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Lehighton teacher returns from abroad with plans to connect community

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    Cristi Marchetti and her daughter Vivian recall their experiences with the Fulbright Scholarship. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published October 17. 2017 12:21PM

School facilities are bustling throughout the day with students making the most of their educational experience. But when rooms empty and buses pull away, an eerie silence falls over the halls.

That deserted feeling can be noticed over summer and holiday breaks, and it’s a gap Lehighton Area High School teacher Cristi Marchetti hopes to bridge after a four-month program abroad studying full-service extended schools.

From Feb. 1 through May 31 she was based out of Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as one of 45 U.S. citizens traveling abroad through the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program in 2016-17.

Popular in the United Kingdom, the full-service philosophy makes schools the hub of a community, with services targeted toward students and the broader population.

“The school campus is centrally located and has the physical space for activities and use by community groups and organizations,” Marchetti said. “We have stages, cafeteria, parking and everything necessary to be the hub of the community.”

With her Fulbright project complete, Marchetti created a turnkey tool kit for the district to implement her vision of a “Learning Community.”

Though Marchetti has examples of the type of activities the school district’s campus could be used for, the final determination will come from the community.

“One of the most critical things I learned in Europe was that this needs to be built from the bottom up and not the top down,” she said. “You can’t tell the people what they want or need. That has to come from the community.”

Bridging the gap

Winter break can be a tough time for people to socialize and it’s why Marchetti has included a tab specifically for winter programs on a website she is developing for the program.

Examples of winter activities include theater club, holiday leftovers cooking, starting seeds, seed library exchange, resolution gym time, yoga, coding camp and crochet/knitting circles.

“The idea is to make the school available so people can get out, be social and feel connected,” Marchetti said.

The same goes for summer break when science camps and other activities could take center stage.

Eco-schools are popular in Northern Ireland, Finland and many of the other countries Marchetti visited during her program. Community gardens, with students gardening together with the elderly, is something she feels would work well in Lehighton.

“It’s just one example of how we extend the school,” she said. “Cookie swaps are a popular idea but why not bring everyone in and cook together instead of doing it separately and just trading cookies. We have consumer sciences kitchens that could be made available. Another idea could be as simple as having community groups use the stage or hosting dances.”

Getting started

Getting off the ground means having someone to steer the ship. According to Marchetti, that would be a director of community programs, akin to an athletic director for sports.

The person would be responsible for community engagement and promoting the program in the public.

“One of the things I’ve looked at is how to get the most grants or sponsorships,” Marchetti said. “This would be a self-funded program with no taxpayer money needed.”

The district would determine the fees for facility use and the legal jargon that accompanies it.

Pricing would likely be on a sliding scale and not a flat fee.

“I envision us even using the schools on holidays,” Marchetti said. “I know there are custodians willing to work because it would mean more money for them.”

Marchetti would like to see a program for community school use up and running next year.

“I think that is doable,” she said. “This district is very forward thinking and has been very supportive of my project. There are not a lot of roadblocks.”

Vivian’s thoughts

Joining Marchetti was her daughter Vivian, a third-grade student in the Lehighton Area School District. Vivian attended the Preparatory School of Victoria College in Belfast.

“Vivian had a great experience,” Marchetti said. “Her class learned what World War II evacuees went through when they were moved from the city to the countryside to escape bombings. Children wore name tags, carried a suitcase with their belongings and had a gas mask. The lesson included a field trip to Castle Ward.”

In a report to the Lehighton Area School District board of directors, Vivian said she most liked “the nice kids in Belfast, her teacher Miss Waugh, a river cruise in the Netherlands, the Eiffel tower, not wearing shoes inside the school in Finland and coming home to fireworks for the Fourth of July.”

Future Fulbrighters

“I’d love for more people to do Fulbrights,” Marchetti said. “Finland is one of the most active Fulbright groups in the world and they are always doing things. I don’t think a lot of people here realize these opportunities are out there for them.”

The Fulbright Finland Foundation awards grants to U.S. students, teachers, lecturers and scholars to study, teach or pursue research in Finland.

A U.S. student’s Fulbright period in Finland can encompass completing a full graduate degree program in Finland, taking courses in a Finnish university as a nondegree student, pursuing research, or pursuing research and taking courses.

More information on the Fulbright opportunities in Finland are available at www.fulbright.fi.

“Now that one person in our area has done it, we are on the radar,” Marchetti said. “A lot of people in our area are studying abroad and I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Rolling out her plan

Lehighton’s administration is compiling a list of past community events on school grounds and encouraging ideas for use.

Those past activities include local dance company recitals, Lehighton Education Athletic Foundation carnival, Lehighton Rotary handmade holiday craft show, 5K races, law enforcement practice space, sesquicentennial parking, American Cancer Society relay, local sports team practices, games, and tournaments, bloodmobile drives and Ford test drives.

“We kind of see this year as a time when we can test things out,” Marchetti said, “and then when the elementary center opens, we’ll be ready to go.”

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