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Bringing style and substance to students in Glens Falls

Posted June 9, 2017 by Liza Frenette

The red shoes really stand out. Kind of how Dorothy’s ruby slippers stood out in the “Wizard of Oz.” One look, and you just know there is something special going on with those kicks. They hang on a tall shoe rack at the basement boutique at Glens Falls High School, where students who need clothing can come once a month to shop.

The shoes are glam. Classy. They have a small silver buckle and heels. Someone will snag them soon.

The shoe rack shows just how unique this student boutique is. As a place where students and families in need can get clothing, it is far from a tangle of shirts and pants that anyone has to paw through. It’s a well-appointed shop where everything is set up just as a clothing store would be. There is a girls’ department and a boys’ department. Clothes are neatly hung on racks and sorted according to size. Tables hold neatly folded shirts. There are bins for socks. Jewelry is spread out decoratively on tables and purses are hung on a wall. A tall shelf holds toiletries.

The only thing missing is a cash register. That’s on purpose. Because, for high school special education teacher Ann Ryan, this is her purpose.

She discovered it in 2014, when the school principal sent a group of educators to a conference on how to turn high-poverty schools into high-performing schools.

After the conference, Ryan began adding mulch to what she’d learned. “I questioned: Is this just another conference, or am I going to do something?”

“Something” turned out to be the creation of a committee that calls itself Helping Others Pursue Excellence — HOPE. Ryan is the high-octane leader. The members who volunteer are teachers, aides, school social workers and counselors who connect students with food and clothing. The first goal was to get food to students in need.

“Hungry kids can’t learn,” said Ryan, a member of the Glens Falls Teachers Association who is also a past union secretary and building representative.

Ryan had learned that, in one elementary school in the district, there were 75 percent of kids accessing free and reduced lunch. But, by the time those kids reached high school, that number dropped to about 35 percent, she said. For many, their situations haven’t changed — it’s just that they don’t want to the stigma of accepting free and reduced lunch.

“So, the need is still there,” she said.

HOPE committee members began collecting donations for food. They went to churches looking for donations, letting church leaders know about their new program. They hosted a few fundraisers, such as providing lunch for donations of money at the superintendent’s conference day. They held food drives at school. “Participation in Government” students helped donate food. Two high school graduates who run a local pizza business have donated food for events.

The Glens Falls Teachers Association, the local union representing 190 members here, donated money to help the group get off the ground.

“I’ve seen poverty increase over the last 10 years, absolutely,” said GFTA President Brandon Lis, standing in a sunny room filled with desks of special education teachers filing in at the end of a school day. He works as a transition coordinator and supported employment coordinator for special education students. A lot of his students help organize the boutique and the school’s food pantry. They also purchase food for the pantry with HOPE money, learning new skills in shopping and budgeting.

“The needs have increased hugely. Our executive committee decided this was a worthwhile charity to contribute to because it affects kids we work with every day,” he said.

The Glens Falls Support Staff Association also contributed from its union coffers. Meanwhile, a student who received services from HOPE for several years convinced his 2017 senior class to make their class community donation directly to HOPE, Ryan said.

HOPE volunteers hand out food once a week to qualifying students. The bags they take home are filled by students from the supported employment classes with a weekend’s worth of meals and snacks. There is pasta, soup, sauce and breakfast food, shown off eagerly by Ryan and colleague Betty Brown, job coach.

Ryan fetches a clipboard from her desk to show how she logs food giveaways on a spreadsheet with the names of students.

The names of the students who receive the food come from the school’s social worker. Ryan herself calls the families to see if the parents would be willing to accept the weekly food.

The HOPE committee then expanded to clothes, eventually creating a full boutique. It is open once a month on a Saturday morning, by invitation to students who receive free and reduced lunch. Invitations are mailed to student’s homes.

“If you don’t feel good about yourself, you won’t go to school,” said Ryan. Clothes make a huge difference.

Primarily people who live in the Glens Falls area donate the clothes, and there are many name brand, hot-ticket items to be had, along with other practical, stylish, needed attire.

“The very, very first boutique we had was May 2015. We had five students. In December 2016 we had 178,” said Ryan proudly. “This year, total by the end of May, we served 500 people.”

At the holidays, volunteer educators wrap gifts that families choose for each other at the store.

Students and their families are invited to pick out clothing; Ryan said, through these interactions, many of the parents have come to get to know the teachers who volunteer for the boutique one Saturday a month during the school year.

“We’re building trust, which is what we hoped,” Ryan said, noting the project is strengthening relationships between the community and the school; between families and teachers.

In August, the boutique opens again, featuring back-to-school supplies, many that are reclaimed from items left in lockers in June.

Ryan said it initially took a lot of pushing to get the administration on board with the program, before it was conceptualized. But, now that they have seen the success, she said administrators are overwhelmed.

She said the high school has been identified by the State Education Department as a district in need, and that, when state officials came to visit the school, “the first thing the principal showed them was the boutique.”

A veteran teacher who is in the shadow of retirement, Ryan said: “This is just the pinnacle of everything. I felt, ‘This is what you’re supposed to do.’”

Other committee members are Donna Schoelermann, special education teacher; Kari Benway, special ed teacher; Krista Field, special ed teacher; Erin Wever, English teacher; John Woodell-Freire, school counselor; Kathy Cerny, high school social worker; Carol Hobbs, middle school social worker; Peter Taylor, art teacher; Christal Walton, special ed teacher; Kelsey Crosby, middle school teacher; and Betty Brown, job coach.

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