Claire, Marissa, and Ajnadine pulled their thin shawls around their shoulders and clung to each other so they wouldn’t get separated in the crowd. Their immigration papers gripped tightly in their fists, the “sisters” moved tentatively to the next station, where the inspector spoke kindly and encouraged them to set down their heavy knapsacks.

No, this isn’t an account from 1905, but maybe it could be. The scene is Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Mich., during its Ellis Island Immigration Simulation, a special event funded by the PTO and designed to cap off weeks of learning.

Scotch Principal Jeremey Whan explains: “Our annual school theme was Mission: Possible. Emigrating to the United States during the early 1900s may qualify as one of the greatest missions ever undertaken by ordinary people. The teachers and I wanted to bring the experience alive, tie it in with our overall theme, and provide an integrated learning experience that would create lasting memories for our students.”

In the end it did that and much more. It brought together a broad array of parents supplying their time and talent. The powerful display of parent involvement made a lasting impression on the school’s PTO leaders. They ultimately rethought their definition of membership and made a key change to their structure. But before all that occurred, there was work to be done—a lot of it.

The ambitious project the principal envisioned required resources, both time and financial, that his staff could not provide on their own. “I had faith our parents would supply volunteer hours, but I wasn’t sure where the money would come from. When the PTO’s major fundraiser came in over budget, I began to hope PTO would be willing to fund the extras needed to make this event come alive,” he says.

“This was a brand new project for Scotch,” recalls PTO President Ashlyn Trischett, “and we had not put it in our annual PTO budget.” At a PTO meeting early in the school year, Whan painted a very vivid picture of his plans. “PTO absolutely wanted to support the project, and we unanimously approved funding when we figured out our fundraiser brought in more money than we had budgeted,” says Trischett. In all the PTO invested $1,300, allocating $1,000 initially and an additional $300 later, when the plans really gelled.

Like any big project, the Ellis Island simulation had many details to work out. The principal and PTO president served as co-chairs to facilitate several planning meetings of what became a committee of parent volunteers. The committee brainstormed ideas to turn Whan’s vision into reality, and assigned tasks to spread the workload.

One parent agreed to recruit, schedule, and coordinate the individual volunteers who would be working during the two-day simulation. Another parent found a source for inexpensive games that could be purchased for the “mental competency” inspection station. Still others applied their artistic talents to transform the school with hand-painted backdrops and props. For example, a large mural turned the cafeteria wall into seaside docks. The plain door-walls dividing the cafeteria and gym became the skyline of New York City, complete with a Statue of Liberty cut-out donated by another parent. The gymnasium itself was turned into the naturalization hall, filled with American flags and red, white, and blue balloons. In all, more than 70 parents and community members directly assisted in the project.

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In the classroom, the teachers linked the immigration theme to many curricula areas over the course of several weeks. For example, each student wrote a report about his own family’s heritage. The reports were posted around the school. In the computer lab, students searched Web sites dedicated to the history of U.S. immigration and developed PowerPoint presentations on the subject. The school’s media consultant offered books and videos related to immigration and led group discussions with each class. Classroom teachers easily related geography and history lessons to the theme. The music teacher prepared the students with traditional patriotic songs and energetic choreography for a motivational naturalization ceremony.

The learning and preparation were ultimately demonstrated through the Ellis Island Immigration Simulation event. Students were paired up across grade levels to simulate a family unit. The buddies were assigned the “passport” of a real immigrant family and went through the one-hour simulation experience together, from European dock to U.S. citizenship. The first stop for the students was a ship (the school’s stage). Here they watched a video featuring testimonies from immigrants, interspersed with scenes of rolling waves and stormy seas. The video was made by the school media consultant, who also wrote the script and recruited adults and children to play the roles. When the journey ended, the children moved into the Registry Room (the cafeteria) for various inspections based on information in their passports.

Many parents volunteered as Ellis Island inspectors, in costume and in character, to enhance the experience for the students and to allow the teachers to chaperone their classes. Members of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution volunteered their time as well. The inspection stations were set up around the Registry Room and groups of immigrants rotated from one station to another, hoping to pass all the inspections and be welcomed into the country.

Inspectors at the first station checked over each student’s passport and asked basic questions about why the immigrant wanted to enter the United States, what prospects they had for employment, and where they intended to live. Fourth-grader Eric Steele was assigned the identity of a feeble old man. “I have to look strong so they don’t send me back,” he said during the simulation, expressing the real concern some immigrants had at their chance for acceptance.

At the second station, inspectors simulated a medical assessment, looking for signs of head lice, eye disease, and general good health. The students had learned in class of the more thorough, often painful medical examinations the real Ellis Island immigrants endured. “I’m glad the doctor didn’t pull on my eyelids,” says third-grader Luke Kalinski. “That must’ve really hurt.”

Next, the students completed a short test of citizenship by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and answering questions about the United States. The final station asked the students to demonstrate their “mental competency” by playing quick strategy games. “We got to play a game to show we were smart enough to be citizens, but the real immigrants had it much tougher,” says fifth-grader Corey Ploss.

At each station, the inspector stamped the child’s passport and directed the group to the next stop. Conditions in the cafeteria were crowded, noisy, and confusing, in a small way like the original Registry Room. The volunteer inspectors could be kind and sympathetic or cool and impersonal. They often asked the student immigrants to wait patiently while others were being processed. Students were encouraged to come in costume and take on their assigned personas. Some passports identified special conditions such as lameness, deafness, or little knowledge of the English language.

When all of the students in a session had been processed, the group moved into the gymnasium for the simulated naturalization ceremony. A parent volunteer “judge” presided over the ceremony, talked about the privilege and responsibility of U.S. citizenship, and led the new “citizens” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The music teacher directed the students through several rousing patriotic songs and chants. The ceremony ended with parents handing out American flags and red, white, and blue doughnuts to the children as they headed back to class.

The Ellis Island project had a significant and unexpected effect on the Scotch Elementary PTO. The PTO had always charged dues, so some parents and teachers were “members” of PTO and some were not. But this project challenged the status quo. It didn’t matter whether this was a “PTO” project or a “school” project. No one worried whether a parent who wanted to participate had paid PTO dues or not.

The project highlighted the fact that any parent of a Scotch student can be an important contributor to the success of the school, regardless of PTO membership. With that fact as a guide, the PTO board voted unanimously to eliminate the annual $10 PTO dues, thus making every parent and teacher an automatic member of the Scotch PTO. The shortfall from dues income largely was made up by selling a “Family Back to School Kit” for $12. It featured the school directory, which had always been included with paid membership, plus a notepad, school calendar magnet, and 20 pre-printed envelopes for sending money or notes to school, all in a customized folder.

PTO President Ashlyn Trischett sums it up: “The Ellis Island project was unique in that it involved the PTO, the community, and the staff in a memorable learning experience that touched every single student at Scotch. As I watched the students complete the naturalization ceremony, I really felt proud to be part of this school. Our parents are already looking forward to see what Mr. Whan and the teachers have planned for next year.” This time, it will be in the PTO budget from the start.

Simulation Expenses

Strategy games, inspector hats, American flags $350
Special paper for passports and tickets 70
Doughnuts for 660 students 350
Lunch for the volunteers, 2 days 350
Mural supplies 100
Miscellaneous 80
Total $1,300