McCumber: Our School District’s Inspiring Way To Engage Students During Pandemic: Lessons In Hope And Resilience

By Jenny McCumber
Executive Director
LAPS Foundation

Most students and parents across the country were likely facing the last 10 weeks of school at home with a mixture of dismay, slight relief and also fear. Would this time be wasted? What about the missed sports, end-of-year performances, concerts and everything else? Is this just a long summer? Would anything educational be accomplished?

After all, there’s a pandemic to worry about with masks to make, toilet paper to collect and rationing the remaining disinfectant wipes in the house, among a multitude of other issues. What good could come from the rest of the 2019-2020 school year?

The Superintendent of Los Alamos Public Schools, Kurt Steinhaus, came up with an innovative idea, and with the assistance of Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation, developed a competition to keep the students engaged, encourage them to be creative and allow them to spend time doing what they love to do.

With no idea how it would be received, LAPS Foundation launched the Superintendent’s Project Challenge and waited to see if the concept would take off. Students entered the competition by submitting projects online, whether a photo, video, document, etc. The types of projects they could make at home were unlimited and they were encouraged to be as creative as possible and have fun. There were categories for age groups and also a group category for siblings or friends and clubs if they followed appropriate social distancing requirements. Cash prizes certainly helped motivate and excite the competitors.

It didn’t take long for the entries to come pouring in. Each of the four rounds of the contest had around 50 or more entries for a final total of 225. Hilarious videos, inspirational chalk art, musical performances, poetry, art, feats of engineering, essays, cooking lessons, a sibling reenactment of Star Wars, sewing COVID-19 masks, creating and destroying a coronavirus pinata, and a huge variety of other imaginative projects resulted.

The judging committee made up of LAPS Foundation staff, board members and LAPS staff hardly knew what they were committing to and spent many hours viewing all the projects, but what an inspiring experience it turned out to be. The judges laughed and learned, rated and discussed and gave out many cash prizes. The students were thrilled to win, and the parents were grateful their children were motivated to work on a project.

Perhaps the most meaningful thing about the whole process is the wisdom, creativity and resilience of the students. Ranging from kindergarten to graduating seniors, the students communicated messages of thriving in adversity, problem-solving, laughter, connection and hope which rang out loud and clear. It’s scary and worrisome to read the news these days. The COVID-19 numbers, political divisiveness and vitriol, racial discrimination, rioting, economic woes and despair about the future create a sense of unmitigated dread. However, what the students broadcast through their creativity is a different story. 

Consider this example from a middle school student:

“We are looking for a way out of a dark tunnel by ourselves instead of realizing that other people are our flashlights. Especially during a time like this we should respect others and help them by being their light. That is my message to society, so please spread the word to the top of the mountain. To the powerful and the powerless.” –Hana, 8th grade

As thoughts turn to the next academic year, everyone wonders exactly what school will look like and whether the new normal will keep our children safe and allow them to learn and grow to their potential.  Rather than trying to solve every logistical issue, perhaps more focus should be directed towards the students themselves. Conversations with students in Los Alamos have already started this summer with more to come. Part of re-thinking school should include learning from the wisdom of children. For no matter what school looks like, our students will find a way to learn and thrive under the circumstances.  After all, they’re very creative.

If you would like to be inspired by student projects from the Superintendent’s Project Challenge, visit lapsfoundation.com.

About LAPS Foundation

The Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization that helps the local community provide an extraordinary education for Los Alamos students. Los Alamos has given well over $1 million to fund opportunities students and teachers would not have otherwise. To learn more about LAPS Foundation and how to get involved and/or make a donation, visit lapsfoundation.com or call 505.500.6501. Donations to LAPS Foundation, a 501(C)(3) organization, are tax-deductible.