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January/February 2014

Practical PR:
Reach out to help students see their future
By Jean Hockensmith

Jean Hockensmith is community relations coordinator for School District 45, DuPage County and vice president/ communications for the Illinois chapter of the National School Public Relations Association.

Jefferson Middle School students in School District 45, DuPage County, are just as familiar with Ohio State’s Brutus the Buckeye and Illinois State’s Reggie Redbird as they are with their own Wildcat mascot.

The 400+ student middle school, located in Villa Park, straddles the towns of Villa Park and Lombard while also taking in a bit of Oakbrook Terrace and neighboring Elmhurst. It is one of two middle schools in the eight-school elementary district which serves 3,400 students. The Jefferson low-income level is 58 percent and includes 46 percent Hispanic students. A principal and assistant principal run the day-to-day operations for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. Each spring the principal hosts an orientation for students from the two elementary schools that feed into the middle school. It is an evening session that students attend with their parents. During the orientation, Principal Raul Gaston outlines a college awareness program that is run in Jefferson’s 32 homerooms, a modified, low-to-no cost version of the “No Excuses University” model that a Jefferson counselor learned about at a conference.

“The program gives an overview of what college is about. The students learn the mascot, the history and the traditions at the school. They also research which school might be a better choice for what they want to do,” said Gaston, who gave the example that in addition to knowing that the ISU mascot is Reggie the Redbird, Jefferson students would know that ISU is also recognized as one of the top 10 largest producers of teachers in the United States, according to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.

The program begins each fall with every homeroom selecting a university or college, Gaston said. Homeroom teachers often choose their alma mater, he added. A walk down Jefferson hallways reveals quickly which colleges and universities were chosen. One can find Elmhurst College, Ball State, KU, or the University of Kansas, University of Iowa, Butler, DePaul, Concordia, Marquette, Mizzou, University of Florida, Duke, Indiana University and the University of Michigan to name a few. Each doorway boasts signs, decals and photos, and inside the classrooms you will find everything from posters to blankets. Once football season starts, a large green poster with the markings of a football field is put on the wall in the cafeteria. Students chart their university or college’s progress on the football field poster. The conference a team is in doesn’t matter; the playing field is level on the poster. When spring comes, college basketball season dominates the cafeteria poster.

The Jefferson students visit the schools’ websites and are encouraged to contact the colleges or universities with questions. When one homeroom class contacted the University of Michigan, they received Wolverine posters, pencils, stickers and decals for their efforts. The University of Michigan also asked for a photo of the students with their trinkets to include in an alumni magazine. The Jefferson students were very excited to make this connection to their chosen school.

Depending on need and opportunity, the Jefferson staff also arranges local community-based connections for students in addition to the No Excuses model. Recently a local motivational speaker, Ricardo Negron, visited a Jefferson bilingual Spanish class encouraging students to “take school seriously” by asking, “What can I learn today?”

“Your attitude determines everything,” said Negron. “This is important at Jefferson, in high school and for your future.”

Negron was assisted by Steven Rodriguez, a former Jefferson student. Rodriguez shared how he was once one of them sitting in class each day without much thought to the future. Now, he studies law enforcement at a local community college and is well on his way to becoming a policeman. The students leaned forward, listening to what this former student had to share about how to start realistically planning now for the future.

“You all have a purpose,” Rodriguez told the classroom of middle school students. “The key is finding your purpose. Decide what you want to do and keep looking forward — never look back.”

The teacher in the classroom that day asked the students to write thank you notes to Negron and Rodriguez. The teacher felt the message the speakers delivered resonated in the notes that were written. One student thanked Rodriquez for giving them ideas about their own futures. She also appreciated his honesty in admitting that he didn’t always pay attention or appreciate what was going on in class, but this middle school student was very impressed that despite all that, Steven Rodriguez is now a college student and will one day be a police officer.

Whether it is a fight song, a decal or a motivational speaker, Jefferson Principal Raul Gaston wants the students to know “the potential of going to college is something to think about.” By engaging universities as well as the community in the conversation, students can imagine possibilities they might not have thought of on their own.

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