Picture of Maria Keefe and SFES students holding up books.

Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month

María Keefe is a first-generation American born of Cuban immigrants. She is a Hispanic achievement liaison at Stevens Forest Elementary School, where she works with staff and families toward the academic success of Hispanic students. Here Keefe blogs about Stevens Forest’s participation in National Hispanic Heritage Month with fun, educational activities.

The morning announcements are about to begin, and I’m standing next to a student who is positively bouncing with excitement. “I’m nervous, well, kind of scared,” he says.

We review his lines once more. After our principal, Mr. Ernesto Díaz, completes the pledge, he introduces the student who then gets to share a fun fact for National Hispanic Heritage Month. Our World Language teachers partnered with me to help come up with the list of interesting facts about Hispanic heritage, culture and accomplishments by famous Hispanics. When the student finishes saying his fun fact, he flashes me a grin of pure pride.

Kicking off the day with a fun fact is just one of the things we are doing to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month at Stevens Forest. As a school with more than 140 Hispanic students, it’s important that we recognize the richness of our culture and share it with the community as a whole. I enjoy celebrating the dual nature of our students of Hispanic heritage–they are proud to be in the United States and also proud of their Latin American roots. Most of them are bilingual and bicultural, as I am.

During National Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the heritage, culture and accomplishments of Hispanic people in the United States. The celebration of the month begins on September 15th and ends on October 15th. This time frame was chosen because September 15th is also the day of independence from Spain for five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

In addition, September 16th is the day of independence for Mexico, and September 18th is independence day for Chile. The month also spans Día de la Raza, on October 12th, a day that celebrates the new culture created in Latin America, which is a mixture of all races. The celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month dates back to an Act of Congress in 1968. It started as a week and became a month in 1988.

So back at Stevens Forest, we’re still celebrating. Our students will have grade level specific activities to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. Our amazing paraeducator Renee Burnstein created a fabulous display in our media center.  She included all sorts of wonderful reading materials: fiction and nonfiction books, bilingual books, books about Latin American countries and culture, and more. Our students have been enthusiastically checking out these books.

Later in the month, we will celebrate in one of my favorite ways: by sharing traditional dishes. Our school staff will be treated to a special luncheon by Hispanic parents to celebrate Hispanic heritage. The parents donate traditional dishes and serve the staff. It’s definitely a favorite day for everyone, and I love seeing the pride in the families’ faces as they share their favorite recipes.

I hope you’ll join me in celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month. ¡Muchas gracias!

Lexi Hack and her friends and family

Grateful for My Life-Changing Surgeries

Picture of Lexi Hack and her dogLexi Hack is a senior at Glenelg High School. She completed her fifth, and hopefully last, surgery for the correction of her leg alignment this past April. Here she shares her medical journey and work with the Save-A-Limb Fund nonprofit.

As a baby and toddler, I sat and crawled in a “W” position with my legs behind me. My parents noticed something was not right with my legs when I was about 2 years old. They told me how they took me to two doctors in Florida, where I was born, and two doctors in Maryland, where we moved when I was about 4. All the doctors said I was fine, I’d grow out of it, and there was nothing to do as it was normal for kids under 8 to be a little “bow legged.” I would complain that I had a lot of knee pain, my back would hurt, and I couldn’t run like the other kids. I was then seen by another doctor around the time I was 8. She said I did, in fact, have knee problems and performed surgery on both knees. This did not fix the pain, help me walk straight or run while playing sports. I went through years of physical therapy and acupuncture to try and reduce the pain, but nothing seemed to help.

As I entered middle school and then high school, I found I no longer could play my favorite sport, field hockey, as I would trip because my knees would hit each other. I was sent to another knee doctor who said “give up field hockey. You’ll never be able to play.” I was devastated. I bawled my eyes out in his office. He just walked out and that was that. Then, through a friend of my mom’s, we found Dr. John Herzenberg at Sinai Hospital. He told me he could make me have straight legs! My pain would diminish considerably, if not 100 percent. My hope for a new life was about to begin.

He needed me to have a special study done before he would do the surgery. This is standard practice because he needs to know the exact alignment of my bones. The cost for the study was more than my family could afford. Insurance wouldn’t pay for it, so we didn’t know what to do. Herzenberg found a way to help through the Save-A-Limb Fund at Sinai Hospital. It’s a fund designed to help people who do not have the financial resources to handle expenses not covered by insurance. It helps with testing, walkers, prosthetics, research and so much more.  WE WERE ECSTATIC!!

Now that all of the surgeries are completed and successful, I have made it my goal to repay Save-A-Limb, which allowed me to have these life-changing surgeries. My Faith in the Flowers T-shirts are available at The Maryland Store and Bowman’s Home & Garden, both in Westminster, MD. Also, the Save-A-Limb Fund Fest is on September 24 at Oregon Ridge Park. There are different choices for mileage bike rides and walks, along with games and food for the whole family. I would love to see you all there! For more information, you can visit my Save-A-Limb Fund Fest team page.

Guest posts do not constitute promotion or endorsement by HCPSS of any outside person’s or organization’s causes, ideas, websites, products or services.

Picture of Esther Lawson-John

Amplifying Student Voice for Excellence with Equity

Picture of John KrownappleJohn Krownapple, the coordinator for Cultural Proficiency, first joined the HCPSS community as an Oakland Mills High School student. He has worked in the HCPSS for 20 years, previously in roles including an elementary teacher, Social Studies/English Language Arts resource teacher and professional development facilitator. In his current role, he coordinates systemwide efforts to support schools working toward excellence with equity through professional learning and organizational development. Here Krownapple blogs about partnering with students in the process to ensure inclusion and equity.

In the below video, recent graduate Esther Lawson-John advocates for educators to tap into the power of Student Voice as a means of improving schools for all students. If you are new to the concept of Student Voice, you might be wondering: What exactly is it? How does it work? What are its benefits? If you’re familiar with the concept, you might be asking: How can we amplify Student Voice in ways that help us work together to shape inclusive, equitable and democratic communities, schools and classrooms? Let’s explore these questions.

Over the past few years, Student Voice has emerged as a popular term in conversations about excellence in education. A quick Google search will show school districts around the world heralding Student Voice as a pillar of school reform. However, it is not a new concept. As far back as 1916, educational reformer John Dewey wrote about Student Voice as a necessary part of the educational process in a democracy.

It’s helpful to think about “voice” as expression. Educators, parents and adults can’t “give” students a voice; students already have a voice. The question is: Are we listening? Or do we tacitly believe some variation of the old dictum that “children (or in this case, students) should be seen and not heard”?

To join the movement to amplify Student Voice, we can adjust our thinking and realize that students have something valuable to say, and that by sharing their experiences, these young adults-in-training can help us become more effective educators. As adults, we can use our power to issue invitations and listen. In these ways, we can “turn up the volume.” We can choose to amplify Student Voice. We can choose to listen and learn.

Now, let’s consider “voice” metaphorically. If voice is power, then Student Voice represents educators and students sharing power. It represents student choice and involvement in decisions that affect their experience within the classroom. It represents democracy in our schools. It represents the choice of teachers and administrators to lead with students.

Research over the past decade has clearly linked Student Voice to academic motivation and achievement. Students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be motivated to learn than students who do not believe they have a voice, according to the 2016 School Voice Report developed by the Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations (QISA). QISA research also suggests that students who feel they have voice are more likely to experience self-worth, engagement and purpose.

In June, the HCPSS held a two-day Cultural Proficiency professional learning conference with the theme “Student Voice: An Instrument for Inclusion and Equity.” The event featured keynote presentations and breakout sessions that highlighted promising practices across the district and facilitated discussions about how to turn up the volume when it comes to Student Voice.

During many sessions, students led professional learning alongside their teachers. Lawson-John co-led a keynote presentation with HCPSS Leadership Development Coordinator Charlene Allen. Both educators and students in attendance responded enthusiastically to Lawson-John’s presentation. “Give that student a TED Talk,” tweeted one audience member.

It may be possible for us, adults to use our power to give her a TED Talk or a similar platform, but nobody can give Lawson-John a voice. She already has one. And what an incredibly powerful voice it is, especially when amplified.

Additional Diversity and Inclusion Resources:

Student on a computer completing coding task

Coding is for Everyone

PIcture of Kristina John-Gabriel Kristina John-Gabriel began teaching in HCPSS in 2000, becoming an instructional technology teacher in 2012. She recently received her Master of Education with a STEM focus, which has led to an increased interest in using computer programming (coding) with students in a variety of ways.


PIcture of Shari Beth Dardick LorchShari Beth Dardick Lorch, MS, OTR/L, began her career in occupational therapy in 1992 and joined the staff of HCPSS in 2006. Previously she was on staff with local hospitals, school systems, nursing homes and with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She holds multiple degrees in occupational therapy and a certificate in educational leadership.

Here, John-Gabriel and Lorch blog about how teaching coding skills can support special needs students.

The Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) prioritizes college and career readiness for all students. Computer programming (coding) has been on the minds of many students and staff. There are advertisements online and local fliers offering opportunities for youngsters to partake in after-school and weekend classes to access these valuable skills.

At Running Brook Elementary School, a few of our staff were very excited about the Hour of Code and began to question how this could apply to our special needs population. We noted that a particular second grade student on the autism spectrum demonstrated accelerated skill in the area of technology. This student is nonverbal and has at times exhibited severe behavioral issues, which have required special education team support. Our team felt that with some modifications and IEP support we could create a coding program for him, which we could tie into his current classroom goals and objectives.

Early in the fall of the 2015-16 school year, team members led by our instructional technology teacher, Kristina John-Gabriel, began working with this 2nd grade student daily to determine how to best provide coding instruction. Code in essence became a life skill the student was learning and a way to meet his IEP goals. With no prior curriculum outside of Hour of Code, we also found there was leeway in regard to supports and programs that could be utilized and accessed for him. We could create and adapt our curriculum to his skill level. At this time John-Gabriel also attended a Code.org workshop to obtain further support.

John-Gabriel saw the student daily for 15 minutes each afternoon. Our team met continually, which included our occupational therapist, Shari Lorch. Lorch provided continued support to the student throughout the year providing specific modifications to our blossoming curriculum. During this time she also initiated the development of a pre-coding skills checklist tool to be used by occupational therapists to help support the identification of student needs and skill levels.

Curricularly, our team opted to start this journey by having our student play the board game Robot Turtles as a pre-coding tool. Using physical game pieces to create a block of code helped us to determine if our student understood basic commands needed to code at a higher, more abstract and virtual level.

Once this task was accomplished, John-Gabriel found that our student was able to start learning to use block code, which is similar to placing puzzle pieces that fit together but on a computer screen. Based on his ability and engagement here, our team then opted to try the computer program ScratchJr with this student. We noted that our student showed ability to sequence and troubleshoot, again supporting his IEP goals and objectives. Our focus was also increased attention and time on task, which was slower than what may be typical but we found was still successful.

We then moved on to the more difficult Scratch program. The Scratch program requires the transition from placing symbols together to create code (cause and effect) to placing words together to create code. Our team was not sure if our student would be able to make these advanced and more abstract connections, but our student persevered and surpassed this!

During the 2016-17 school year, we plan to work with our student to continue to promote and enhance his skill ability, including creating his own game. We also want him to continue to recognize and troubleshoot issues with his coding independently. We hope and plan to expand this program this year with other students who exhibit similar pre-coding skill abilities as determined by our team.

Through this endeavor, much was learned by the student and by our team. A relationship of trust and respect was built, which branched out into classroom learning. We are extremely proud of our student and our developing program. We are happy to share information on this up-and-coming area, which we are certain will lend itself to continued student success, hope and engagement.