What exactly does a communications and community outreach specialist do in Dochester County Public Schools? If you’re Valerie Goff, you try to let the public know about the positives at DCPS.
“Because there are a lot of good things going on in our schools,” said Goff, “and human nature is such that a lot of communication focuses on the negative. And I try to focus on the positive because the positive vastly outweighs the negative.”
For example, Goff was recently at South Dorchester School while the principal was talking to two seventh-grade boys who were about to go and hoist the American flag for the day. Goff followed them and took some pictures of the activity, which she posted on the DCPS Facebook page, something she does frequently. When the photos got a considerable positive reaction from the community, she realized that many people were unaware the flag was still raised each day at the schools. Apparently, modern schools are a bit of a mystery to the general public because, for safety reasons, they’re not as open as they used to be.
“And so, I just do little things really to share that with them,” said Goff, who attended DCPS as a student.
She tries to get out to one school every day, to find out what’s going on. The school secretaries are good sources of information and are used to her dropping by to visit classrooms and take a few pictures. The schools also can be proactive in telling her about anything special happening, such as the recent Halloween celebration in Hurlock.
The annual “Trunk or Treat” at Hurlock Elementary isn’t just for the school but is for the entire community. It’s even open for organizations to set up tables and provide information. The event was already on Goff’s calendar, but she was happy to receive an email from HES’s principal, who hoped she would attend.
“I love doing things like that,” said Goff, “because there’s such a good atmosphere. And the kids are having fun and the adults are having fun, and people are seeing each other that they may not see on a regular basis.”
Another part of her job is communication with the media. She writes press releases, deals with the local press and the Salisbury television stations, and occasionally even has contact with the Baltimore outlets. She connects them with the information they need or the people they need to speak with.
Then there are the bigger projects that are designed to help the school kids feel a part of the community. An important one of these projects is the Ironman competition. When she first broached the subject with them, Goff was surprised to learn that a great number of children had no idea why so many people came to Cambridge in the fall, except that it had something to do with bikes and running.
“In my mind, Ironman is a huge asset to this community,” said Goff, “and our kids needed to be part of it.”
One way to get them involved is the annual letter-writing project, which has come to be quite famous in the Ironman community. In fact, other places that host the competition have begun their own letter campaigns. At the beginning of the school year, the teachers tell their students about the triathlon and about the competitors who converge on Cambridge from many different countries. The kids are astonished at the parameters of the race that involves swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles (which could take them to Ocean City and back), and running 26 miles (like to Easton and halfway back).
“But, the thing that I particularly love and really got me going on this is the Ironman motto, which is ‘Anything is possible,’” said Goff. “Because I think a lot of our children don’t believe anything is possible. They’re growing up in challenging circumstances, and for them to succeed in school, we need them to understand anything is possible. We don’t want to hear, ‘I can’t do that.’ Oh, yes, you can. If you work at it, you practice, you get better.”
So, with these lessons in mind, the students write short letters to the Ironman participants. Some are simply encouraging while others offer specific advice. Goff spends a weekend before the triathlon reading all of the messages (some years over 2,000), and she finds the children’s words moving. More than that, she’s happy that they’re learning something from an important community event.
Another major project that Goff is about to get more deeply immersed in is the school house system, which was pioneered by the Ron Clark Academy in Georgia. Anyone familiar with the Harry Potter series will know about the method of breaking up schools into several “houses” and creating smaller student-groups transcending grade level. In this system, which has already been introduced at Mace’s Lane Middle, Hurlock Elementary, and Maple Elementary, the kids participate in group activities, working toward common goals to collect points for their house, until they eventually feel like a sort of family.
Goff was present at Maple Elementary on the day the annual house prize was awarded. There was much excitement in the air, but what most impressed her was the way the winning house was enthusiastically congratulated by the others. There were hugs and high-fives, and no one looked discouraged at not coming out on top.
“I mean, obviously, they’re human,” admitted Goff. “There had to be disappointment that ‘my house didn’t win.’ But research has shown that the house system helps with academics, it helps with behavior, and it teaches kids a lot of life lessons that help them when they leave Dorchester County Public Schools and go into the real world.”
Ultimately, Goff, who has been with DCPS for nine years, most enjoys the positivity in her job.
“Because I tend to be a pretty positive person, and I like looking for the good and sharing it,” she said. “I like being in the schools and seeing the excellent work our teachers do. I like to see when kids achieve. Anybody who’s ever worked in a school, any teacher will tell you, the look on a kid’s face when the light goes off over their head, that’s good. Sometimes I get to see that.”