- Adapting to change, even a change we want, takes energy.
- Tolerating uncertainty is hard and takes energy.
- Staying grounded in our locus of control is helpful, but at times. is easier said than done.
March 16th marked the 1-year anniversary of our Education for Change schools’ transition into distance learning. Back then, the thought of returning to in-person school after Spring Break of 2020 was considered possible... However, it is now Spring Break 2021, where we find ourselves on the cusp of returning to schools partially re-opening.
The opportunity to reconnect with students, their families and our school colleagues in-person elicits excitement after a year of distance learning. Finding ways to provide play and art therapies virtually; pushing into student’s Zoom classes to provide behavior interventions; striving to connect with students who go video off/mute and communicate through the Chat; parents working while having their children at home, experiencing Zoom fatigue; and redefining boundaries while working from home, are some of the many ways we’ve adapted to working completely different from what we’ve known. Adapting to this setting has been an ongoing process and required much effort, creativity, flexibility, and persistence to support our students while also witnessing the impact of the pandemic on our communities.
Within these adaptations we have also found silver linings such as: time saved not commuting; opportunities to take a walk during the workday; more autonomy over daily schedule; the ability to jump on a Zoom call when setting up an in-person meeting would be complicated and being able to work outside of the Bay Area if needed. After a year, we have gotten used to some of these silver linings while also finding ways to connect “good enough” with our students, their families, and colleagues. The excitement of returning to in-person may be counterbalanced by the loss of what we have gotten used to, along with additional questions regarding safety and uncertainty of what re-opening will look like.
With so many details getting figured out (which students return, what will the schedules look like, what space will I have, will students have the support they need, is it safe enough, etc.?), this can be overwhelming to hold all at once. As I hear these questions, three thoughts come to mind:
Community Day School (CDS), an alternative program in Oakland Unified School District is the proud home of the Wolverines and is dedicated to using a therapeutic and restorative justice-centered approach to give students a second opportunity to succeed in school. The campus empowers middle and high school students to build upon their strengths by supporting them academically, socially, and emotionally, through individual and small instruction, counseling, and career exploration.
As our students face a broad array of challenges in life, we work to help them understand how change is inevitable and how resiliency is a must. Regardless of the change being negative or positive, the Unconditional Education motto is vibrant at Community Day School. District and Seneca staff are working together to re-open campus and provide students with academic/technical support, meals, and a reliable space for them to find success. OUSD has provided each classroom with two air purifiers and personal protective equipment, and requires all members to complete a daily healthy screening before entering the learning hub. Here are just a few images of how our gorgeous campus is gradually transitioning back after a year of disarray.
Our new partners in San Mateo, KIPP Valiant Community Prep, are launching back into in-person services. As a K-8 school of over 600 students, Valiant wisely chose to bring back a small pilot classroom of middle school students before opening more broadly.
Leveraging their existing MTSS structures, the team utilized their COST and Culture and Climate teams to plan universal and small group interventions for the students returning to campus. When this process was a smashing success, the Valiant team knew they were ready to scale up. Now with most of the elementary school students returning after spring break, the COST and Culture and Climate teams have sprung into action to plan team building activities, targeted SEL lessons, procedures for teaching classroom routines, and high leverage academic instruction blocks. With our fabulous UE Coach, Keri Stewart, at the helm, we know these plans are going to be airtight with the ability to flex and adapt to emerging needs. Gooooooooo, Valiant!
Despite the challenges we’ve faced during this 2020-21 academic year, Lighthouse Community Public Schools (LCPS) committed to meeting the needs of students and families using every tool at their disposal. Our collaborative student services teams have delivered Zoom parent training, social skills groups, drop-in sessions, advisory lessons, crisis intervention, family therapy and individual therapy. They have provided outreach and case management, and simultaneously wondered: who might we be missing, and how can we find them when we’re in distance learning?
Thus, LCPS decided to implement one of our Unconditional Education intervention tools at both of their East Oakland campuses. The tool is our Social Emotional Screener (SES). Rolling it out on both campuses was a first this year, as was implementing it during distance learning while in a pandemic.
