By Jamie Jenson
Photos by Ana Gil-Taylor
Van Duyn Elementary School was a vastly different place than it is today when its principal, Eva Williams, took the helm seven years ago. The school was consistently cited by the state as underperforming, and Eva, who has spent nearly 34 years in education, wanted to turn the it around. She and her team quickly embraced strategies they felt could take the school to the next level.
The strategies center around three important aspects of growth: social-emotional, physical, and academic.
“When these three things are in alignment and a child feels safe and comfortable and healthy and fed and loved, then they’re going to thrive, and that’s my foundation for how I see how we need to make Van Duyn run.”
Eva said the school really hit its stride three years ago, when the staff, who Eva says is “absolutely phenomenal,” began noticing the positive changes. This positive growth inspired everyone to up the ante and even further enhance the experiences the students have at the school.
Jackie Shostack from the Onondaga County Health Department helped lay a walking path inside the school. Following the steps several times around the building adds up to walking an entire mile. Eva said teachers will send students to walk the path when they feel they a brain break. Next came a sensory path, which involves the participating hopping, leaping, and doing push-ups against a wall, which helps students de-escalate when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Teachers also use the sensory path as a teaching tool, reinforcing the rules of multiplication and division while the students are on the path.
Eva said the initiative is the work of the entire staff.
“We’ve all come together and are pretty much a like-minded group, which really is the benefit to the students and to the community that we’ve built here,” Eva said.
Once a month, the school offers fun events for students through its Positive Behavior and Supports. Students who have earned a certain amount of points can participate in activities such as roller-skating, dances, and even ninja obstacle courses.
Eva said that by offering these activities as incentives, it’s reinforcing an important message.
“Physical activity is relatable to fun and learning,” Eva said.
The entire building also participated in a challenge that involved doing 100 jumping jacks.
“We try to do things that are fun for the kids, embracing fun with learning but also doing those other components so that they can feel whole,” she said
Eva said she ran around to about half of the classrooms to encourage the staff and students while the entire school participated in the event.
Aside from a robust physical education program, Eva said that all teachers try to incorporate mindfulness and physical activity into their lessons.
“There is nothing happening here in isolation,” Eva said. “As much as we’re taking care of our bodies, learning cannot occur in a human form that is not whole. You don’t learn. So if we’re not making sure our children are happy, healthy, whole, no matter what lesson plan is sitting in front of them, they’re not connected to it, so we have to make sure that we have created a school that allows our children to grow as individuals so that they can also grow that academic part. It’s all connected.”
Eva said the school has received help from outside sources, as well, including the local chapter of the American Heart Association, which sends monthly newsletters home to Van Duyn families. The American Heart Association also brings little charms and other goodies for each student to wear or attach to their backpacks.
Megan Corey, Kristin Thompson-Henry and Executive Director Franklin Fry from the American Heart Association, Eva said, have been invaluable resources for the students and staff at Van Duyn, and just before summer vacation, St. Joe’s sent each child home with a tote filled with equipment such as a pedometers, jump ropes, and healthy eating placemats; the school wanted to add even more to the bags, so they included books for the students to take home to read with their families.
The YWCA also comes to the school twice a week in order to work with a group of girls to teach them about their bodies, minds, and building healthy relationships. The Y also provides transportation so that the girls have a ride home after the program.
In June 2018, Van Duyn received a brand new playground, thanks to the generosity of Darco Manufacturing, who donated funds to the district. Eva said they’ve infused recess into the schedule so that the students get a break.
“If it’s not freezing,” Eva said, “they’re outside.”
While Eva and her staff have made tremendous strides to ensure the health and well-being of all of the students at Van Duyn, Eva said it really has taken a village.
“If we didn’t have community partners and relationships,” Eva said, “we wouldn’t have these things.”