Above: Ribbon-cutting at McDonough Elementary School
MANCHESTER, NH – First-graders aren’t often encouraged to engage in trash talk, but on the last day of school at McDonough Elementary Wednesday, the 17 students in Mrs. Kurtz’s class couldn’t get enough of it. You see, they’d moved what felt like a mountain of trash with the power of their mighty pens.
It was a tidy ending to what has been two messy years in the lives of Charlene Kurtz’s students – she had them as kindergartners and “looped” in as their first-grade teacher, one way of creating some continuity for students, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.
“The bottom line is I just tried to normalize things with them,” said Kurtz, explaining that part of their curriculum included opinion writing.
Below: Slideshow of the full letter sent by Mrs. Kurtz’s first-graders.
It started with her students’ observation that their playground was “gross,” yet another repercussion of COVID restrictions. Debris caught by the chain-link fence or left behind by after-hours hoop-shooters and neighborhood kids had become a problem, as there were no trash cans there. And even if there were, handling trash in the time of COVID is not part of safety protocols.
So what could a bunch of 6-year-olds do about it?
The solution, given their lessons in self-expression, seemed obvious: Kurtz had them write a letter to the mayor requesting a trash can that was cemented in the ground, with a lid for their playground.
Although her principal had also put in a work order, Kurtz decided to see if she could expedite things. “I rolled it up and dropped it off at City Hall,” says Kurtz, figuring maybe over the summer someone in the public works department would get around to the request. “I’m a ‘take it to the top’ kind of person,” Kurtz said.
Knowing that work orders take time, she just wanted to put a hand-written exclamation point on the request, which arrived in the mayor’s office on May 27.
From there, things moved quickly.
It’s not every day you get a giant three-page letter hand-written and signed by 17 kids requesting a trash can for their school, said Mayor Joyce Craig. “I couldn’t say no. And what a great lesson, for them to know they can make a difference.” The mayor was already planning to be at McDonough for their fifth-grade promotion ceremony on the last day of school and was able to stick around for an impromptu ribbon-cutting. She shook hands with each child and thanked them for taking the time to write her a letter. Public Works Director Kevin Shepard also stopped by to keep encouraging the kids to speak up when they see something around the city that needs fixing.
Shepard said the McDonough trash can is among a fleet of new receptacles the city will be installing around the downtown and at city parks. They will be bolted down and are of sturdier construction than the green totes, and more aesthetically pleasing.
For Kurtz, the experience was reflective of the growth she’s seen in her students over two tumultuous school years.
“We started the pandemic together and we’re ending it together,” Kurtz said, her eyes momentarily swallowed in a salty sea of emotion. “This is the most resilient class I’ve had in my 20 years of teaching.”
While the challenges for teachers were immense, in terms of having to master a new way of teaching students through a computer screen, or in keeping up with the inconsistencies of hybrid learning, Kurtz says her students never missed a beat. In fact, they thrived.
It could have something to do with Kurtz, who is one of 29 teachers nominated for NH Teacher of the Year this year, 13 of which are fellow Manchester teachers. She said Zooming with her students over the summer from time to time kept them connected, and after two years together, she couldn’t think of a better way to end this journey with them.
“I’ve been here a long time, and I haven’t always said this about the Manchester School District, but this district did a lot in no time flat to bridge the digital inequity that exists in our city – every student had a computer and Internet access. They totally came through,” Kurtz said. “We hear a lot about what didn’t work due to the pandemic, but this is something they got right. These kids are incredible – they can handle anything.”