I lost my mom on October 1, 2016. Even though every day is difficult without her, the days leading up to the anniversary of her passing are always the hardest.
We lost school as we knew it on March 13, 2020, and even though school quickly transformed into something new, I find myself having pangs of sadness as we approach the year anniversary of the day the mayor announced that all Philadelphia school buildings would close, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
March 13 is a day of remembrance. Since then, so many and so much have been lost. As schools, we must recognize the pain that students, teachers, families, and community members have endured and are still living through. But we must also take stock of our joys and accomplishments during this time. This week, I reflected on the growth our school, Kensington Health Sciences Academy, made this year. Despite the difficulties, there have been gains — gains that should be noted, celebrated, and continued after we return in person.
Let’s start with the biggest gain: Every child in my school now has a laptop and has exponentially improved their technology skills. Our teachers have learned new ways of presenting content, and our children have new ways of showing us that they are learning. Our school’s midyear survey revealed that technology is the area in which students feel they are learning the most.
As a school community, we came together in July 2020 to devise a schedule that would be more conducive to virtual learning. One of the best outcomes is a flexible period in which we hold one-on-one meetings with our students. These meetings allow teacher advisors to discuss attendance, grades, and other issues with students. As of March, every student has met with their advisor at least eight times, which has helped to keep them on track and remind them that an adult is looking out for them. Our teachers believe that this individualized attention has contributed to our daily attendance being close to 90%. And our midyear survey showed that 72% of our children said that one-on-one meetings were the best part of their day. The flexibility of the virtual environment has allowed our administrative team to become advisors, too; this is definitely my favorite part of the day.
When a student’s virtual attendance begins to drop, our support team — mainly our school climate manager and school safety officer — stops by their home to see if the student is having trouble with their computer or with the internet. In a city that does not provide free public transportation to students, home visits have been essential, especially when children need tech help and may not be able to leave their homes due to cost, safety, or sibling care. While visiting homes was always considered a best practice in schools, the hustle and bustle of the traditional school day often did not allow for such quality attention for our families. Our climate manager and safety officer have conducted over 350 visits this school year, and we recognize that we must continue this direct communication with families for our students to succeed.
In response to the murder of George Floyd last summer, members in our school community formed anti-racism groups. The virtual setting allowed our teachers to come together over the summer with ease and regularity. Once the staff anti-racism group formed, a student anti-racism group came together, too. These gatherings have led to the most honest conversations we have ever had about how we need to improve together.
From a museum curator in Chicago to a celebrity chef in New York, we have had the best guest speaker line-up in our school’s history. Council members Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks inspired the Class of 2020 last spring with their virtual commencement addresses. City Commissioner Al Schmidt talked to our senior government class about election fraud. Superintendent William Hite participated in our online pie-eating contest. Now, our sophomore class is beginning a virtual exchange with students in Japan. With the world gone virtual, we’ve found scheduling impressive speakers and events has been easier than ever.
After school buildings closed almost exactly a year ago, I was afraid of what would be lost during a year online. But our students and teachers have found new ways to grow together and build our community. As we approach March 13, 2021, I am thinking about how we have prevailed this past year, and what practices we will continue when we are back in our buildings. I hope you’ll do the same.
Nimet Eren is Principal of Kensington Health Sciences Academy in Philadelphia.