The holidays are often associated with presents, and retailers have been pushing this message for months. But for the Ashley Hall community, this time of year is not about receiving. It’s about giving.
Every December for over two decades, Ashley Hall has partnered with Chicora Elementary School in North Charleston to spread the joy of the season with its 330 students. Known as the Chicora Gift-Giving Project, this tradition is marked by various holiday assemblies throughout campus and the donation of hundreds of gifts from the School community. But this year, students were reminded that this Ashley Hall tradition is not one of collecting gifts, but one of human connection, thanks to a very special visit by Chicora educator and alumna Elizabeth Blackman ’25.
On November 30, Blackman returned to campus to speak with Upper School students about the Chicora Gift-Giving Project, beginning with how much it has grown since her time as a student at Ashley Hall. “[The Chicora Gift-Giving Project] has changed tremendously over the years in the best way,” Blackman said. “I remember bringing our gifts and it would be one Barbie doll or a soccer ball. Now there are coats, shoes, anything that you can imagine being brought in to give to our students at Chicora.”
Today, donations are specifically curated to meet the needs of individual students at Chicora. Blackman works with classroom teachers beginning in November to build a wishlist for every child in grades 1-5. From clothing and toothbrushes to toys and books, donations are then collected and organized into special red Santa bags labeled with a child’s name that will be taken home at Christmas.
During her visit, Blackman gave students not only a better understanding of the gift-giving program, but, perhaps most importantly, of her students. “Over 90% of our students in first through fifth grades are living at or below poverty level,” shared Blackman, who spearheads the Chicora Gift-Giving Project with Ashley Hall Board of Trustee member and former Early School Director Dana Van Hook. “So they have some struggles, but when they come to school, it’s a different time to shine.”
Blackman went on to share just how much students at Chicora are indeed shining, noting that test scores throughout all grade levels have improved, and the school has recently allocated a new educator to support newly identified gifted and talented students at Chicora. Academics aside, Blackman shared just how similar her students are to those at Ashley Hall, whether it be a love for music or passion for becoming a leader, to highlight the true spirit of the season which is connecting with one another.
“The students of Ashley Hall and Chicora are not so different,” Blackman said. “We’re connected by dreams, by hopes, and we’re connected by the inherent worth of ourselves. Each child, regardless of their background, is full potential. And it’s our responsibility to nurture and support that potential. So in the spirit of the season, let us not only provide material gifts, but the gift of understanding compassion and empathy and kindness.”
Here are a few more powerful messages Blackman shared with students this holiday season:
Donations to Chicora Go Far Beyond Gifts
“I wanted to talk a little bit about the bags and that go to our students. The bags not only offer gifts, but they offer security and consistency for some of our students. Security and consistency are two things that a lot of Chicora students do not have at home. So every year, especially the ones who’ve been there since first grade, they look forward to these bags. They know what is coming. These bags mean more than just a toy.”
The Similarities Between Us
“I want to share some remarkable similarities that exist between our students and you, despite the apparent differences that you may have in your daily lives. At Ashley Hall and Chicora, you’re going to see students hard at work, excelling in some areas, struggling in others. You’re gonna see art displayed. You’re going to hear singing. I heard the chorus in here earlier. It was great. We have a chorus as well. And you’re also going to hear instruments. While you might hear violins here at Ashley Hall, at Chicora, you would hear steel drums. And in both the hallways at Ashley Hall and Chicora, you’re going to hear laughter, see friendships bloom, and see the curiosity that fuels the pursuit of knowledge. These are some of the universal traits that go beyond the boundaries of socioeconomic status.”
A Growing Community of Leaders
“Our biggest thing right now is something called Chicora Changers. It started last year and these students were selected because of their leadership skills, their great behavior, and their major potential that they have. So these students work to provide community service within our community within our school. They have to get a certain amount of hours, and then at the end of the year, they are rewarded with a trip to Disney.”
