Johnson Middle School Finds JOY on the Ice

Students at John H. Johnson Middle School in Southeast, Washington DC embarked on an icy adventure this winter when their school traveled to Canal Park Ice Skating, an outdoor ice rink in DC. Students laced up their skates thanks to Flamboyan Foundation’s Back to School with JOY grant. This initiative – which invested a total of $125,000 across DC — invited public schools and nonprofit organizations to pitch their ideas for joyful experiences for students and families, an effort at celebration and community-building as students returned to in-person schooling in the 2021-22 school year.

It was the first ice skating experience for most students at Johnson, according to school counselor Neoka Smith, who helped organize the outing, which included a bus ride across town, ice skating, and snacks from nearby food vendors. Each grade at Johnson got its own separate trip, with teachers, counselors, and student support staff joining in.

So why ice skating?

According to Ms. Smith, students typically go rollerskating, and she doesn’t hear them talk about doing a brand-new activity very often. For Johnson’s Back to School with JOY project, they wanted to find something fun that still pushed students out of their comfort zone. “I like presenting students with challenges. They can see that it’s okay to make mistakes and you learn from those mistakes,” said Ms. Smith.

Students wobbled along together on the ice, holding hands with friends or supported by their teachers. Some students couldn’t figure out how to stay standing or move across the ice but kept getting up anyway. For Ms. Smith, giving students the chance to practice helping one another was part of the point – when your friend falls down, you help them up instead of just laughing. Or, as Ms. Smith put it: “Students finding out what their love language is.”

JOY was the focus of Flamboyan’s grant initiative, an explicit recognition that through three consecutive school years interrupted by disease and uncertainty, students and families need time and space to play, laugh, and reconnect.

“This was about giving students their childhood back,” said Ms. Smith. She pointed out that for the sixth grade students at Johnson, their last full uninterrupted school year was third grade, at a different school, and that feels like a lifetime away. While much discussion about missing school has been about lost instructional time, students have also lost opportunities to be kids with other people their age.

“All of those ways about how to socially connect with people have been lost in the past few years,” said Ms. Smith. “Like how to ask a friend to play. Students have been stuck.”

Not every student at Johnson was keen about getting on the ice. Some felt unsure about traveling outside their neighborhood to do an unfamiliar activity. While Johnson offered the trip to all grade levels, fewer sixth and seventh grade students signed up than eighth graders.

Ms. Smith reflected on the trauma that some students have been through over the past few years – some students at Johnson, like in many communities heavily impacted by the coronavirus, have lost family members or experienced homelessness, food insecurity, or a parent losing their job as a result of the pandemic. They might be more tentative about extending outside of what feels safe.

But they still deserve to experience delight in a way that feels truly joyful for them, said Ms. Smith. “That should be an added piece to the joy event. The students who have had a deep-rooted hurt – the joy experience has to be something that’s ongoing.”

For Ms. Smith and her colleagues at Johnson, that’s the incredible power of partnerships like Flamboyan’s Back to School with JOY grant. Students returned from skating with a wishlist of ideas for the next outing (some more realistic than others) – everything from a trip to Six Flags, to go-kart racing, to sampling a buffet and learning about culinary careers.

“We appreciate Flamboyan for the grant and the opportunity for students. It’s the partnerships that keep the student experience going.”

For more on supporting students and families’ needs, download Flamboyan’s Family + Student Wellness Check-In Guidance.