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Virginia Journal of Education

The Family Album

A Rockingham County school makes its hallways homey by putting up student photos.

By Tom Allen

“How many of you enjoy doing bulletin boards?” asked a speaker at the professional development conference in Atlanta. In the crowd of about 500 educators at the event, “not a single hand went up,” says Joe Kapuchuck, principal of Plains Elementary School in Rockingham County.

All those hands kept firmly at people’s sides brought plenty of chuckles—and the beginning of a whole new approach to the look and atmosphere for students and staff members at Plains.

The conference was held at the Ron Clark Academy, founded by the well-known educator and author, and one of the features about the school Kapuchuck and the Plains teachers who made the trip noticed was the school-wide display of student photos. Plains staff has long preached the idea of “family” at the school, striving to create a comfortable, positive environment, and seeing the Clark hallways gave them a win-win idea: What better way to promote that kind of atmosphere than by doing away with bulletin boards in the halls and replacing them with “family” photos?

It’s been a months-long process, but the front office and hallways at Plains are being transformed into a family album showcasing the people, both very young and somewhat older, who call the school home.

“We hope our school is a place kids are excited to come to each day, not because they have to, but because they truly feel part of a community,” Kapuchuck says. “We want to focus on relationships with kids. And when you go to someone’s home, what do you almost always see? Family photos.”

So, a stroll through Plains now is filled with photos of children playing together on the school’s playground, competing in last year’s Field Day, participating in classroom activities, interacting with their teachers, and being out and about with their families. Photos are taken by school staff.

“We’re always looking for ‘framers,’” Kapuchuck says.

And the kids are fascinated, says Susie Short, a Rockingham County Education Association member and the school’s speech therapist. “They love seeing their own pictures and the pictures of their friends and teachers,” she says. “They get very excited, pointing them out and remembering what they were doing when the photos were taken.”

Short loves the bonds the photos can help reinforce, too, often hearing comments like, “Hey! That’s my reading buddy!” or “She’s on my bus!”

It’s not just the grade-schoolers who are giggling over the photos, either. Short notes that, like in kitchens everywhere, there are now pictures plastered to the door of the refrigerator in the teachers’ lounge—and they’re getting a lot of attention. “It’s so cool,” she says, “and, for us, it’s like a teacher version of what the kids do. You’ll hear, ‘Oh, remember that? It was Smoothie Day,’ and a lot of laughter.”

Short says the school-wide photo project has been as good for the staff as it’s been for students. “They’re such joyful pictures,” she says, “and they’ve had a very positive effect on general morale. Sometimes, a student may have challenging behaviors, or you may not have had the best experience with him or her—but this lets us see another side of them, to be reminded that each child also has wonderful qualities.”

She loves the impact she’s seeing the photos have every day in the hallways. “Kids feel more supported,” she says. “The pictures are a visual indicator that we’re all there for them. It makes our school an even more comfortable place.”

Kapuchuck agrees. “The kids feel it,” he says. “Their smiles speak loudly. I’ve heard nothing but positive conversations about the photos. Not one negative word—we’re very proud of that.”

As the “seniors” at Plains, the fifth-graders get special treatment. Each one has a portrait photo in the fifth-grade hallway, and each got to choose a one-word descriptor of themselves, a sentence and a quote to be displayed with the picture. One teacher was moved to tears looking at the fifth-graders’ photos, remembering them as kindergartners in her classroom during her first year at Plains.

Another student, a fourth-grader who Kapuchuck describes as one who “normally doesn’t smile,” became animated and excited during a conversation the two had about whether the student would get his picture on the wall next year when he’s a fifth-grader.

Frames, photo enlargements, and other materials don’t come free, so the Plains community has had a series of fundraising activities this school year to pay for the picture project. The school’s maintenance staff has been extremely helpful in removing bulletin boards from the hallways and mounting the frames, though Kapuchuck has done a fair bit of drilling and hanging himself.

All the hallways in both floors at Plains aren’t filled yet, and not all of the schools more than 400 students have been featured. But the project is ongoing, and there are plans to eventually feature photos in classrooms, too. “We’ve got a lot of empty frames,” Kapuchuck says, with a smile.

Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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