July 8, 2024

9 Best Practices for Planning a School Event with Community Partners

Find out how teacher Heidi Russell led a successful wellness fair in collaboration with Pilot Light, Kohl’s, and Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Palmer Elementary students gather around a health fair table with Kohl's associate volunteer Michael M.

This spring Healthier Generation and Kohl’s joined John M. Palmer Elementary School and Pilot Light for an interactive health fair in Chicago. Palmer Elementary has been recognized as an All-Star awardee for their outstanding commitment to whole child health among the 2023 America’s Healthiest Schools. The collaborative event brought together students, staff, and local Kohl’s associate volunteers to celebrate nutrition and local foodways. Responses from the school community were universally positive. Students left the fair enthusiastic to grow their own food, start composting at home, participate in the school chicken coop, and share healthy habits with their families. 

“For me, it’s those moments. It’s the moments that they realize learning can be fun. Those are the moments I feel stick with kids,” says Heidi Russell, a pre-kindergarten teacher who organized the event. Ms. Russell has been a teacher at Palmer Elementary since 2019. In the last year, she received a fellowship with Pilot Light to integrate nutrition education into everyday learning. Read her advice for schools and community organizations who want to collaborate on innovative learning opportunities for their students and families.

“For me, it’s those moments. It’s the moments that they realize learning can be fun.” - Heidi Russell, pre-K teacher

Nine Tips for Planning Collaborative School Events 

1. Advocate alongside your students

Students enjoying the health fair.

As an educator, Ms. Russell is always thinking of new learning opportunities for her students. “I have lots of big ideas that I really want the kids to experience, and I try to find ways to make them come to fruition. I think that's really important, especially with the younger ones because their voice isn't always necessarily heard. So, I like to try to advocate alongside my students,” she says. This advocacy led her to reach out to colleagues and partner with Chicago-based Pilot Light: “Pilot Light is really more of a framework, so it has a lot of flexibility and it allows us to integrate all of our curriculum together through the lens of their seven standards.”

2. Identify shared interests with colleagues and partners

When Ms. Russell was looking for ways to enrich her students’ learning, she found out about Pilot Light through a colleague who was also interested in agriculture and nutrition. She recommends making connections and listening to others’ interests, both personally and professionally if you want to do the same. “I think finding a program that works for an individual involves a lot of communication and talking with your colleagues – finding people who share things in common.” She says, sometimes that curiosity makes you think, “‘I wonder what they're doing,’ and sometimes that becomes a partnership.”

3. Set a big goal and break it down

Healthier Generation and Kohl's associates volunteering at the health fair. Top, L to R: Marybeth T., Tammy S., Laura K., Patrick M., Jacob D., John S., Michael M., Brian G., Daniel H.; Bottom, L to R: Dr. Jess R., Kat L., Terry A.

Once you have a framework or idea in mind, set a goal for your event or project. Ms. Russell says, “I’d set a SMART goal. Have a very big goal and then take that big goal and chunk it down into smaller parts.” She builds this goal around a key question: “What do you want to have students learn by the end of the event?” Maybe you’re solving a problem or helping students get involved in learning something they’re passionate about. Check out this SMARTIE Goal Setting Worksheet to ensure your goals are strategic, measurable, ambitious, realistic, time-bound, inclusive, and equitable.

4. Focus on the students

When we ask Ms. Russell what she looks for in a community partnership, she says any prospective partners and projects need to be student focused. With Pilot Light, Ms. Russell’s students learned about where food comes from, how to make healthy choices, and how to connect what they learn about food with other skills: “Giving kids a chance to think about food and nutrition in a way that maybe they hadn't before and build real habits with them so that they are able to take those habits home to their families and start a generational uproar of healthy eating and living.” Consider filling in Student Vision Boards (en español) in class to help students identify what’s important to them.

5. Center cultural assets

Three students practicing an activity together!

A student-focused approach will also be responsive to the cultures and background knowledge your students bring to learning. Ms. Russell says, “One of the seven standards is about how food connects us to each other, so we look at our backgrounds and our cultures and even just our families and our traditions and see how food really influences us… Almost every culture eats rice, but they eat it in such different ways, and it's such a nice basis to compare and contrast that.” Students get to put their curiosity and empathy into action. “The kids always seem very adventurous and willing to try other individuals’ food, and they’re very kind.”

6. Start planning in advance

For the health fair in May, Ms. Russell started planning in January. This gave her and the event team ample time to figure out logistics, recruit volunteers, gather input from students, and receive donations to make the event successful. This also means students can have time to get involved. Ms. Russell says proudly of her students, “They did everything from cutting up fruits and vegetables for the ‘eat the rainbow’ activity to helping pick out the color scheme, and they are fully responsible for choosing the theme ‘eat the rainbow.’” And when plans don’t pan out, Ms. Russell encourages other teachers not to be discouraged. Instead, model a growth mindset for students and “see each failure as a learning opportunity for the next time.”

7. Communicate clear expectations

Volunteers ready to greet students. From L to R: Marybeth T., Laura K., Michael R.

When you rely on several people to make your community partnership a reality, you need to make your expectations clear and widely accessible. Ms. Russell recommends starting a shared document, so that everyone can view and update the whole team on their progress and any necessary paperwork. This advice also applies to starting new partnerships. Organizations who want to work with schools need to make integrating their support as straightforward as possible. “Being flexible with timing is a big thing, and then being super crystal clear; having a clear list of expectations helps because I am wary to get into something if I don't know what's going to happen.”

8. Think about the nitty gritty details

School events have lots of big-picture needs, like recruiting volunteers, choosing a theme, and reserving the school venue. But educators know small details can be just as important. Ms. Russell advises, “Think about the nitty gritty details as well, like having someone there to pass out flyers, someone to disperse the children, etc. There was a big concern that the students were gonna run in and go straight to the chef and then all chaos was going to break out.” Because they planned, the Palmer team avoided chaos, and students made their way around the fair and were all able to enjoy each activity.

9. Create pathways to receive feedback 

Terry A. and student volunteers set up supplies and tote bags for the health fair.

Ms. Russell experienced the immediate assurance that students and their families loved the event with exit tickets. One student responded, “I absolutely love lettuce!” after trying hydroponically grown lettuce at school. Another student is planting peas in her used milk cartons at home. Ms. Russell also invites students’ families to respond to school and class newsletters and through social media and email. “The feedback was all positive and I feel like as a result we got a lot more community involvement and I've been getting a lot of emails about how excited everyone was and how much they learned.”

Ms. Russell and her colleagues at Palmer Elementary are excited to bring the momentum from our event into the new school year. Although her fellowship with Pilot Light has come to an end, she will continue to implement their best practices, and she’s excited to find new ways for her students to explore cultural foods from around the world. 

Is your school a whole child health all-star? Learn more about being recognized as one of America’s Healthiest Schools!

Find more resources to build family and community partnerships:

Kohleun Adamson

Manager, Culturally Responsive Communications | Alliance for a Healthier Generation