School Notes: March 2020

Crozet Elementary fifth graders listen as Katherine Heitz, aunt to a student in the class, describes her work drilling wells for clean water in Africa. Photo: Lisa Martin.


Crozet Elementary students and staff have championed water-related projects for the past several years, from installing a rain garden in a drainage swale behind the school to planting 150 trees to form a riparian buffer where the school borders Parrot Branch creek. This year’s fifth grade class is putting an international spin on that trend by forming a student-led mission to help parts of Africa gain access to clean water.

“The idea stemmed from several students’ podcasts last year in our IMPACT project here at CES,” said fifth grade teacher Brandy Garbaccio. “Students asked how we, as citizens of Crozet, can help girls in remote regions of Africa gain an education, considering they spend their entire day traveling back and forth to their only source of water.” The students eventually presented their ideas to members of the Chris Long Foundation, which supports Waterboys, an organization dedicated to creating sustainable clean water sources for people in Africa and worldwide.

Crozet Elementary guest speaker Katherine Heitz and her nephew Kiva Gielow, a member of the fifth grade class. Submitted photo.

“Now we are working with to raise $10,000 towards the implementation of a well in Africa,” said Garbaccio, and her class recently discovered another fortuitous partnership within their own school community. “Our fifth graders are reading A Long Walk to Water [by Linda Sue Park] and Home of the Brave [by Katherine Applegate] to gain background knowledge on people their own age who have struggled in Africa,” she said, “and one of our students shared that his aunt, Katherine Heitz, actually drills for clean water in Sudan.”

Heitz was invited to come speak to the fifth graders, and she recently visited CES to describe the water crisis in Sudan and the work being done to solve the problem. She began with a South Sudanese saying: “When the herd goes thirsty, the village dies.” “This gets at how important water is for all aspects of how people live and survive,” she told the students. “Many people in this world don’t have access to a safe and reliable water source, which is what all of you had this morning when you were getting ready to go to school.”

Heitz showed the class photos she had taken in Kenya as part of her work with the organization she founded, Groundswell Development Project, which aims to teach people how to manually drill and maintain their own wells and to educate them on the full benefits of an improved water source. “The three main reasons that clean water is important are health, nutrition, and education,” she said. “Contaminated water makes people sick with diseases such as cholera. Every day, 800 children under five die due to an inadequate water supply.”

The fifth graders were struck by images depicting children their age laboring in mudholes to dig down for water during the dry season and carrying five-gallon jerry cans of water on their backs. “Without water, they can’t grow food, and the constant search for water means the children’s education is interrupted,” said Heitz. “Young boys must tend the cattle camps and take them around to find water, and most girls drop out of school entirely because they are needed to haul water from sometimes kilometers away.”

The students examined items such as a drill bit used by Heitz and Mombwo villagers to hand-auger wells closer to where they live. Upon hearing that a mixture of water, sugar, and salt can help cure cholera, one student asked, “Wouldn’t it help if we just sent a bunch of Gatorade there?” Another wanted to know if Heitz herself had been in a life-or-death situation in Africa, to which she replied that she had but did not elaborate. 

Many students were curious about how diarrhea, easily treatable in the U.S., could be so deadly to African children. “My mom just makes me drink a ton of water,” said one student, followed by “Ohhh,” as he made the connection to the critical need for clean water. Heitz noted that illnesses in children due to contaminated water caused an estimated 443 million missed school days each year.

Principal Gwedette Crummie, sitting in on the presentation, was stunned by the grim statistics, such as that 50% of South Sudan lacks access to safe water. “What I love about the students learning about this project is empathy—learning about what others go through and how we can step in to help,” said Crummie. “I feel honored just to be in the room with you,” she said to Heitz. “You’re doing God’s work. Safe journey to you.” Learn more at Heitz’s site,

Parks and friends

Murray Elementary students were treated to a special school-wide assembly during Black History Month to view a dynamic theatrical production called “Rosa Parks and Friends.” Performed by two actors from the Bright Star Touring Theatre company, the play featured both funny and serious vignettes featuring important black historical figures speaking directly to the audience in telling their stories.

Actors from the Bright Star Touring Theatre company portray Rosa Parks’ legendary bus ride in their performance, “Rosa Parks and Friends” at Murray Elementary. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The actors, Raenique and Nikos, are one pair among dozens in the North Carolina-based touring group that will perform over 2,000 shows in communities both nationwide and abroad this year. Covering educational topics in areas such as history and social studies, literature and literacy, and STEM, the shows aim to engage young audiences and to bring the magic of theatre to young people who may not always have the chance to see it.

“The shows are tailored toward an elementary audience and are intended to be educational,” said Raenique. “We have lots of facts in there, but also funny parts so the kids stay entertained.” She and Nikos were scheduled to perform at two other local schools on the same day, and their schedule will take them across multiple states along the east coast. Sponsored by the Murray Elementary PTO, the “Rosa Parks and Friends” performance involved humor, quick wit, and even quicker costume changes.

Murray elementary students at the school-wide assembly are rapt with attention at the Bright Star Touring Theatre company performance, “Rosa Parks and Friends.” Photo: Lisa Martin.

The show brought major figures from the abolitionist and civil rights movements to life by having them describe and act out parts of their history in short snippets and with audience participation. Harriet Tubman asked two students to come on stage to help her demonstrate a narrow escape from slavery in a covered carriage, while Rosa Parks took students along on her historic bus ride. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered part of his “I Have a Dream” speech, and an excerpt from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was powerfully rendered as well. 

Despite the wide age range in attendance, the students listened attentively and laughed at the raucous bits, then had plenty of questions for the actors when the show was over. “How do you do all those different voices?” one asked, whereupon Nikos described how he practiced by trying out movie voices such as Yoda’s. “How do you remember all the words?” “Do you do the play in another language when you go to another country?” “How old are you?”

Actors from the Bright Star Touring Theatre company plus a couple of Murray Elementary students portray Harriet Tubman’s efforts to hide slaves in their performance, “Rosa Parks and Friends.” Photo: Lisa Martin.

One student asked, thoughtfully, “If all those people are real, but they’re from the past, how do you know what they said?” In response, the actors talked about how they learned about historical figures through their speeches and writings and stories that had been passed down, and that this was one of the best things about their job. “I really like acting and history, and learning and teaching through music and musical theater,” said Nikos. The students also had many questions about the costumes, which were mostly donated or made from recycled clothing.

“Do you get nervous?” was the final question of the morning. “Yes, sometimes,” said Raenique, “but being nervous means that you care a lot about what you do.” 


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