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Kennedy Family Night brings families together for activities, learning

Gabrielle Johnson, 7, left, and her mother Alina work on the construction of their gingerbread house Thursday night during the Kennedy Elementary School Family Night in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)1 / 3
Ashley Crooks, 8, surveys her work on a gingerbread house Thursday night during the Kennedy Elementary School Family Night in Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)2 / 3
Hire Nuriye, 8, contemplates where the next bit of frosting should be placed on his gingerbread house. Kennedy school officials were pleased with the strong turnout at the event. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)3 / 3

WILLMAR — Gingerbread houses were the big draw Thursday, as about 500 students and parents attended Family Night at Kennedy Elementary School.

Along with the fun of “gluing” graham crackers together with white frosting, the evening served other purposes.

The goals of the monthly gatherings are to give parents tips for working on reading and math at home, to provide fun activities for families and to build a sense of community.

Kennedy Principal Todd Goggleye and other school staffers were thrilled and a little amazed at the turnout. The November Family Night, when they played turkey bingo, drew 168 people.

Thursday, they surpassed that number early on, filled the school cafeteria and still had lines of people waiting to register. The crowd reflected the diversity of the school’s students, with many Somali, Latino and Caucasian families filing in.

More tables and chairs were brought into the cafeteria, and after they were full, a classroom was opened to accommodate the overflow crowd. Goggleye happily made a couple trips to buy more supplies.

The family nights are one of the requirements of a federal School Improvement Grant the school received this year. Kennedy became eligible for the grant after receiving a low ranking in a new state measurement of achievement gaps in state schools.

Kennedy, classified as a Priority School, is implementing a turnaround plan that includes specialized instruction time for all children and additional staff members to work with students. Cultural liaisons were hired to get Latino and Somali families more involved in the school community. Many of the same programs have been implemented at Roosevelt Elementary in Willmar.

The changes have been implemented quickly, and it has been stressful for the staff, but they are responding well, Goggleye said.

“It’s a great staff, and they’re committed to this,” he said. Early indications are that students are making good progress this year, he added.

Before gingerbread house construction began, the school staff offered tips for helping kids get more out of their reading by providing background knowledge. The families learned some background knowledge about gingerbread houses — they originally came from Germany, and they were made popular by the Hansel and Gretel story.

They also talked about the shapes involved in making a gingerbread house, like rectangular or square walls and a triangular peaked roof.

David Doty, an education specialist from the Minnesota Department of Education, watched the families arriving and said he was impressed with the crowd. Doty travels the state to audit work in Priority schools.

He had spent the day observing classes and meeting with school staff, parents and students.

“I can tell you they’re doing a lot of good, hard work here,” he said. The large turnout at Family Night is a sign of what can happen “when a community pulls together.”

Each family was given a plate of graham crackers and a small plastic bag of frosting to build their house. Bowls of colored candies to decorate the houses were on every table.

At the end of one table, Amy and Elizabeth Haugen sat across from Veronica and Jared Barrera.

Elizabeth and Jared, both 6-year-old kindergarteners, had fingers covered with frosting as they tried to help make the walls of their houses stand up. Their moms spent a lot of time holding up the walls and roofs, hoping the frosting would harden.

“I remember her brother made one in kindergarten,” Amy Haugen said. “I think we still have it, in a special box.”

Alina Johnson and Gabrielle, 7, a second-grader, had succeeded in making a house that had a pitched roof on one side and a flat roof on the other. The roof was hard, Gabrielle said, but she was having fun.

“I forgot how much fun this was,” said Josh Pena, as he and daughter Maya, 7, finished their house. “She’s teaching me how to do it again.”

They had spread frosting all over the walls and roof of their house, and it seemed to be standing up. The second-grader said putting the decorations on was her favorite part.

The pair was among the last to leave with their creation. “You can’t rush perfection,” Josh Pena said with a smile.

“The word’s out,” Goggleye said as the last families left and staff members began to scrub dried frosting off tables. “This gives them a chance to be with their families and see what’s happening in the school building.”

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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