School programs use monthly meal to build relationships with students, families

Student Support Liaison John Lumpkin and English teacher Ellen Taylor visit during a "family dinner" at the Adams County Regional Safe Schools and the Academic Behavior and Community Academy on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. The open houses allow for families to come to eat and chat informally with staff. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jan. 19, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Jan. 19, 2020 12:03 am

QUINCY — Tanner Bowen says the Academic Behavior and Community Academy and Adams County Regional Safe Schools programs treat students like family.

So getting together for a "family" dinner one Tuesday night each month makes perfect sense for students, staff and the families of both.

Tanner, a high school junior who plans to graduate early, helped out with preparations for this month's meal, chopping onions and washing some of the vegetables to accompany a hot dog bar complete with toppings like cheese and chili.

He likes coming to the dinner — and so does his mom, Misty Bowen.

"It's really good. I like it a lot," Bowen said. "You get to know the teachers and get to know how your kid's doing in school."

While Bowen talked with a staff member at a table, not far away Superintendent Roy Webb played pingpong with the child of another staff member.

"Both of our programs have transcripts and grade reports, so if families come in, we can sit and talk with them about their student," social worker Sarah Brigman said while eating supper with her 7-year-old daughter Zoie.

"It's more of a laid-back environment, not like a parent-teacher conference setting. It's just a time to get to know each other, where everybody has a chance to share what's going on in their world," Brigman said, and by building good relationships, "it makes it a lot easier to talk about the tough stuff."

ACB Academy and ACRSS Director Lori Miles said the family dinners provide a way to strengthen the family and school relationship.

"We know some parents don't always feel comfortable coming into school, maybe because of their school background or because their student has not been successful at school in the past, so we wanted to make an environment that would be comfortable for parents coming and really becoming a collaborative partner in their student's education," Miles said.

"We decided a family dinner would be a low-key time. We would serve a meal. There wouldn't necessarily be a presentation, but there would be a time for them to come in and find out how their student was doing, ask questions if they had any."

Launched soon after the ABC Academy began seven years ago, the family dinner expanded two years ago to include the ACRSS program.

"We have a lot of students that will come by themselves. Their family might not feel comfortable coming, but the kids will come and eat, talk, hang out. They all love to play ping pong here," Brigman said.

"They feel that sense of belonging that they want to come even if their family can't come that time," Miles said. "I've had students say 'I know it doesn't start until 5, but can I stay after school?' School gets out at 2. They stay for three hours, help set up and get things ready."

Even students who have graduated, or gone back to the high school, will come back to a family dinner to visit. "They know we'll all be here and they can see everybody at once," said Marcey Wells, school administration manager for ABC Academy and ACRSS.

Miles and staff members plan the menu and cover the cost with the supply budget for the programs or donations.

"We think of something the families might like, something easy and since we don't have a kitchen, it has to be something for the Crock-Pot or roaster," Miles said.

Other times staff provide the food, including a Christmas dinner where every staff member brought in a favorite holiday dish and soups to coincide with parent-teacher conferences.

"With the soups especially many of our kiddos try new things they hadn't tried before," Wells said.

"They ask for recipes," Miles said. "Some kids actually do cook."

The turnout varies month to month, with a small core group coming every month, but "we don't care if it's not a huge turnout. We know it's impacting someone. We think it's too important not to do," Miles said.

"The more they see us as humans, as real people, not just the school or educators, the more non-threatening it is," Wells said.

The family dinners work, Miles said, because the programs are small with a maximum of 95 students between them.

"We're able to do so many of these family-type activities because of our size, and we feel like we're successful because of our size," Miles said.

"Kids will ask us about our own families, and vice versa, we ask them about their families," Wells said. "This reminds you of a family reunion-type setting."

Watching how students interact with their own families and younger siblings, staff "see another level of maturity with a lot of kids," Brigman said.

"We usually have just as much fun as the families do," Brigman said. "It's not as serious as sitting in a classroom, just a time to laugh and joke. Sometimes we're not even talking about school."