In the September 25th edition of New Orleans CityBusiness, NSNO highlighted the reopening efforts at Warren Easton Charter School. The school year started virtually for students but if health trends continue to improve, they will return to campus by mid-October.
“Able to Be That Family”
How Warren Easton Charter High School Started a Virtual Year Strong
Morgan Jackson is a member of the Warren Easton Charter High School Class of 2006 and the youngest member of the school’s board. She felt confident that, despite the obstacles this year has brought, her alma mater was up to the challenge: “The thing that really makes Warren Easton different is the ‘WE.’ We have the perfect initials for how this feels like a family. This isn’t people’s jobs, it’s their passion. When it is your passion, you put in the extra ‘umph,’ you go the extra mile. And that’s the culture for students too, from the first day as freshmen.”
So even with this fall’s challenges, Easton’s team had the energy and dedication to persist. The year began fully virtually, with school buildings closed at public schools across New Orleans. If current health trends continue, high schools can begin returning to partially in-person classes on October 12, but the first quarter of the year has been online. Easton’s teachers have been using the Google Classroom platform to share, assign, and collect student work. Classes are held over Zoom. To make sure every student was able to participate, Easton’s team distributed WiFi hotspots and laptops at the start of the school year.
Though COVID-19 itself came as a shock, Easton felt prepared for the transition to virtual schooling. Students and teachers began using Google Classroom as a supplement to in-person instruction last year. “When COVID hit and they announced that schools would close, it wasn’t a major lift for us. Our kids and staff were already used to the online platform. So we did not have to have professional development for our teams on Google Classroom. Instead, we could pivot to the pedagogy of long-distance learning,” says Mervin Jackson, Easton’s Principal.
When school began in August, Easton’s teachers launched into assessing where students were academically. Then, they were ready to address unfinished learning from the year before, using virtual learning best practices to accelerate this year’s material. Easton is proud of the high-quality teaching and learning that happens in its school, whether online or in person. The school still has dual enrollment options with Delgado Community College, is still teaching Advanced Placement and honors classes, and is still offering strong instruction and extracurriculars to all students. But Easton remains focused on the whole child, too.
“Before kids can begin the rigorous academics, we want to check in with them socio-emotionally. We want to make sure they are safe and okay. We also want to preserve the Easton culture and pride for the school. Every lesson begins with a social-emotional check-in, and our teachers have woven in social-emotional learning practices into their lessons. It’s really just saying ‘how are you?’ and it’s space and time for kids to get to know each other. This is especially important in a virtual space, so teachers are doing icebreakers in class and making those conversations relevant to their instruction, too,” says Kendall McManus, Easton’s Executive Director of Academics.
“We are also utilizing the study hall time and office hour times to address not only academic needs but social-emotional needs. Students might need connections to counselors, for instance. Before COVID-19 and still now, if students are in need, we are able to provide wraparound services to them. There are resources we have both within the school and that the alumni association is able to provide, whether it’s a food gift card or a wellness check,” McManus explains.
“That’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. Being able to be that family and support for students,” explains Dameatrice Dunbar, an Assistant Principal at Easton.
Easton’s team is trying to continue to build the culture that makes the school feel like a family, even when students are physically apart. When school was in-person, students read the morning announcements over the public address (PA) system each day. Now, they have students come in to record “WE-TV” (Warren Easton TV) episodes with the announcements, and those are played across virtual homerooms. WETV also includes local news, current events, and the weather. Sometimes alumni come in as special guests for the show. Efforts like these make a physically distant start to the school year feel closer. But the reality of virtual classrooms is difficult for everyone.
“It hurts that our kids are not in the buildings. We truly miss them. A school without kids? We’re making it work virtually, but we miss their voices, their faces, their laughter. We still have great relationships with our kids, but it’s not the same. When we have students, we are greeting them as they come in, saying their names. We are hugging them, smiling at them, encouraging them on their ways to class,” says Assistant Principal Lauren LeDuff. As they proceed toward those eagerly-awaited in-person classes, Easton’s community will move with the commitment, love, and teamwork that has made their school so strong.
“It’s like hey, this is our family,” explains Morgan Jackson. “We’re going to look out for each other, protect each other, be there for each other. This is your family and you want it to succeed.”