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Posts tagged as “Durham Public Schools”

With Wellness Wednesdays, Durham schools tune into student health

Days of monotony inside, constant Zoom links and screens, all the while worrying about your and your family’s health. This is the reality of this school year – one unfathomably different than any other.

For faculty at Burton Magnet Elementary School, bolstering the mental health of their students has always been a priority. Since returning to online classes almost two months ago, they’ve had to innovate new ways to get that done.

“Seeing teachers on Canvas or on Zoom is not the same as somebody touching your shoulder and saying you can do it, telling you that you did a good job,” Principal Kimberly Ferrell said. “We can’t provide the same support we could when face to face.”

Anticipating this struggle districtwide, Durham Public Schools developed new tools to promote social and emotional learning and mental health. Wellness Wednesdays is one initiative: one day of the week when students and staff are urged to focus on holistic wellness.

Wellness Wednesdays look different depending on a student’s grade and school, but DPS and each school provide activities focused on personal growth.

There are both live Zoom sessions to learn about aspects of social emotional learning, as well as documents stuffed with ideas offline, independent activities that students and families can tackle for their mental and physical health. 

A few Burton Elementary faculty members lead a session on Wellness Wednesday focused on physical health. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

For October, many schools scheduled anti-bullying programming in tandem with Bullying Prevention Month.

Emotional learning has been a part of priority four of DPS’s five-year strategic plan, focusing on “strengthening school, family, and community engagement,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, DPS’s senior executive director of student support services.

The transition to virtual learning this fall presented an opportunity, Mattocks-Perry said, to focus more intentionally on social emotional learning and holistic wellness of students. 

“Everything that we’ve been reading from practitioners tells us that all of the things going on – the economic factors related to COVID-19, civil unrest, abrupt adaptations in how we operate daily as a school – that has been classified as a traumatic childhood experience,” said Mattocks-Perry.

Matthew Hickson, director of online learning, and others reached out to local mental health agencies and conntected with community groups around Durham to work up programming.

On Wednesdays, the district uploads a new document for students, teachers, and parents to look at on the district’s new social and emotional learning hub: EMBRACE.

For example, DPS partnered with Growga to hold weekly yoga classes for students, accessible on the EMBRACE website. They partnered with Triangle United Soccer for a weekly soccer lesson and with other organizations for outdoors activities and cooking tips.

“We really want Wednesdays to be a time for our students to really take a step back. You know, they’re in this intense environment, and so we want all of them to take these days and use them as a time to reflect,” Hickson said.

Elementary schools often have much more structured Wednesdays to ensure heightened support, Hickson said. Burton Magnet Elementary School, located in East Durham off South Alston Avenue is an example.

Burton teachers and administrators continue to bring material support to their students, despite school remaining online. Distributing free books from nonprofit Book Harvest is one example. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

Burton is a magnet school where a majority of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, many of whom were displaced by the crisis at McDougald Terrace last spring. Mental health support there doesn’t stop on the internet.

Using both DPS’s guidelines and their own creativity, Burton Elementary’s leadership spent about eight weeks before school resumed training on the new mental health virtual resources.

“We can’t provide the type of support that we normally give as part of the process. So we came up with a list of activities that we found ways to connect with his students online,” said Tameko Piggee, a Burton social worker.

Burton designed a check-in system that lets students alert teachers about how their minds and bodies feel. They place themselves in color zones in Google Docs: blue for boredom, exhaustion, sadness; green for positive emotions, feeling ready for the day ahead; yellow for feeling out of control and in need of some support; and red to signal extreme emotions, anger and aggression included.

After students pick their spots, school social worker and counselors can identify students in need of aid and reach out.

Teachers are constantly looking out for students who are struggling but aren’t necessarily speaking up about it, said school counselor Ponsella Brown. 

“There are times when we will get messages from teachers. So, we go into the classrooms, virtual through the breakouts and work with students who are dealing not only with COVID-19,” she said. Housing crises can crop up, so can illness and death in families.

School staff still try to help with students’ more physical needs, despite the pandemic. Many students began quarantine without desks, sitting on floors or couches to do work. So, with the service organization Triangle Park Chapter of Links, they provided 80 desks for Burton students.

After the Durham Board of Education decided on Sept. 24 to keep schools remote the rest of the semester, Ferrell said they are ready to keep using Wellness Wednesdays and their own tools to educate and take care of their students online indefinitely.

“The nuance of this new environment for some of our families, was scary,” Ferrell said. “But, we know we’ll always have a relationship with our community. And they trust us.”

