by Moira Cullings
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Families of Our Lady of Unity School here stepped back in time Nov. 18 to enjoy one of America’s former favorite pastimes: the drive-in theater.
The parking lot at the Boulevard Drive-In in Kansas City, Kansas, the setting for OLU’s Literacy Night, was awash in nostalgia for some, but excitement for others.
Most of the kids present had never seen anything like it.
“It’s something every family needs to experience at least once in their life,” said Martha Concannon, who works in the school’s resource room.
Classic 1950s music blared through the theater’s speakers as children sailed around the playground.
The ambiance was just one exciting element of the evening, which was covered by Title I funding.
As they arrived, each carload received a bag packed with literary resources.
The arriving families were then instructed to make two more stops before parking — the first to drop off food donations for charity, and the second to grab a box of pizza for dinner.
The event, which was typically held at the school, was moved to the drive-in this year due to COVID-19.
And the brisk fall weather didn’t keep anyone away. Families and friends of the school showed up in droves — around 200 in total.
“The main purpose is to connect with parents and build community around reading and literacy,” said Concannon.
“The sense of community that this event brings to our school is huge,” she added. “We don’t have a lot of communitywide events. The fact that it brings so many families together is just wonderful.”
The students played games and won gently used books. The evening culminated with the movie “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.”
Concannon hoped that parents would leave the theater “with an armful of books and the feeling of supporting their child as they’re growing in their reading skills.”
Principal Cally Dahlstrom stressed the importance of an event like Literacy Night for a school like OLU.
Many of the school’s parents primarily speak Spanish and are busy with demanding jobs, said Dahlstrom.
“But at the same time, getting them more involved and to have more buy-in to our community is super-important,” she added.
Dahlstrom said providing games, information and strategies helps parents to help their children when they struggle with reading and writing.
“We really try to do it up and make it as fun as possible so that parents are starting to learn more and more about how they can support their kids at home,” she said.
Parents like Claudia Vazquez-Puebla were grateful for the opportunity to attend Literacy Night.
Her son Hugo is currently an eighth grader, and her other two sons, now in college, also attended the grade school.
“Having access to the different books is important for not only the growth of the kids academically,” she said, “but also that bond between the parents and the kids.
“My two are in college, and they still have to do book reports or research. It’s an ongoing skill you need to develop.”
Vazquez-Puebla recently joined the school’s business team, which is a product of the archdiocesan School Advancement Program (SAP).
“I really appreciate the fact that other communities are wanting to help this community,” she said, “and I want to be part of that opportunity.”
Nine schools are currently participating in SAP, said Michael Morrisey, who helps lead the program with his wife Patty.
“The School Advancement Program was developed in response to the landscape of Catholic education in which enrollment is on the decline and costs continue to rise, especially in rural and urban areas,” said Morrisey.
Men and women with various skill sets, such as finance, marketing and technology, work with the school’s pastor and principal to help the school thrive through fundraising efforts and enrollment management.
“In a couple cases, in our opinion, without the SAP, the schools’ doors don’t remain open,” said Morrisey.
“All SAP schools are evolving on the business side of their school operation, complementing their spirituality and academic excellence [and] allowing short- and long-term sustainability to become a possible reality,” he continued.
Most of the planning for Literacy Night was done by a committee of teachers, but the business team helped with the marketing and sent each car home with a brochure to entice more families to enroll their children at OLU.
The team is also responsible for organizing “Hog and Grog,” the school’s annual fundraiser, and has helped raise money through multiple grants.
Their support is critical to the 99% of OLU students who are only able to attend the school because of scholarships, said Dahlstrom, who hopes the school will continue to grow moving forward.
“I’m convinced that as a school community, we have to be a family and support one another,” she said.