the American Indian Home School Liaison for both Myers-Wilkins and Lowell Elementary Schools, displays beadwork some of her students created on March 13. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

DCSC works to correct this by including services and supports within the school setting. This includes things such as providing access to dental services, inviting community members into the school to volunteer as mentors, and providing cultural support. Several of these services are offered at a monthly event at Myers-Wilkins called Family and Community Night.

Family and Community Night has been held at Myers-Wilkins for 21 years. The idea began when DSCS pioneers reached out to the parents of Myers-Wilkins students, asking their opinion on what could be done to help. The overwhelming answer was to include families. “We wanted to make the school more inviting to the families of our students,” said Brittany Johnson, youth program coordinator at Myers-Wilkins. “Ensuring parents feel involved in their school and community is a key component of a strong education.”

Since Myers-Wilkins has long had a strong Native American presence, the first Family and Community Night held in 1998 was a community powwow, a tradition that has carried on since. “The powwow has really helped to tie our community to the school,” said Jame de la Cruz, the American Indian Home School Liaison for both Myers-Wilkins and Lowell Elementary School. “When students are exposed to their culture in their educational setting, it helps to foster a sense of identity and history within that student.” She points out that academic success often follows. It also helps the parents to feel more involved in the school, as well as better equipped to advocate for their children.

Students listen as Ricky DeFoe gives the invocation prior to a dance at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in February. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune
Students listen as Ricky DeFoe gives the invocation prior to a dance at Myers-Wilkins Elementary School in February. Photo by Kathleen Murphy / For the News Tribune

Another way de la Cruz works to incorporate Native American culture into the school is to offer after school classes on subject matter important to the indigenous community, as well as offering assistance to the teachers and staff on including cultural components to their lessons. She recently worked with the first- and second-grade classroom teachers on providing information on maple sugar collecting. The cultural lesson also incorporated lessons on science, history, language arts and art. De la Cruz also enjoys teaching traditional indigenous beadwork in after school classes. “Beadwork is a way we traditionally taught our children patience, but also patterns, symmetry and relaxation techniques," she said.

This past winter, Myers-Wilkins celebrated its 21st Powwow at Family and Community Night. It was titled “Steps to the Future Powwow” and included a career and higher education fair, as well as a feast and several community vendors. Other themes for the monthly Family Night have been Harvest Festival (held every fall), a bike rodeo, and several book-based events, such as African American Authors, Book Bingo, and Tellabration (a storytelling event).

One of the vendors at the Powwow was Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, which was on hand to distribute bags of fresh fruits and vegetables to anyone who asked. “We had a great turnout,” said Dan Wilson, Second Harvest program director. “We served 124 households, 467 people, and 3,354 pounds of fresh produce.” Second Harvest has often been present at events at Myers-Wilkens, as the DSCS wants to ensure that all of the families who utilize the school have easy access to healthy food items.

Twenty years later, the DCSC is still working to provide support and community assistance to not only Myers-Wilkins students, but also Lincoln Park Middle School and Denfeld High School. The collaborative has been working to build partnerships with community organizations and individuals to provide after school enrichment programs, health initiatives, transportation assistance, and food programs. All with the goal of eliminating outside barriers that prevent students from becoming engaged in life long learning.

If you would like to mentor or volunteer, call 218-336-8860, extension 8, and let them know you are interested in working with the Duluth Community School Collaborative.

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth.