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Sunrise Elementary brings student family connections to life with 'Cover the Walls' campaign

Wall art at Sunrise Elementary School. Leaders at Sunrise Elementary School wanted to find a way to create a sense of community, even amid the limitations of a global pandemic.

The answer came in a simple and straightforward avenue of self-expression. Even as students, teachers, staff and administrators alike operated with physical distancing, cohort scheduling and other safety measures in place, the school came together to bring personal stories to life on walls throughout the building.

Specifically, students from all grade levels went to work on a project titled “What Makes My Family Special.” Every student took home a blank, 11-by-17-inch poster, and used it as a canvas to tell the story of their own family. Parents, grandparents and other relatives were encouraged to assist, and soon, a tapestry of student stories and genealogies decorated the hallways of Sunrise Elementary. The pieces featured hand-drawn illustrations, poems, essays and even personalized touches like beads and glass.

“We wanted our students to feel like their families had a presence in our school,” said Tavonni Roberts, president of the school’s PTCO, preschool teacher and Sunrise parent. “Families worked at home on the posters over about a week, and we ended up getting hundreds back. It was really eye-opening. I didn’t expect so many people to turn it in and be so excited.”

Robbins, along with Sunrise PTCO vice-president Nicole Nibecker, helped organize the project, which quickly became a communal expression of family roots and values. Students used the canvas as a way to introduce their parents and grandparents; the poster becames snapshots of the diversity of Sunrise’s student body and broader community.

“It’s been so amazing to see our students walk the halls with each other and spot their posters. They’ll ask, ‘That’s your mom? That’s your dad?” Robbins noted. “It’s been so powerful for them to see each other’s families. Our students come from different places, they celebrate different holidays and follow different traditions. It’s been so powerful to see it all spelled out in these personalized posters.”

According to Sunrise Principal Sarah Famularo, what began as a simple project has now taken on the spirit of a campaign, one that could easily become a Sunrise tradition. She said that new families to the school will be encouraged to fill out posters detailing their histories and family roots.

“It’s given all of our students such a sense of pride about who they are,” Famularo said. “During the middle of a global pandemic, we’ve found a way to build this sense of community and allow all of our students a chance to see themselves and their peers in a positive light. They’re making connections between their own stories and those of their peers, and that’s powerful.”

Whether it’s two students finding common ground in the fact that they both have pet dogs, or a group of students commiserating in shared cultural or geographical roots, those simple connections can go a long way in helping a community come together in a challenging time, she added.

“Our goal has been for our students to walk the halls, slow down and recognize the stories and perspectives of others,” Famularo said. “That’s happening.”

-- Posted 10/27/20 at 3 PM