On Sunday, September 10, nearly 40 Ashley Hall students, faculty, and family members braved the heat and traffic to Wannamaker Park to participate in the Walk to Fight Hunger hosted by the Lowcountry Food Bank, an organization based in Charleston which donates food to agencies up and down the coast of South Carolina. Team Ashley Hall raised over $1,400, the most of all fundraising teams, and the sum will help provide more than 8,000 meals to feed families throughout the Lowcountry.
Just days before this year’s annual Walk to Fight Hunger, Ashley Hall hosted Brenda Shaw, Chief Development Officer at Lowcountry Food Bank, for an Upper School assembly to speak with students about her organization and what food insecurity looks like in our community.
“People who are food insecure look just like you and me,” says Kelly Sumner, Director of Counseling and Upper School Student Life, who helped organize Shaw’s visit. “They’re your neighbors, they’re your friends; there isn’t a certain look to being in need or a certain community that’s in need. I think students were able to really connect with that [during Shaw’s visit], then connect what the food bank does, who they serve, and take the opportunity to go out and help bring awareness to this issue right here in their community with their friends.”
Both the assembly and walk event were a part of Ashley Hall’s annual global education initiative in which students and educators are exploring ways they can help contribute to creating a world free of hunger by 2030 this year. But the School’s contributions to fighting food insecurity in Charleston is far from new.
“We’ve supported the Lowcountry Food Bank consistently for decades,” Sumner says. “We’ve had so many interesting ways we’ve been connected to them and other organizations over the years, and we’re just so very appreciative to them that they are able to host and support our students in return.”
While initiatives have shifted through the years, Ashley Hall’s dedication to playing a part in ending hunger in its very own community has remained consistent. Here’s a look at how the School’s partnerships with the Lowcountry Food Bank and other local organizations fighting hunger have evolved over the years:
Every year near the Thanksgiving holiday, Ashley Hall began hosting a school-wide food drive in support of the Lowcountry Food Bank during which Upper School students would designate different food items to different grade levels depending on the needs of the food bank at that time.
September is Hunger Action Month, and in 2001, all Non-Uniform Days in September were dedicated to supporting the Lowcountry Food Bank, and everyone on campus wore orange, the official color of Hunger Action Month, to show their support!
Ashley Hall began the year with a “Day of Service” on the first day of school, and the Class of 2010 went to the Lowcountry Food Bank to volunteer their time to help pack and organize food donations. “This would be the first time we had a whole grade level volunteer at once,” Sumner says. “It paved the way for future events.”
In 2010, the School formalized its Community Action Initiative which requires students 20 hours of community service to graduate. Every year since, the senior class has spent time during a dedicated week at the end of the year volunteering together at the Lowcountry Food Bank‘s warehouse to give back.
As a part of a local nonprofit initiative entitled I Heart Hungry Kids, Ashley Hall students spent their Saturdays throughout the year volunteering to fill backpacks belonging to kids in under-resourced areas with donated food for them to eat over the weekend. “It would be enough food to sustain these children who were getting most of their nutritious meals at school,” Sumner says.
In 2015, the Lowcountry Food Bank created a program for students in local schools to help carry out their work as Hunger Advocates. After being elected by a School committee and passing an application process with the food bank, alumna Tiffany Dye ’15 became Ashley Hall’s first ever Hunger Advocate. During her senior year, she increased the number of school-wide food drives and more people than ever volunteered, Sumner says. Her sister, Marissa Dye ’21, would then follow in her footsteps as a Hunger Advocate. “These girls were so dynamic in so many ways, and they truly cared about the community and wanted to serve,” Sumner says.
The Lowcountry Blessing Box Project stocks containers in neighborhoods around Charleston with non-perishable food items, basic toiletries, baby supplies, and anything else that might be considered a blessing to people who find themselves in need. In 2021, Intermediate Program faculty members Katie Perez-Phillips ’07 and Kiki Sweigart partnered with the organization so Ashley Hall students could maintain their very own box with regular food donations. Students and families are still stocking our Ashley Hall Blessing box at FUEL restaurant week in and week out!