The SES provides teachers a platform to reflect on their students’ social/emotional needs based on key indicators of health and wellness. The purpose of the SES is to use data to drive our interventions and help set our priorities: to shine the light where it is needed most. Through this screening process we may realize that a specific teacher has a classroom full of students who need support with focus and attention, or that a handful of students across classrooms have been socially isolating and could use some targeted social skills support. We go into the screening process with an open mind, and with the help of our amazing Assessment and Evaluation team, emerge with detailed reports. These help us build a collaborative plan for addressing the most pressing needs of our youth.
Lighthouse Lead Counselor Courtney Cerefice took lead on implementing the screener on the Lighthouse campus this year. I asked Courtney to share about the experience of using this tool during a pandemic, and what she learned in the process.
What motivated you to implement the Social Emotional Screener this year
We have used different versions of the socio-emotional screener in the past. Historically, we had used the screener to:
What did you do differently this time during a year of distance-learning? What did you have to consider implementing?
There was a lot of teacher feedback around difficulty targeting certain behaviors because students are not seen in the same way on Zoom as they are in a traditional in-person settings. Items such as "disordered eating" felt challenging for teachers to identify because this is a behavior that they may not have an opportunity to see.
We needed to spend a little more time with teachers to develop their understanding of what the screener is and what it is not. There was some reluctance to "diagnose children." There was lots of talk-through of the "behaviors" and "symptoms," and talking about how we can notice a behavior without turning that behavior into a diagnosis -- or worse, ascribing an identity to a child. This was a learning opportunity for our staff. A behavior is not an identity. Students are full-humans first and deserve to be seen this way.
With regards to the data that was returned to us, typically we would have looked at the data in teams (Deans, APs, etc.) and shared it out to the larger community. This needed to pivot this year. Scheduling time with our larger team was extremely challenging due to the many commitments these team members already hold. Instead, we chose to interpret the data as a clinical team and then share the recommendations out with our larger team. This is not ideal, but we recognized that waiting to get the data analyzed would potentially delay supports to staff that were very much needed.
What were you expecting from the screener? Were you surprised by the results?
The results were what we were hoping to see. Students with the greatest need had been previously identified and were mostly receiving services already. It has allowed us to pivot, look at Tier 1, and make learning offerings to our staff and families! Our teachers are accurately identifying the students that need the most support and we can take this time to create learning opportunities for our staff and families that further develop their ability to support students on all Tier levels.
What would you say to another school leader who has not implemented an SES tool before? Why and when should they do it, and what tips would you have for them?
The SES is best implemented over the course of the year and used as one piece of data (possibly in tandem with attendance, discipline, etc.). The socio-emotional strand is an area that can be tricky to deliberately gather data for. When there is not a specific socio-emotional screener being used, schools may use data that is one-off of actual socio-emotional data, then attribute that data to socio-emotional outcomes. This can be problematic (think about deciding that an attendance concern is socio-emotional when it could be due to any number of things, including childcare or transportation concerns, housing instability, etc.). Having a screening tool that targets visible behaviors allows teachers and staff to target items that they may not have previously considered to be worthy of noting or uplifting for support. It also encourages teachers to look for those behaviors that may be easier to overlook but can have significant socioemotional needs behind them. This particular screener is quick for teachers to complete and becomes easier as they continue to use it.
“We all wear different hats here, formal and informal. Can you talk about the hats you wear in your community and what they mean to you?” This was a question my housemate asked someone applying to live in our cooperatively run house during their informal interview. It is a question I’ve been subliminally thinking about at work all year.
I’ve always worn different ‘hats’ as a Student Support Assistant (SSA). Our work weaves across the behavioral, socio-emotional, and academic realms depending on the students we are working with, what our school partners expect from us, and sometimes just depending on what kind of day it is. Yet I’ve found this to be especially pronounced during distance learning.
At the dentist this week, the hygienist asked me what I do for a living, and I was tongue-tied for a moment. Last year I might have said something like, “I provide mental health and behavioral support for students at school,” because that felt like my primary role. Academics were often put on the backburner during support time with my kids because the behavioral, socio-emotional pot was boiling over.
