« Back to News List

Area students benefit from ACES inter-district grant

May 3rd, 2017


Taking First Graders on an Inter-District Learning Adventure

By Pam Johnson, Senior Staff Writer • Contact Reporter
Published May 03, 2017. Last updated 03:08 p.m., May 02, 2017

Shown here enjoying a final interdistrict event for students, parents, and community helpers at Nathan Hale School in New Haven are (from left) Jerome Harrison School 1st grade teacher Katie Ayotte, Nathan Hale School 2st grate teacher Stacey Kormier, and North Branford Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker. (Photo courtesy Katie Ayotte)

Of all the people they’ve met on their inter-district learning adventure this year, one name Katie Ayotte is very glad to have introduced to her 1st graders is “IRISS.”

Thanks to winning a highly competitive 2016-17 IRISS (Inquiry, Research & Investigations in Social Studies) inter-district grant, the Jerome Harrison School (JHS) teacher and her North Branford first graders collaborated regularly with a classroom of their peers at New Haven’s Nathan Hale School. The $8,800 grant, shared between the classrooms, was awarded through Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES).

By using technology to have collaborative discussions and lessons via SMART Board video chats, visiting each other’s schools, and spending time learning together at field trip destinations, the IRISS grant has helped the students open doors not only to 21st-century Social Studies Framework learning, but to understanding, diversity, and making new friends.

“Part of the grant is that they really try to pair up urban with more rural schools, so the students get used to meeting each other and become friends with people who are different from themselves. That’s how we got partnered with Nathan Hale from New Haven,” says Katie.

She first met up with Nathan Hale 1st grade partner teacher Stacey Kormier last year. The two began arranging plans for the year at an ACES in-service meeting.

“It was really interesting talking with my partner teacher about demographics and backgrounds. I don’t have that much diversity in my classroom, while at Nathan Hale, they are extremely diverse.”

When the two classes met for the first time, Katie says the response was instant.

“When the Nathan Hale students met us for our first meeting, they came over to our school in October and spent the morning in our classroom. All the kids jumped right in, from the beginning,” says Katie.

The grant provided funds for bus travel for inter-district visits, helped to cover the cost of field trips, and provided additional classroom learning tools.

“We bought books for our classrooms based on what we were studying and we also applied the grant to technological things—for instance, our district has SMART Boards and Nathan Hale had none. Stacey bought one for her class, and I bought a document camera for our classroom,” says Katie. “We also subscribed to a news magazine, TIME for Kids, for the students to follow current events, like the [presidential] election. We talked about what it means to vote and what it means to be responsible as a citizen.”

The discussion tied in neatly with the theme Katie and her partner teacher had chosen as the focus for their students.

“The first time I got together with Stacey, we went through what we wanted to concentrate on and that boiled down to the idea of community helpers—what a community helper is, how are you a part of your community, and what responsibilities do you have?” explains Katie. “One of the books I picked was an ‘A to Z’ of amazing community helpers. We do a morning meeting every morning in our classroom, so at the beginning of the year I used a letter a day, and the kids would throw out their ideas of which community helpers would begin with the letter, too.”

From aldermen to firemen, both classes had visits from actual community helpers during the school year. The students also shared in three group field trips, visiting Connecticut Historical Society, Eli Whitney Museum, and Connecticut State House. In April, the North Branford kids traveled to New Haven to share in a cumulative partner school celebration, where the students set up hands-on displays highlighting different community helpers.

Katie says she was inspired to pursue the IRISS grant by JHS Principal Carter Welch, Ed.D.

“One of reasons I decided to apply for the grant in our school this year was that our principal Dr. Welch challenged us to concentrate more on trying to make our classrooms student led. At this age level, it’s still a lot of teacher talking and directing. So I thought the grant would be perfect, because the kids can really lead themselves in their learning,” says Katie.

In celebrating Katie’s IRISS grant award at the beginning of the school year, Welch said he was excited to have JHS as “part of such an exciting and diverse grant, and to see how our students and teachers collaborate together around Social Studies learning.”

Welch also said he was “not surprised” that Katie was awarded the grant.

“She is a leader, a visionary, a risk taker, and a creative and inspiring teacher,” Welch says. “Her efforts with this project will leave a lasting impression on all her students and [is] a great source of pride for North Branford.”

A teacher of 10 years, Katie has been with North Branford Public Schools for her entire career. She started as a JHS 2nd grade teacher before moving to Totoket Valley Elementary School to teach 4th grade, then returning, three years ago, to JHS to teach grade 1.

“My heart is with the younger kids,” says Katie. “I love the age. They hang on every word.”

Speaking of younger kids, Katie left her classroom in February on maternity leave, and two months ago, she and her husband and their three-year-old daughter welcomed a new addition to the family, a son. In an interesting twist, Katie’s partner teacher was also expecting this year, and welcomed her newborn just last week.

Katie thanks her classroom’s long-term substitute teacher Kelly Jakiela for very capably helping Katie to carry on with the IRISS program since her departure. Katie’s also kept in touch with both her students and her partner teacher through the months, especially as planning continued for the culminating event, which took place on April 6 at Nathan Hale School. Katie attended and delighted in sharing in her students’ experiences. She also thanks North Branford Superintendent of Schools Scott Schoonmaker for traveling to New Haven to attend.

“It was really fun for me and the kids,” says Katie. “They got to go to Nathan Hale and experience that school, and then they shared the culminating activity where parents were invited, and community members that had come into our classrooms.”

Katie is now wrapping up this year’s exciting IRISS grant effort. She will be making a report back to ACES soon, together with her JHS classroom substitute teacher.

“Kelly and I are going to go to ACES in mid-May for the last in-service day so we can share out what we’ve both learned,” says Katie.

Inspired by the incredible learning opportunity IRISS gave her students and their partner class this year, Katie, who will resume teaching at the start of the next school year, says she hopes to apply for another IRISS grant to continue the JHS-Nathan Hale partner program next year.

“It was a really great experience for my kids and myself,” says Katie. “It’s just been nice to kind of feel like we’re doing something special, and I think that made the kids really want to participate. They loved the field trips and connecting all they were learning. I think it’s helped them to make a strong connection with their own community, and to understand themselves a little bit more.”

« Back to News List