Connections, Consistency & Care

No one ever trains you to be a Principal during a Pandemic.

During “normal” times at school, you spend every waking moment trying to build a community of academic inquiry through exploration and exposure. You nurture relationships, celebrate success and support people through hardships. A quick visit to a classroom, a high-five in a hallway or an intense conversation in your office; it’s how you interact with students and with staff in your community. The third side of the equilateral triangle of a school community is our families. Our families trust us with their most precious commodities, their children. So our connections to them must be strong and deep. As a New York City Community School, with our partner Children’s Aid, we aim to provide holistic support to families that focuses on academic achievement, enrichment, legal aid, financial support and access to healthcare. As the Principal of a Community School, it is vital to know the needs of your families deeply in order to support them and their children. It is not an easy job, but it’s what you do everyday when you are in the brick and mortar of a school building.

On March 15th we got the word: our school would move to “Remote Learning” for the next month with the very real possibility of not returning for the remainder of the school year. Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School is located in the poorest urban Congressional District in the United States. I have been an administrator there for the past nine years and the Principal for six of those years. Leading a school in The Bronx has its challenges. High poverty has an impact on housing, healthcare, food security, and missed academic instruction. We have created systems and partnerships that address some of these issues; however, dealing with a pandemic in NYC would be a challenge unlike any we have ever faced.

We would have to support our students and staff, but we also knew we had to support our parents. This would be a difficult time for our families with loss of income, sick family members, housing issues and an inability to secure food or basic needs. We would have to make the move to remote learning to be supportive of students but also supportive of our parents. Moving to remote learning would have to consist of 3 C’s: Connections, Consistency and Care.

If we were going to be out of the school building for an extended period of time, we would need to utilize our deep Connections to support our students and their parents. As we moved to remote learning, we knew that there was a digital divide with our families. In a school of 460 students, more than half have no working technology at home to support sustained school work. We mobilized our teachers to reach out to families to get the most accurate count of technology in homes and then get working devices into every home in order to not disrupt academics. As my mentor, former Principal at Fannie Lou, Nancy Mann says “Advisory is the secret army of the school.” So the army was deployed! We knew we would need the most up-to-date contact info as we headed into uncertain days. Our advisors went to work, reaching out to all the families with three tasks in mind,

  1. getting the most updated contact information for every parent and every student;
  2. finding out the technology needs in each house; and
  3. finding out which families were food insecure.
We utilized one full planning day, getting the most updated contact information, which we knew was vital. Our families would need us and as we headed into social isolation, this might be the only way we could communicate. We knew supporting families through this crisis would require our ability to be nimble in changing conditions, so we had to prioritize our Connections with families via contact information and technology that could then be used for us to adapt quickly in changing conditions. As the advisors secured updated contact information, they would then find out about technology and food needs. We then spent two full days bringing students and families in to hand out over 250 computers, Wi-Fi hotspots (thanks to our partnership with Children’s Aid and Here to Here, two of our community based organization partners), food bags from our pantry and gift cards for our local supermarket. We would need to support our families more than ever and our Connections would enable us to do so.

As our city turned upside down, we also knew we had to supply some Consistency to our work with students and families. Things were changing rapidly in NYC; we knew that parents needed the stability that Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School provided.  Advisors reached out to homes in the first few weeks to check in with students and parents. “Was the computer working?” “Was your child able to sign on to Google Classroom?” “Do you want to have a parent account on Google Classroom so you can follow along?” “Is your Wi-Fi working well?”  As a community school, these are the supports that we genuinely provide for our families and it wouldn’t change now. Weekly emails to our parents provide information on the canceling of New York State exams, spring break and summer youth employment, information on how daily attendance would be counted in our remote learning environment and opportunities for special online enrichment classes. Guidelines during this time have been changing rapidly for all New York City Schools; however, we knew that our students and their families needed the Consistency of our academic expectations. As a part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, our students graduate through Performance Based Assessments that demonstrate graduation level written tasks and oral presentations. These expectations will not change for our students. As a school that already utilizes G-Suite, our daily digital practices of Google Classroom -- writing revisions with Google docs and communicating with our students through email -- would be the basis of our transition to remote learning. These would not be new practices for our students or their families. Our teachers still utilize online classes, office hours, small group and independent conferencing to meet promotion expectations with our students. This Consistency of our academic mission and vision while we are remotely learning demonstrates to our families that our belief in holding our students to intellectually demanding work remains true. Parents do not have to wonder if our expectations of their children have changed, In these times of massive tumult in their lives, it is comforting for parents to know what to expect from their child’s school. We wanted every family to know we are still there for them and their children and, even though we are not in the building together, we still are a community school and we will still cultivate the intellectual needs of our students.

COVID-19 has hit our community hard. We have community members that have gotten sick and we have lost many people that we care about. It has been an extremely difficult time. However, as we march forward, we still continue to Care for our families. Rigor, Relevance and Relationships are the 3 R’s of Big Picture Learning and the relationship with our students and their families is what enables us to provide Care during this time. Relationships are inherent in the school structures, our teachers loop with their students for two year cycles both in content classes and as advisors. Our small NYC school is divided into even smaller “houses” to enable the smallest amount of students to connect with the smallest amount of teachers. This enables our families to know their children’s teachers and advisors well. So during this strenuous time, our families have strong bonds with our staff and we have been able to raise money for families, provide comfort through phone calls and texts, supply needs for households and most importantly, be present. Our social work staff also contacts families about the needs for the household. “Do you need another gift card for the supermarket?” “Can I help you get an appointment with our immigration lawyer?” “Let’s contact the landlord together and make arrangements for payments.” Every single day during quarantine our school has remained open for families to come and grab breakfast and lunch. Thanks to our amazing cafeteria and security staff, each day we are serving over 350 meals to families in need.  

These are confusing and unnerving times for all of us, there is no playbook on how to run a school during a pandemic. Moving an entire school to remote learning and providing students with intellectually challenging engaging work while assisting families in the midst of a traumatic situation has never been done before. We don’t fully know how to do this. However, we do know how to be caring humans in a community. So we plan things that we think will impact our school, then we evaluate those plans and then continue to move forward or we change those plans. We don’t have all the answers on how to do this, but we are engaging in some of the most impactful real-life, real-time professional development of our careers. While we are still learning how to run a community school through remote learning during this time, we do know one thing. We will move forward with our Connections, provide Consistency and Care deeply. It’s just what we have to do.