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.edu

At top: Students can view dancing and other activities during a break from virutal classroom lessons on Wednesdays. Photo from Burton Magnet Elementary School

With help, Durham schools prepare to start the school year online

While working as a technology specialist in Durham Public Schools, Laura Fogle learned about a student whose phone screen was so cracked, glass shards cut her fingers when she typed. Yet she tried to compose an essay on it. Unlike other classmates, she did not have a computer at home.

With the school year set to start online on Monday, the local school district has been working for months to collapse such digital divides among students. 

A high-profile step was the purchase of over 20,000 Chromebooks for grades kindergarten through 12. Students lacking internet access are getting hotspot devices too, to ensure they can connect. 

And even with this process, there have been bumps. At some schools, like Parkwood Elementary, Chromebook shipments have been delayed. 

Achieving an equitable experience for almost 33,000 students is a far greater job than merely giving each a device and internet access, however. Teachers have to redesign courses, students need to master their devices, and when the technology fails or things break, money must be available for repairs and replacements. 

The library at Riverside High School was converted into a staging area for for digital-equipment hand outs this week. Staff wrapped devices for students. Photo by Henry Haggart

With the support of community members and Durham Public Schools Foundation, schools like Lakewood Elementary are hustling to figure out what an effective online school and school community looks like.

Without the school bus picking students up each morning and the energy of students at recess vibrating through the neighborhood, Principal James Hopkins has to find a new way to connect his Lakewood community. 

To do so, he is breaking down school-opening preparations into action items. His first task: calling all Lakewood families.  

Families received a call by Tuesday from Lakewood to check in about the upcoming year, understand any concerns or extraneous needs they have, and inform them of their time slot to pick up Chromebooks from the school.  

Open house did not feature the typical classroom tours or teacher meet and greet. Instead families used their student’s device to log onto Zoom. 

The next action steps are the most complicated – navigating online teaching. 

Lakewood teachers have had to adapt to Canvas, the learning management platform DPS is using across all schools, Hopkins said. Canvas will serve as a home base, where teachers can create lesson plans, grade books, online quizzes and other materials for their students to access. 

Next, Hopkins says teachers must mentally prepare themselves to connect from afar. 

Rather than pulling students aside to sound out tricky words, teachers will now have to improvise. Maybe they call students one-on-one, or maybe they slow the lesson plan down from the beginning.  

“It’s something we were never trained to do, something that in our wildest dreams, we may not have believed that we would be doing. And so, that’s much easier said than done,” he said. 

To help district schools, the Durham Public Schools Foundation has launched a $1.5 million fundraising campaign called “Accelerating Digital Equity.” 

The campaign has four main focuses. They include training teachers, raising money for ongoing technology needs, supporting students, especially those with additional needs such as bilingual technology support in a district where over 5,000 students enrolled as English language learners in 2018-2019.

Providing community spaces for students to learn from if they are unable to do so at home is the last goal. The learning centers, announced this week, will be a supervised, socially-distant environment for students who need it. 

These four components are needed to build a learning ecosystem, the setting in which students are able to learn successfully, said Katie Wright, the foundation’s development and communications specialist. 

“If you have the device but you don’t have these other supports in place, it’s not going to be quality, remote learning experience, and that’s what students need to not fall behind,” she said. 

In 2018, the US Census Bureau estimated over 12,000 people in Durham county had no internet access, and over 11,000 people relied on their smartphone as their only device. This alone diminishes all ability to learn virtually from home. 

“In Durham because of our geography and the concentration of population that we have, the issue is much more about affordability for people connecting to the internet — whether or not it’s available, is much less of an issue,” said Fogle, who now works with Digital Durham, which promotes digital inclusion. 

To spread word of the campaign to keep students online, the foundation has identified  “accelerators,” volunteers who are willing to spread word of the effort with friends, family and community groups. 

Getting Chromebooks into the hands of students and families needing them is only one step to delivering meaningful online instruction. Photo by Henry Haggart

The foundation also created the Durham HOPE Network, a database of free community resources available now to DPS schools and families. This includes anything from free tutoring sessions to information on event spaces available for small, socially distant gatherings.

To put all the puzzle pieces together, teachers will need to lean on each other, said Hopkins. Each year he shares a theme with the Lakewood community. This year it is one word: Together.

“It’s like going down a road that no one’s ever traveled down. There are going to be six boulders, all sorts of things in our path that we must be able to move and create together,” he said.

All this effort in the midst of a pandemic may bring lasting improvements to Durham even when this coronavirus outbreak is a memory. 

“We have an opportunity to create an equitable situation where all of our students are getting digital literacy and their families are able to have careers that require that,” Wright said.

9th Street reporter Michaela Towfighi can be reached at michaela.towfighi@duke.edu

At top: Riverside High School Principal Tonya Williams Leathers helped hand out Chromebooks to students this week. Photo by Henry Haggart