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Horace Mann students line up for tasks they enjoy and learn from in West Allis

Melissa Gruenwald's first graders enter the Horace Mann Elementary School kitchen to count and distribute fresh fruit packs for an afternoon snack for all school students on Nov. 16.

Melissa Gruenwald's first graders enter the Horace Mann Elementary School kitchen to count and distribute fresh fruit packs for an afternoon snack for all school students on Nov. 16. Photo By C.T. Kruger

Dec. 4, 2012

West Allis - Take people who love what they do, shake briskly, stand back and wait for the magic.

That's what Horace Mann Elementary School Principal Jeff Thomson did when he allowed students and staff to take on tasks that step beyond the normal educational routine, and he still marvels at the results

Horace Mann first-graders have an opportunity to run a fruits and vegetables snack program for the whole school. They even track of inventory and conduct "consumer" surveys.

Third-graders communicate monthly with a Paralympic athlete on such issues as goal-setting, inspiration and fair play.

And all kids are invited to Saturday morning school twice a month where teachers and other staffers volunteer their time, just to make a difference.

"I think it says a lot for the people who work in this building," Thomson said.

It also says a lot for their principal who let them run with their innovations, said the teachers who came up with the initiatives.

Counting on new skills

In September, Melissa Gruenwald's first-grade class took on the job of assembling and delivering a box of fruits and vegetables. The job ties into lessons they learn - for instance, they use basic math skills when they count and sort the produce.

But assembly and delivery are only the end of the process. The kids take surveys - needed for ordering through the schools' regular lunch provider - and tally and graph the results and then write about them, Gruenwald said.

Already, she has noticed progress.

"The kids are catching onto math skills so much faster because they see math in action," she said.

Not only that, they're learning good citizenship, she added.

"They see the roles people have and how they affect the school," Gruenwald said.

The kids are "paid" with school dollars they can use to buy such things as coloring books, stuffed animals, puzzles, board games at all-school auctions.

"They take the job seriously," said Gruenwald said, who helped the school obtain a $25,000 grant to cover the costs of the program.

Olympian efforts

Third-grade teacher Stephanie Ticali said that's just one example in which the school principal has let concepts grow into effective school programs.

"Mr. Thomson is always open to trying ideas out," Ticali said.

Ticali herself was given the go-ahead when she came across an inquiry through her personal learning network of teachers if anyone would be interested in having their classes talk with an Olympic athlete through a program called Classroom Champions.

The program is for schools with a significant number of children coming from economically disadvantaged homes. Eight athletes who were either in the Olympics or in the International Paralympics for athletes with physical or intellectual challenges take part in the program.

Ticali jumped at the chance.

"Having somebody who's been successful enough to be an Olympic champion, you know they've gone through hardships," she said.

The athlete for Horace Mann is Paralympic gold-medalist Stephani Victor, who lost both legs in a car accident. Regardless, in 2002, she took the bronze medal in downhill skiing at the International Paralympic Games and in 2006 she took the gold medal in the slalom.

One thing she emphasized to the students is to never let anyone tell them they can't do something. They said she couldn't ski, but she proved them wrong.

Much of her success is based on goal-setting, which was the first monthly topic for the program. Each month she sends a video on what the topic of the month has meant in her life. In response, the students also post a video on the Classroom Champions website which explains how they have used her advice in their own lives.

The kids got to actually speak with Victor once and will so again later in the year.

Weekend learning

Ticali also is one of the staff members who gives up two Saturday mornings a month to teach at Mann's Saturday School. It's completely voluntary for kids and teachers who build on what the kids are studying.

"I enjoy the one-on-one learning time," Ticali said. "You see them progress better - they definitely pick up more."

But the best part is the field trips to local businesses, the airport or other places in the community, she said.

"It opens their minds up and gives background to take into the classroom," Ticali said.

The idea of Saturday School was born in a brainstorming session with teachers and the principal about three years ago. And it survived even through the upsets of the state's Act 10 that enraged many teachers throughout the state.

Ticali said she didn't even think of stopping because of Act 10.

"Absolutely not, there's nothing I love more than teaching," she said.

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