What can a novel teach us about history, and how can history deepen our understanding of a novel? That was the two-part question seventh and eighth grade students were busy tackling in both their English and history classes last month.
At the start of the year, students read “Blue-Eyed Slave,” a carefully researched historic novel set in Charles Towne in 1764 with two 13-year-old heroines, one a slave and one a Sephardic Jew. Then they immersed themselves in their own research and writing for five weeks to explore the book’s three major themes: Judaism, enslaved people, and the global influences in Charleston.
“We used the book to introduce historical thinking, and what studying history is all about,” says history teacher Mary Webb who collaborated with her humanities colleagues to create the interdisciplinary project. In her class, students studied primary sources to deepen their understanding of historical events and references in the book. “From studying old maps of Charleston to reading The Book of Exodus which narrates the escape of the Jewish slaves from the Egyptians, we did a deep dive into the book’s main threads.”
From there, students were tasked with creating an object that represented something significant in the book, whether it be a teapot which was a popular souvenir after the repeal of the Stamp Act or a replica of the Da Costa House where Jewish people gathered to worship before synagogues existed in Charleston. “Then we used their ‘artifacts’ as an opportunity to showcase how to write a historical essay,” says English teacher Nana Westbrook. “First you identify the object, explain what it means in the book, what it means in history, and what you think the significance of it is.”
The project culminated on Wednesday, September 20 with a very special visit from Marshall Highet and Bird Jones, the co-authors of “Blue-Eyed Slave,” who spent a day on campus tying everything together. In English classes, they taught students how to analyze a photo without dates or explanation to try and figure out its historical context, and from there, create a story around it.
“We were asking what things were, and Bird would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know either!’” says Harper Haselden ’29 with a laugh. “I think that was the best part because when you read the book, you think they know everything. But really, they didn’t know everything at first – they’re just good at figuring things out. She went to actual places to figure out facts she put in the book, and research like that seems really fun.”
That evening, Jones, the researcher, and Highet, the author, discussed their joint approach to researching and writing during an event open to the public as a part of the Ashley Hall Writers Series. As they spoke, the audience was surrounded by the artifacts created by Nautilus students, as well as posters they had researched and created.
“It was wonderful seeing the students engage so deeply in an activity rooted in critical thinking, analysis, and information seeking,” says Allison Parks, Director of the Intermediate and Nautilus Programs. “I love what this project showcases overall–learning at Ashley Hall goes beyond the words on a page.”
Did you know that Barbie went to the moon before women could have their own credit cards?
Invented in 1959, the trail-blazing doll depicted a woman who could have any career she wanted, whether it be an astronaut, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, or President of the United States. And this summer, Greta Gerwig’s movie “Barbie” shined a new pink light on the doll’s history.
“The ‘Barbie’ movie flipped a script for me,” says Upper School Literacy Coordinator Chris Hughes. “I used to think of pink as easy, soft, fuzzy. But now, I see it as an alarm signaling something new and exciting as opposed to being soft and background noise.”
To join the conversation on female empowerment, Hughes curated a Power of Pink display on the second floor of Rivers Library inspired by the film, complete with a Barbie dream house, Barbie dolls, and a selection of books that celebrate women for readers in grades 7-12. She also created a quiz starring famous female figures dressed as Barbies, from Rosa Parks Barbie to Frida Kahlo Barbie. During their breaks, Upper School students have been grabbing a quiz sheet and making their guesses of who’s who.
“It’s about bringing awareness about what it means to be a woman in today’s world,” Hughes says. “I hope the students strike up conversations about it, and I want to encourage them to do all you can not to be pigeonholed into one role or another.”
STAY TUNED | The Power of Pink display will be adapted to celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness month in October. “We will keep finding ways to bring in pink so it’s not stigmatized as ‘girly’ but that it’s a symbol of power,” Hughes says.