In distance learning, however, many SSAs are trying on the ‘teacher’ hat in new ways. One SSA said that last year she felt like a lot of her job was, “...a lot of crisis response and general in-the-moment behavioral redirections, incentive plans, tracking, and stuff like that,” whereas since distance learning, her work has shifted to encompass more of an academic support role focused on supplemental teaching. Some SSAs are also running reading intervention groups, or in my case, a community meeting every day for a group of sixth graders. School staff are spread thin, and as SSAs, we often flex and bend to fill in the gaps. With shortened class periods and long independent work blocks, there are a lot of academic gaps to fill.
Providing emotional support also looks different outside the often hectic school setting, with both potential for disengagement and intimacy. One SSA said she finds herself, “often feeling like a therapist” during her one-on-one Zoom check-ins with kids, with “a lot more kind of ‘talk therapy’ that comes up.” In the words of another SSA, “...we spend the most time with students, so we often have to switch out of different hats because we have to meet the different needs of the students throughout the day.” The need for emotional support has always been there, but the opportunities and needs for one-on-one check-ins with students have grown during this year of isolation.
One SSA described our role as always wearing the hats of teacher, therapist, case manager, and behavioral coach rolled into one, and for her that hasn’t changed during distance learning. The main difference for her is that she is now finally accessing training on supporting students’ needs outside the behavioral realm: “For example, I had to dispense a lot of academic content without any training on how to teach math, ELA, etc. to students [last year].” This year, however, she had the opportunity to receive some training around supporting students with academic needs.
Sometimes I feel spread too thin as an SSA. Other times, I feel grateful that I get to be so many different versions of myself in one day. To a group of 12 sixth graders, I’m their community meeting teacher. To other kids, I’m the person who helps them with their schoolwork and organization skills. Then there is my 3rd grader who asked, “Wait, are you my therapist?” And I get to take the things I’ve learned in each of these roles and apply them to whatever situation I find myself in. It’s a balancing act that can be draining, and is not for everyone, but I find that grounding in the relationships I am building—despite whatever hat I’m wearing—keeps me from slipping.
One year ago, schools shut down and shifted to the virtual setting. A year of Zoom calls, video meetings, phone chats, text messages, and emails. A year of challenges for our students, families, and us as educators. These challenges extended past our virtual schools to the real world. Through it all, I have seen the unbreakable human spirit. Love, compassion, hope, courage, respect, and curiosity. These Seneca core values appear innate to educators, and to me. They seem resilient to the adversity we face. They are truly unconditional. Our other core value, joy, seems to come and go. One moment it feels within my grasp, and the next, slipping through my fingers.
As the days have turned to weeks, the weeks turned to months, and the months into a year, I seek out this joy. The teachers I work with seek it too, but it can be hard to find amid a sea of black screens. Administrators and service providers want to find it as well, but it can be daunting in the digital divide. We aim to solve a myriad of new problems in school structures and the student experience. Our school looks for opportunities to dismantle white supremacy in the education system, and I grapple with how to be an ally. It’s my belief that to move forward in these pursuits, joy is essential.
Seeking joy in times like this can be difficult. I admit in my work with students I’m quick to dive
right into an algebraic equation or to discuss providing evidence for a topic sentence. An area of growth for me is connecting with students virtually. I miss greeting students in the morning, eating with them at lunch, and playing basketball with them in the afternoon. This is also true for my connections with coworkers. Instead of chatting over copies and coffee in the morning, or debriefing at the end of a class, we are face to face in an online meeting with little time to spare. When our school delved into the hard conversations of anti-racism, we could not come together in the following days and lift each other up. I am nostalgic for those organic moments of togetherness within a school day, when joy was not hard to find and I didn’t have to search hard for it.
Without those natural humanizing moments, I’ve attempted to be more intentional about joy. When I check in with students, we discuss what we’re enjoying in and out of school. In my meetings with teachers, we talk about lessons, activities, and how to improve outcomes for students. I then take time to ask teachers “What would make a lesson fun for you?” We tinker and collaborate on how to bring joy to the classroom for them, and for the students. In my digital interactions, I strive to carve out a few minutes of lightness and laughter.
As I sit reflecting upon this past year, a different perspective emerges. These fleeting joys I seek are the simple byproduct of in person human interaction, which I miss dearly. Having those moments can re-energize us as educators and motivate students to keep going. There is a tremendous amount of value in keeping our spirits high. It is important, but there’s also a deeper happiness to be found which can’t be sought after or created so easily. The true joys of Unconditional Education come from within the work itself.
