Sara Wrightstone’s fifth-grade classroom at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School is a student-centered combination of faith, hands-on activities and the challenge to meet their potential.
In the course of a normal school year, there are ancient history lessons that involve the mummification of hotdogs, language arts activities on iPads, and science experiments with rain gauges in the school yard.
“Any way I can get them to be active in their learning is a lot more beneficial for them, and I can see them learning more that way,” said Wrightstone. “I love doing hands-on activities. I think that’s the best way to learn.”
When schools across the state were called to utilize creative ways to continue educating students after buildings closed to the pandemic on that fateful Friday, March 13, Wrightstone and her colleagues got right to work. Prepared from the get-go to offer remote instruction on the heels of a Diocesan flexible instruction days action plan, Wrightstone found innovative methods to continue teaching – and check on the emotional wellbeing – of the 25 students in her class.
These efforts offer insight as to why she was one of three recipients nationwide of this year’s Crystal Apple Award.
The award is presented annually by School Specialty, an organization that leverages professional perspectives and resources for teachers in their efforts to engage and inspire students. The Crystal Apple recognizes the transformational efforts educators make in the lives of their students.
As an award winner, Wrightstone was presented with a crystal apple, a $500 gift card for her classroom, and individual medals for her students.
“It’s a phenomenal accolade for Sara to receive this national award,” said David Rushinski, Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School’s principal. “She executes the plans well. She gives so much time and energy to what she is doing in the classroom. When she tries something new and it works, she continues to perfect it. She is all about the kids,” he said.
“Sara is a phenomenal human being. She’s kind. She will do anything for anybody that needs assistance. She’s willing to go above and beyond in anything she does, if it’s going to help the school improve,” he said.
In addition to teaching fifth grade, Wrightstone leads the annual school musical and coaches Girls on the Run and Quiz Bowl. She serves on the Math Curriculum Committee for the Diocese of Harrisburg, and on the Development Committee and School Board at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary.
“I really love what I do. I’m certainly honored to have the award, but I guarantee everybody in the teaching world deserves to have an award like this,” Wrightstone said. “I really have to thank my coworkers. They’re awesome in what they do. We all have to work together to make education possible here at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary. We work numerous hours working with kids, but it’s worth it at the end.”
The last 11 weeks of the school year required necessary change for students learning from home. Wrightstone used technology to her advantage. Teaching subjects and weaving the faith into daily lesson plans remained constant as she connected to her kids via programs and apps, even adapting lessons for students using cell phones.
And there was another crucial element for her and the staff: ensuring the emotional and physical needs of the students were also met.
A city school with campuses at the Cathedral Parish of St. Patrick and Holy Family Parish, Harrisburg Catholic serves students of various ethnicities, many of whom come from underprivileged families. Through its Meal Program, Harrisburg Catholic Elementary offers free breakfast and lunch to all students every school day.
To help address a lack of food security among its families, Harrisburg Catholic distributed food on a regular basis during the final 11 weeks of the school year. They turned monetary donations from staff and parishioners into grocery store gift cards, and distributed food donated by individuals and businesses.
“Sara assisted at every one of them,” Rushinski said of the food distribution days. “Our school community was able to help our families with that basic need. It’s part of who we are, and we have a responsibility to take care of that need as well.”
“Our faculty works 100 percent for every child here. We work so hard to meet every one of their needs,” Rushinski added. “Our population has such diverse needs. It expresses to me and to the whole community the effort that every one of our faculty put into what they do to make sure every child’s needs are met.”
The school community is unsure of what instruction might look like come fall, but Wrightstone is convinced that whatever plans are put into place, the staff and faculty at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary will be ready to meet them.
“Whatever we have to do, we’ll do it,” she said. “We always come together and work as a team here.”
“I’m really glad to be here as a Catholic educator,” Wrightstone said. “I can teach the faith, and that’s most important in my book. It’s actually brought me closer to my faith, being a teacher. I want to be the best I can be and the do the best I can do to ensure the education of these kids and work with parents. I want to support them in any way I can and make their lives better.”
(Learn more about Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School at https://hbgcathelem.org/.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness