'We are a family': Students feel sense of belonging at Belleville school

News-DemocratOctober 20, 2013 

Second-grade teacher Katie Thies explains how the character education initiative — Ellis Families — at Ellis Elementary School in Belleville helps students. During a recent Ellis Families program, Thies taught students about being responsible using a bee hand puppet.

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Kindergartner Jaylen Payne couldn't wait to tell second-grade teacher Katie Thies that she lost a tooth as they walked hand-in-hand to Thies' classroom at Ellis Elementary School in Belleville.

Thies isn't Payne's classroom teacher, but the two have formed a bond as part of the Ellis Families initiative, a component of the school's character education program.

Principal Dave Deets explained Ellis Elementary has 27 "families" that include 15 or 16 students from kindergarten through fourth-grade and one certified staff member.

Through Ellis Families, he said students are able to build a positive relationship with an adult outside of their teacher and also form relationships with students in other grades.

"It's a really nice program," he said. "Education is about reaching individual students and inspiring them to do their best. This gives them a sense of belonging."

"It's really great for the kids," said Amy Buller, the social worker at Ellis. "It's neat whenever you see the kids recognizing other family members in the hallway."

Ellis families come together once a month for fun activities that focus on building relationships and teamwork. During family time Wednesday, Thies reviewed the character trait of the month "responsibility" with her family members. She also showed them the hand signal for responsibility, which is using both hands to pat your shoulder.

Thies then brought out her "bee" responsible hand puppet and asked students to name some responsible behavior. Students provided the following examples: doing homework, staying healthy, obeying adults and owning their actions.

When Thies announced the students' next activity was coloring a "bee" responsible card, they yelled "yeah" in unison. She reminded the students to share the crayons. "We are a family, and we share," she said.

While coloring her bee in a rainbow pattern, second-grader Allison Patterson said she likes her family, because "they're nice."

A sentiment echoed by third-grader Maliki Knight. "They are really nice," he said of his family members, "and I like my teacher (Thies)."

Fourth-grader Abby Miller said she likes meeting with her family. "I like being able to meet with other teachers and making new friends," she said.

Thies' family ended its gathering with a chant about how their family rocks. "It has been a great thing for our school," Thies said of the Ellis Families.

She explained the families will stay consistent every year, which means kindergartners will be in the same family unit through fourth grade. "We feel this allows the children to form relationships and bonds with other staff besides their immediate teachers as well as other students in different grade levels," Thies said.

Emge Junior High School in Belleville is mirroring Ellis' family initiative with its fifth- through eighth-graders this year. Both Emge and Ellis are in Harmony School District 175.

Deets said Ellis got the idea for the families initiative from Renfro Elementary School in Collinsville. Renfro started the families initiative under the leadership of former Principal John Griffith, who is now director of student services for Collinsville Community Unit School District 10. Renfro had the families initiative for two years before moving onto other character education programs.

Griffith said the families were "great for the kids" and emphasized cross-age grouping -- "getting younger and older kids together to learn from each other and help each other. It helped students develop a sense of unity and belonging," he said.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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