School of the Week: Thirkell Elementary School, where building robots and small cities provides a creative learning experience

If you haven’t met Cassidy the Robot yet, you should make it a priority to stop by Thirkell Elementary School to see how students are learning about geometric shapes

The hand-made robot—standing about seven feet tall—was created by students with the help of Art Teacher Linda Rice, and is made entirely of “I’m In” lawn signs. Rice’s vision for the robot was to make learning about geometric shapes fun for fourth- and fifth-graders in preparation for the MEAP test.

“I believe that if you combine art with any subject, it makes for a greater learning experience because it’s fun for the students,” Rice said. “We do so many crazy things in our classroom with art projects that the students can apply to other subject areas. They have fun while learning.”

The students also submitted the robot creation for a recent contest.

During the current semester, Rice has been assigned to work with K-3 students, but she has been spending her lunch hour working with fourth- through fifth-graders to build a “Geometric City” as another creative method to teach the students about geometric shapes.

The students were charged with designing the city which currently includes a shopping mall, airport, candy store, shoe store and more.

This type of creative thinking is what makes Rice so great, says Principal Clara Smith.

“Ms. Rice is well-rounded. She’s able to think outside of the box,” Smith said. “She’s able to do things you wouldn’t imagine.”

Reaching Beyond the Basics
Teachers, administrators and community volunteers who take on the unimaginable and reach beyond to deliver the best educational experience possible is what makes Thirkell so great, Smith said.

A prime example is the Beyond Basics program, which is a non-profit corporation that partners with principals to bring supplemental academic and enrichment programs to students. The program’s mission is to support at-risk children to develop fundamental educational skills.

Academic programs include reading, writing and “Art with the Masters.” Through the reading program, students are able to read at their grade level within six weeks thanks to intensive one-on-one tutoring. The writing program features an onsite publishing center where students write original stories and receive assistance with editing prior to their stories being bound with a hard cover.

Art instruction in a small group setting is the focus of the Art with the Masters Program where students are taught the techniques of art masters and utilize these learned skills in their art projects.

Finally, Beyond Basics provides a mentoring program titled Expanding Horizons. Through the program, Thirkell is partnered with local liberal arts, cultural, corporate and professional organizations to bring a variety of programs to the school. Students also participate in a Book Club, Character Building, Music, Life Skills, field trips and more.

“The programs are free to Thirkell students, and we are onsite five days per week,” said Paulette Bolofer, Program Manager of Beyond Basics. “One of my favorite programs is Reading Buddies, where we read daily with students for 30 minutes.  We try to touch every classroom to work with every single student.”

The Beyond Basics program is also provided at Carver Elementary-Middle School.

Instruction that “Makes Sense”
Another jewel at Thirkell is the Dollars with Sense financial literacy program, taught each Wednesday from 1-2 p.m. to third- through fifth-graders.

Sharon Walker, President & CEO of Dollars with Sense, said her program allows students to learn early about the power of properly managing their finances, and they can take these skills into adulthood. Programs provided to students include Needs vs. Wants, How Money Works, The Cost of Cool, Charity—Giving Back, and Saving our Money.

Participating students recently took part in a taste test to determine if they liked Frosted Flakes in comparison to a generic brand.

“And many actually preferred the generic brand,” Walker said. “Kids get a chance to see that many times, there isn’t a difference between generic brands and name brands. This is an easy way to save money.”

Some classrooms have also hosted penny drives. Since October of 2012, one class was able to collect about $62 in pennies. Another class has collected about $41.

“This teaches them that a penny can go a long way,” Walker said.

Public Service Credit Union has agreed to open savings accounts for each student through their award-winning Smart Kids Money Program on Wednesday, Jan. 30 at Thirkell. Students must deposit $5 to open their accounts.

But it’s not just about the range of programs used to supplement the school leadership’s academic plans.

Bringing it all together
An educator and principal of 12 years with the district, Smith said the success of Thirkell’s programs is due to the cohesiveness of her staff.

She describes all of her team members as hard-working and passionate with one goal in mind: to ensure all students succeed.

“Thirkell is a great place. All of the teachers are experts in their areas of instruction and they enjoy doing what they do,” she said. “When you enjoy doing what you do, you automatically do a good job.”

Prior to leading Thirkell, Smith also served as Assistant Principal of Spain and Mark Twain schools. She is a proud DPS alum, having graduated from Chadsey High School as president of the National Honor Society.

Aside from cross-curriculum learning and educators who are constantly wearing their creative thinking caps, students also enjoy two stationary computer labs and three mobile computer labs. The school also offers instructional music, physical education, health, an in-house health clinic through a partnership with Henry Ford Hospital, mentoring, volunteer programs, and a partnership with Communities in Schools.

Something you didn’t know…
Principal Smith has known since the age of 10 that she wanted to become a principal.

Educator Focus: Lee A. Wright, Assistant Principal

What Works: Smith describes Wright as a positive male role model for both female and male students. Wright oversees the Reading Corps Program and created a male mentoring program titled, “Young Men of Character.” The program aims to provide tutoring, conflict resolution, and builds positive character traits for at-risk students in grades 4-5.

“The program gives students the ability to not only be successful in school, but in life,” Wright said. “If we implement these traits now, they will last a lifetime.”

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