Now in its third year, Ashley Hall’s signature global education program is centered on making an annual school-wide commitment to creating a brighter and more sustainable future for all. This year, students and educators are focused on creating a world free of hunger by 2030.
“One of the most important components of global education is to show the interconnectedness of peoples and cultures,” says Head of School Anne T. Weston ’73 Ph.D. “Using the framework of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals allows Ashley Hall to take a thematic approach to examining and appreciating the challenges faced across our world and provides focus for teaching, learning, and, most importantly, action.”
From ending poverty to protecting our oceans, the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals serve as a blueprint for a better world. Each year, Ashley Hall seniors choose a goal for the student body to explore, and this year, they chose to focus on Goal #2: End hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.
“I voted to focus on Goal #2 this year because I believe hunger is not only a problem that affects our country and world, but affects our local communities,” says senior Emorie Stockton ’24. “I feel as though creating a world free of hunger is only possible to begin working within our own communities, even within our own city blocks.”
Through specialized hands-on activities, community outreach, and visiting speakers, students will deepen their understanding of the intent of this global goal all year. “One of the special strengths of Ashley Hall is that we can introduce programming that creates connections across all the grade levels,” says Global Education Coordinator Jonathan Perkins who works with faculty to support curricular and extracurricular UNSDG-centered programming.
This year, Perkins plans on doing even more on the community engagement front, especially with the greater Charleston community. Ashley Hall plans to expand upon its philanthropic efforts, including its students’ community service work with Lowcountry Food Bank and their contributions to the Ashley Hall Blessing Box.
“Building awareness of local needs makes it easy for our students to understand this challenge on a global scale,” Weston adds. “I think it will be interesting for our children to explore the many systemic global issues that contribute to the problem of hunger so that they gain an appreciation for their complexity and the need for creative, courageous, and coordinated action to try to solve them. Our students will be the future leaders and citizens of this world, and we are equipping them to be thoughtful, discerning, and caring.”
At the start of the 2023-24 school year, Lower School students fell in love with a new face in Pardue Hall: Echo the owl puppet. But don’t let his cute and cuddly appearance fool you – he joined classrooms to bring some serious learning through the Fundations® program, an educational system helping Lower School students learn phonics, spelling, and handwriting in a whole new way.
“The Fundations® program is designed to provide direct systematic sequence phonics instruction at a pace that’s accessible,” says learning specialist Mary Allen Edgerton ’87. “The children learn sound by sound in order to learn to build them into words, then build into sentences, then build into fluency.”
With their new curriculum, classroom teachers spend a 20- to 30-minute block each day explicitly teaching a phonics principle, explains Lower School librarian and literacy specialist Allison Bischoff. Students will learn the name of the letter, a keyword, and a sound. For example, in Emily Matus’ kindergarten classroom, one of the three letters they were learning at the start of the year was T. “T. Top. Tuh,” she articulated for her students. This is where Echo comes in.
“When Echo is facing the teacher, that’s her time to talk,” Bischoff says. “Then as soon as students see Echo facing them, that means it’s their turn to repeat her. It’s a visual cue for when it’s their turn to participate. It’s a lot of repetition, but repetition is what gets it from their short-term memory to their long-term memory, which is our goal.”
After learning as a group, each student picks up their own magnetic white board on which they practice letters and eventually build words. “What I love about this program is that it is more systematic and explicit,” Bischoff says. “It builds in a lot more vocabulary and really word study to teach kids the basic building blocks of language.”
This year, Fundations® is being used in kindergarten and first grade, then next year it’ll transfer to second and third. “The other thing that I love about this curriculum is that there’s only a small handful of activities and they never change from kindergarten to fourth grade,” Bischoff says. “The only thing that is changing is the actual phonic skill that is being taught. It’s the same character the whole way through to reinforce procedures and help our students learn.”
Ashley Hall is a K-12 independent school for girls, with a co-ed preschool, committed to a talented and diverse student population. We consider for admission students of any race, color, religion, and national or ethnic origin.