I recently had an IEP meeting with a freshman student. This student graduated 8th grade and started high school virtually, during a pandemic. I cannot imagine living through a pivotal time in such circumstances. The start of this school year was difficult for them, but this recent meeting felt more like a celebration. The student and their clinician were happy to report progress on a journey which enabled the student to recognize their thoughts and feelings, and to give them words. The team, the student, and their mother were thrilled to discuss the positive improvement in the student’s behavior. Their math teacher was ecstatic to discuss the student’s newfound confidence in solving problems step by step. The student and I made plans to tackle a new goal in self-advocacy, an area of challenge, but one that we are embracing in partnership.
This cheerful meeting was no happy accident. It took daily effort from the student, their mother, their teachers, support staff, and a team of service providers. Small moments of joy did sustain all of us in this work, but they can be conditional. They depend on the environment, the activity, and how we as people are connected to each other, which are all challenges in a pandemic. Rather, it is the loving, compassionate, hopeful, courageous, respectful, and curious moments we pour into education everyday which leads to meaningful joy. It is this joy that empowers a young person on their journey. It fills the heart of their family. It is why we persist as educators. A sustainable joy, unconditional.
Seneca is proud to partner with so many schools in the Bay Area dedicated to providing an inclusive and holistic education experience for students. One such partner is Alternatives in Action High School (AIAHS) in Oakland, where we provide special education services within the context of their truly unique and responsive approach to schooling. AIAHS is a transformative school that serves to motivate youth to improve their own lives and build healthier communities. Being the first youth-initiated charter high school in the country, AIAHS provides a community in which students can partner with adults to work on their personal goals and growth.
AIAHS was originally founded by ten youth as the Bay Area School of Enterprise in February 2001. Through their partnership with local experts to design and petition for the school, they were able to receive a unanimous vote of approval by the Alameda Unified School District Board of Trustees. After passing this initiative on May 16, 2001, the school officially opened in September of that year. The school’s Charter was subsequently renewed again by unanimous vote of the Alameda Unified School Board in February of 2006, February 2011, and was renewed once more in November 2015. The school is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, the high school relocated to East Oakland’s Seminary Neighborhood, where it will serve as the anchor for a vibrant new community: The Youth & Family Center.
AIAHS now has achieved nearly twenty years of experience and success in supporting students to graduate high school, and further prepare them to pursue colleges and careers to positively impact their communities. Since 2001, the school has made great strides in advancing marginalized students in their school culture and climate through combining diversity, social justice, and increasing access to higher education:
“I came here because this school is different from other, normal high schools. AIAHS showed me that I can be a leader and actually make changes in the school if I feel like we need changes. This school showed me that I have a voice and the coaches can hear me … AIAHS has helped me change into a better person and a person who can lead.” Jazmine Hernandez, Class of 2018
To better understand AIAHS, watch this short news feature. and continue reading Great School Voices overview of their inspiring journey.
Name: Ali Manrique
Position: SpED Program Assistant
What led you to your current position? I'm really interested in the connection between psychology and education. I learned a lot working with students with IEPs last year as a mental health counselor. This year, I wanted to expand my knowledge on the process of IEPs and understand a more in-depth look at its compliance. I knew that most parents I'd work with were Spanish speaking, and I wanted to support families in feeling included in the IEP process despite the language barrier.
What inspires you to do this work? The IEP process can be a bit tricky at times but it's rewarding to know that I am helping in making the process more accessible for the parents and students I work with. Hearing and reading about the positive progress students are making in their educational goals makes me so proud Within the operational side of my role, I'm inspired by my PA team who works really hard to maintain positive structure within our program, especially in times when there are things out of our control.
What is an important lesson you’ve learned in this role? An important lesson I've learned in this role is the importance of building positive and meaningful relationships within the workplace. Being in admin role can sometimes feel lonely (especially during WFH) but throughout it all I've met some wonderful people on my team who have helped me grow as a leader and expand my communication skills. Although I have not met most of my team in person, I feel a sense of community as I know we all strive to advocate for the students and families we work with. Whether it's hearing how a student is doing, checking in with a co-worker, or having impactful conversations in meetings, I'm grateful for it all.
