Third- and fourth-grade teacher Erin Shanahan wears a dress designed by her student, Willow DeRaps. The dress is a product of a project introduced by Shanahan to help boost classroom attendance. Students drew their designs on paper templates that were sent to Picture This Clothing, a company that turned the artwork into a wearable wardrobe for Shanahan. PHOTOS COURTESY ELLA LEWIS SCHOOL

Design project aims to boost attendance

STEUBEN—Erin Shanahan, a third- and fourth- grade teacher at the Ella Lewis School in Steuben, has her wardrobe picked out for about the next two weeks. 

That is thanks to a project she whipped up.

“I was on an attendance committee at the beginning of the year and we were looking at ways to boost attendance,” she said in a Zoom videoconferencing interview with The American last Friday. Joining the call were her class and Principal Jackson Green. Seven students were in the classroom, with seven tuning in remotely from home. Washington County is currently designated as “yellow” under the Maine Department of Education’s COVID-19 health advisory system, indicating an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread.

Attendance has lagged at the school, and the pandemic isn’t helping.

At the beginning of the year, Shanahan got her students to each design a dress for her to wear. Using a paper template, her students sketched their colorful and imaginative designs which Shanahan then sent to Picture This Clothing, a company that turns templates into actual articles of clothing. The company made the dresses at a discount for Shanahan’s project.

Shanahan recently received her stack of dresses back and will not tell her students ahead of time when she is going to wear each dress to school.

Dress designs created by students in Erin Shanahan’s third- and fourth-grade class.

“You have to continue to come to school so you can see if I’m wearing your dress,” Shanahan explained to her students.

The result has been 100 percent attendance in her class, with students coming to class excited to see whose dress Shanahan will be wearing.

“Today I’m on dress number three. It’s going great, everyone’s here,” Shanahan said last Friday. Her dress was designed by Caydence Reynolds, who was attending class remotely.

It has been memorable to see “the excitement on [the students’] faces [when they] see that something that they did in class turned into something actually tangible that goes beyond the classroom,” said Principal Jackson Green. 

The excitement generated from the project has inspired student Lily Couture to ask her mother for a sewing machine. Students Kiera Reynolds and Jensen Sawyer are now interested in learning more about clothing design. 

“Every school should do this,” said student Jacob Loud. 

There has even been enthusiasm generated way outside Downeast Maine. A Facebook post about the project attracted the attention of educators from South Dakota, who have reached out to Green to share their interest and plans to do a similar project.

Besides being fun, engaging and far-reaching, the project has resulted in a boost in attendance at Ella Lewis. 

Green explained that the school has been identified by the Maine Department of Education as a Tier III school due to its performance challenges in math and attendance. The school has a year to improve standings before receiving intervention from the state, he added.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic presents its own attendance challenges, the state requirement to boost attendance has not been waived, Green said.

Following the interview, students took part in a pandemic-style fashion show, bringing their designs up to a web camera one-by-one before going back to their plexiglass-shielded desks. 

Roman Willey showed off the red and orange dress he designed, which he named “Dragon Scales,” complete with a pattern inspired by his pet lizard.

Madelynn Hardison modeled the dress she designed after one she wears herself, which resembles an American flag.

“I’m the only one who knows when [Ms. Shanahan] wears mine [ahead of time] so that we can be twinning,” she said.

Jensen Sawyer designed his dress using Shanahan’s favorite colors.

As the students showed off their designs, they demonstrated another skill they have mastered: making their smiles apparent even from behind a face mask. 

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]
Rebecca Alley

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