An "Amazing Race": Building Community at Minnieville Elementary School

Colorín Colorado recently had a chance to do a Facebook Live interview with Nathaniel Provencio, Principal of Minnieville Elementary School in Prince William County, Virginia. Mr. Provencio had just won his school district's Principal of the Year award, along with The Washington Post Principal of the Year award.

During our conversation, Mr. Provencio mentioned his school's "Amazing Race" activity for staff at the beginning of the school year. Intrigued, we wanted to learn more!  Assistant Principal Deborah Ellis, the event's organizer, shared information about the event, how it's organized, and tips for other schools interested in trying something similar.

  Video bonus: Learn more about Minnieville's "Amazing Race" in our video clip below with Mr. Provencio!

Special thanks to the National Education Association for their support of our Facebook Live series.

Minnieville Elementary School is located in Prince William County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. More than half of the school's students are English language learners (ELLs) and 80% qualify for free- and reduced-lunch. The school leaders at Minnieville Elementary School, Principal Nathaniel Provencio and Assistant Principal Deborah Ellis, have come up with a unique back-to-school event to build teamwork and give back to their school community. At the beginning of each year, the staff at Minnieville Elementary embarks upon their own "Amazing Race", inspired by the hit television show The Amazing Race™, completing challenges in the school building and in the local community.

In lieu of traditional all-staff meetings, this event provides new and current staff members with a fun opportunity to collaboratively work on a project that builds collegial spirit, contributes to the community, and helps the staff get to know their students, families, and the school's neighborhoods a little bit better. Here's how it works!

Minnieville's "Amazing Race"

School challenge

The first part of the event involves coming up with tasks and puzzles for teams of staff members to complete in the school building – for example, locating objects or places around the building based on clues:

  1. What is the Minnieville Elementary mascot?___________________
  2. Find the Learning Mural and locate the component to an effective reading program.________________________
  3. If you have an attendance issue, who do you need to contact?
  4. The favorite place for our future Picassos or Rembrandts

The clues and puzzles help first-year teachers, as well as returning staff, become familiar with the school building and get to know each other in a relaxed and informal way. 

Community challenge

After racing through the school, the teams go into the Minnieville Community to complete "missions", which consist of staff members driving to pre-selected homes so that they can learn first-hand about the entire Minnieville school community from valued stakeholders.   Staff members get to know community members and the neighborhood through interviews with parents, grandparents, school board members, and community members (about 3-4 people) who can speak about Minnieville.  Questions cover topics such as:

  • Explain your relationship to the school.  
  • What makes a great school?
  • What are your hopes for your child/for the school this year?

Next, staff must find specific sites in the neighborhoods where the school’s families live, such as:

  • Places of Worship
  • Restaurants
  • Grocery Stores
  • Drug Stores
  • Places for Recreation
  • Libraries

Sometimes staff receive clues for community locations also:

  • If a student needed a loaf of bread for their lunch sandwich, where would he/she go?
  • If a student had a project and needed poster board, where could he/she get it?
  • If a student had a cough, where could their parents buy medicine?

This helps the staff to understand the community and the resources available to our families.  (This past year, the staff used the Goosechase app, which is an online scavenger hunt where teachers could take pictures of locations and upload them to the site.)

Family challenge

At the last stop on the race, teams are given their final mission. The race culminates with teachers driving to student homes, welcoming them back to school, and delivering school supplies donated by area businesses. 

For example, through Title I family surveys, families were asked how the school could best support their child’s academics at home. Many families stated that they needed assistance in setting up designated space for their children to complete their school work in the home. Through generous donations from area business partners, wooden book case/learning centers and school supplies were purchased for selected Minnieville families.

Teams of staff members assembled bookcases that would store learning supplies and act as designated areas for students and families to study school subjects and complete assignments in the home. After grade-level and instructional teams worked to assemble the learning stations, they delivered them along with backpacks and other supplies to the families’ homes. Mr. Provencio explains that not only does this part of the activity provide families with much-needed resources and supplies, it gives teacher an important perspective on the areas in which kids will be doing their homework throughout the year.

Planning the event

Assistant Principal Ellis says that planning the event varies from year to year, but that some general steps are taken for every race. For example, Mr. Provencio decides what teambuilding project he'd like the staff to complete. Next, staff locate local interviewees and identify families who can benefit from the activities. A lead mentor at the school helps identify items new staff need to know and incorporates those items in the race. Community partners also play a major role in the event. Assistant Principal Ellis writes, "We are constantly soliciting area businesses/community agencies to support our school.  We ask our staff members if they know of agencies, businesses would like to partner with our school."  

What do school leaders and staff members think of the Amazing Race?

The event has been well-received by staff, as seen in these quotes:

"I never thought a back to school staff meeting would be so rewarding! It was a perfect way to start the school year."

- Lindsey Le, ESL teacher

"I enjoyed getting to know the Minnieville families and hearing what their best memories of Minnieville are."

- Peggi Knight, Instructional Technology Resource Teacher 

"I thought this activity was just what I needed in the midst of all of the new teacher paperwork and hectic environment.  It was a nice reminder of why I am here!"

- Ashley Hoyle, Elementary Reading Teacher

For the school leaders, the events embody the spirit of the school:

Assistant Principal Ellis shares, "At Minnieville, we are always searching for ways to bridge the home/school connection and this project is a great start."

And Mr. Provencio states, "When teachers and families begin the year with a shared understanding of the vision and mission of the school, amazing progress will develop. The staff at Minnieville truly values a spirit of collaboration in everything we do. Placing a huge emphasis on taking care of our families and building substantial relationships is an essential component to the culture at Minnieville. This activity really sums up these two vital aspects of what our school is all about."

Planning your own event

Think you might like to try it at your school? Assistant Principal Ellis shares the following tips for schools interested in organizing their own event:

  1. Strategically plan events that take the staff out of the school and into the community. Schools have to be open to establishing authentic relationships with their families. Teachers should be open to doing home visits. Perhaps they could start with riding the bus home with the kids, walking kids home or meeting up at a local park or common area in the neighborhood. Some parents don't feel comfortable with having staff in their homes and in those cases staff can have "sidewalk conversations" outside of the home.
  2. If this is an activity for new or returning staff members, brainstorm some ideas for teambuilding activities at the school site.
  3. Identify parents, community members who can articulate the school's story. Make sure all neighborhoods are represented. Check on their availability for the race day and ask they if they would mind answering questions that our new staff/returning staff may have. Generally administrators come up with the names and questions with the help from school leadership team.
  4. Identify families (discretely) that could use support with back-to-school items. These are the families who are the last stop on the race.
  5. Look into partnerships with community businesses and organizations that can help support the goals of the event.
  6. Have fun!

Video Clip: Minnieville's "Amazing Race"

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