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​Manassas Park City Schools Launch "Dignity in School" Program

by Deanne Perez

This school year, Manassas Park City Schools (MPCS) became the first division in Virginia to offer free sanitary products to all of its female students. The historic roll out was the result of a chance meeting between the MPCS superintendent and the leader of a local nonprofit organization.

MPCS Superintendent C. Bruce McDade and Holly Siebold, Executive Director and Founder of BRAWS (Bringing Resources to Aid Women’s Shelters), first came across each other in February 2018. By the time the 2018-19 school year was set to start, dispensers were installed in all female bathrooms at the middle and high schools.

After meeting at the inaugural Shape of the Region Conference, cohosted by the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia and the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Siebold reached out to McDade. 

“Studies show there is a positive correlation between access to menstrual supplies and school attendance,” Siebold wrote in her first email to McDade.

McDade forwarded that email to MPCS Director of Special Programs Jennifer Braswell-Geller, School Nurse Anne Shaw, and the principals of both the middle and high schools. By April, there was a plan in place to install a total of 8 product dispensers in the school bathrooms and supply those dispensers for the next school year. 

“The bottom line is it’s what’s best for our kids,” Braswell-Geller said. “Why wouldn’t we do it?”

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“What’s best for our kids?” is a phrase that resonates in MPCS. McDade and his staff have long championed opportunities to improve equality and access and their results are measurable: with more than 50% of its students considered economically disadvantaged and 50% identified at one point as English Language Learners, the division remains fully accredited.

Shaw is quick to point out that division leadership encourages staff to care for the whole child. From Family Market days and clothing distribution to health care partnerships, Shaw said that anything done for the community that will maintain dignity and pride is something the division would support. 

“In many divisions we would not have the voice to do what we are able to do here,” said Shaw. “Being a part of this community is something special.”

However, to get a program of this magnitude up and running in six months was no small feat. Shaw and School Nurse Michelle Pollack worked with Siebold to purchase dispensers and coordinate installation. 

“Holly [Siebold] is a tireless advocate for women and the underprivileged,” Pollack said. “The speed at which we were able to implement this is the direct result of her commitment.”

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Shaw and Pollack said that prior to the dispenser installations, students could access feminine hygiene products from the nurses. However, that required a trip to the nurse’s office which proved too embarrassing for many students. The school nurses anticipated that immediate access to products in the bathrooms would not only decrease visits to the nurse’s office, but would also mean less time out of the classroom. 

Initial data from the MPCS student body backed up what the nurses suspected. That data indicated almost 60% of students reported seeing a school nurse for feminine hygiene products, and nearly 30% stating they have missed school or have had to leave school early because they did not have access to these products. McDade said those numbers show that the program has direct potential to positively impact learning.

“I’m very pleased with the progress and what this means for our community,” said McDade. 

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As part of the pilot program, BRAWS agreed to provide MPCS with almost $2,000 in equipment, and a partnership with KMZ Foundation currently keeps the machines full. Pam Kalso, Manassas Park High School Principal, said that the full impact of the program can be felt in the homes of students’ families.

“The machines allow young women to have access to something that may otherwise come out of a tight budget,” said Kalso. 

While it is too soon to measure the full effects of the program, early feedback is positive. The principals at the middle and high schools all agree that the program is better received than they anticipated.

Kalso said that while initial conversations found students dubious that the machines were dispensing free products, they quickly became full of gratitude. 

“Students know how fortunate they are to have this access,” Kalso added.

Middle School Principal Matt Sieloff said he looks forward to the day this becomes as commonplace as tissue and toilet paper. “It’s needed,” he said, “and our students should be able to access supplies when they need them.”

Assistant Middle School Principal Desiree Reynolds-Tickle agreed saying there are many needs in the school community and this program is just another way to help meet them.

“Through this program we are able to take one less burden off of our female students and help ensure their daily focus is on learning,” she said. 

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The program’s potential did not stop in fulfilling student need or recognizing economic impact. Nurse Pollack worked the dispenser program into her teaching. 

As part of the Med Club and the medical class she teaches at the high school, students help collect and analyze data about product use to predict supply needs. Further, they see what community and volunteerism is about and that, to Pollack, has immeasurable potential.

“The entire community benefits when we do what we do,” Pollack said.

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Shaw’s statement about caring for the whole child was reiterated in some form by every member of the team that participated in the dispenser program roll out and many were surprised to learn that MPCS was the first in Virginia to offer these products to their students.

“We are fortunate to work in an environment that allows us to do what we do for our population,” said Shaw. “I’d like to see this in every school in Virginia.”

Reynolds-Tickle said, “We have a moral obligation to set students up for success.” And Kalso said the program “truly furthers MPCS’s commitment to educational equity and access.” 

With opportunity, equity, and access at the forefront, it is probably not a surprise to learn that McDade and Siebold connected after McDade spoke about opportunity and inequality. But McDade said all the praise belongs to Siebold and the MPCS team that made the program a reality.

“MPCS staff works hard every single day toward our goal of student success,” said McDade. “This program is another example of how MPCS promotes the wellbeing of the whole child, and it’s a direct result of the hard work of Ms. Siebold and our staff.”

To help support BRAWS "Dignity in Schools" program and other programs like this, please donate!

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