Share your life motto: I always tell myself "one day at a time/un dia a la vez". Every day brings new rewards and challenges, and it's comforting to know that there is always a new day ahead.
At the end of Black History Month, I have reflected on how much more I have learned about Black excellence, Black joy and Black futures. It has been an inspiring month that continues.
A particular piece of information that made me pause was the studied impact of Black educators on students. Here are some of those empirically evidenced statistics that I saw:
I am fortunate to work with two Black professionals who are in local Oakland schools. Rose Triest is a first-year Special Education teacher and Lauren Williams is a mental health counselor who is looking to enter the teacher track. They are intuitively connected to their students, acutely aware of identity impacting school experiences, and are leaders to the folks around them in bringing intention, gravity, and joy to the work. I spoke with both Rose and Lauren recently about their work and was struck how their own thoughts and experiences echo the evidence-based outcomes about Black educators.
We reflected on why being a Black educator should not be a big deal, but the truth is they are important figures in this age and context. Rose could not remember having any Black teachers growing up, and Lauren clearly recalls the three Black educators who made an impact on her and her school experience. Now that both are in the education field, they find themselves called to the profession by having witnessed how students are often mistreated and overlooked in schools through exclusionary practices. Lauren says, “if not me, then who” leads her to show up for students at school with a driving desire to never give up. The phrase, “Actions are stronger than words” leads Rose to think about all the seemingly “small things,” can support students to feel safe to do the hard work in front of them. Things like having visual cues, cultural references, utilizing different forms of learning, and holding mutual respect. Both Rose and Lauren know that kids are intuitive and can read when leaders are avoidant or aloof. “It’s a vibe!” says Lauren and echoes that students respond well to familial spaces and places where self-expression is accepted in different forms.
Lauren noted that open communication and being receptive to feedback are key elements that help her remain engaged in the work in a diverse school setting with cross racial teams. Rose identifies that “a balance” in education settings is crucial to not becoming too focused on test scores and pragmatic relationships. Incorporating life lessons, cultural exploration and tending to mental health are some ways that help Rose feel that she is caring for herself and upholding to the values that propelled her to become a teacher in the first place. She leans on the school community, including the principal and wider teams, to remind her to keep time for herself and to accept “planting seeds for the future” instead of chasing the elusive immediate solution.
Rose and Lauren note the ongoing work that needs to be done to create an equitable space in schools and the teaching profession. It starts with accepting that we hold biases from our own lived experiences in our homes, schools, and communities and scrutinizing our career training knowing that it doesn’t encompass all experiences. We all must put in the same work to be accountable for our own actions. Their leadership and voice give me hope that the statistics that I laid out earlier, can be forever changed with meaningful work from all.
This week we are highlighting our partnership with J.O. Ford Elementary (Ford), a school devoted to culturally diverse community education.
Ford is in Richmond, CA serving students in grades TK-6th grade as the proud home of the Cougars. Here, our UE Coach Jenna Evans and Bilingual Clinical Intervention Specialist, Kendra Muscarella, work in partnership with Ford to provide student services. Ford is in its 5th year of implementing the Unconditional Education (UE) Model and is one of the longest standing partners in WCCUSD. Despite the challenges and barriers presented by the COVID-19 Pandemic and virtual education, Ford has remained steadfast in supporting their student, caregiver, and staff communities by keeping true to the Ford Mission: Students connect academics to the real world and develop critical thinking skills through individualized instruction and supports to meet their unique needs. This fosters an environment of community, perseverance, and kindness.
Ford’s virtual Black History Month Assembly that was held in February is just one recent example of the school’s dedication to supporting and fostering community. The assembly, coordinated by our very own UE Coach, Jenna Evans, consisted of different student performances and artwork displays, ending with a talk by local bay area artist, Tiffany Conway. Holding true to the Unconditional Education Model, the assembly began with a review of the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) expectations to help root attendees in the following practices of the meeting: “Show Respect”, “Make Good Decisions’, and “Fix Problems.”
See below for some Ford Elementary Black History Month Assembly Highlights:
Video Introduction of the Black National Anthem by students from P.S. 316, Elijah Stroud Elementary School
Room 22 Presentation: What does this song mean to me - “I Can’t Breathe"
Local Bay Area Artist: Tiffany Conway
All-In! Partnership Team