This Aurora school held a virtual pep rally to keep its school culture alive

When students used to walk to Aurora’s Paris Elementary, the principal and other staff greeted them to music at the entrance. A weekly assembly like a pep rally, recognition of students and staff, and reminders of school values — all contributed to creating supportive enthusiasm at school.

“It’s that spirit of we love you, we see you,” said Susan Gershwin, community school coordinator. “That’s just our school culture, so it’s like, now how do we carry that on?”

Now that school buildings have been closed for the rest of the school year in Aurora, Paris leaders are trying to bring back some of that feeling.

Paris is wrestling with the same challenges that face many schools that serve students from low-income households. Educators are trying to create ways for families to continue to feel connected to the school, reaching out by calling and texting, and trying to recreate parent groups and after-school student activities in a virtual space. Invigorating students about school has been one of Paris’ strategies to boost achievement.

Last Friday, the school tried its first virtual assembly on Google Hangouts.

“We have had such a large number of requests,” Principal Antonio Vigil said. “Our scholars and families are really desiring an attempt to connect.”

The 30-minute video call had more than 130 students and staff members. There were some glitches. Teachers had to call out individual students to mute, but not all knew how. The principal accidentally muted himself at the start. Were the unfamiliar names trying to join the call strangers or maybe students using a parent’s Google account? And when everyone had their mics on, kids complained about the bad audio.

Still, students chanted together, reminding each other to “never give up,” “always do your best,” and to keep trying to “grow my brain.” Each grade level recognized a student participating in remote learning.

Usually, students recognized in the school assemblies get a gift like a school T-shirt. On Friday, the students who were recognized got a bigger surprise. The school ordered pizza for their whole family that night.

Paris Elementary serves about 340 students, where 98% qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty. More than 75% of the students are learning English as a second language.

“Our families, particularly in northwest Aurora, they are incredibly resilient, they are problem solvers,” Vigil said. “And they are struggling mightily.”

Gershwin said many parents have lost work hours or been laid off. When she connects with families, the most common concerns she hears are keeping food on the table, or figuring out how to pay rent.

Gershwin and others at the school connect families to resources. Vigil is creating school guides and procedures for how, and when a teacher should flag Gershwin, a school mental health professional, or other staff providing support to a student who might need help. One staff member had to call 911 recently to help a parent who was “in a very dangerous situation” during a check-in call. 

“Many of our families are under duress right now and that directly is really going to disrupt that trajectory for learning,” Vigil said.

Paris was one of the district’s lowest performing schools, but has recently been improving. Vigil was sure this was going to be the year that the school would move into “performance” — the state rating level that demonstrates a school is meeting expectations.

But state tests aren’t happening this year, and the state won’t issue ratings. Vigil now worries if that growth students have been demonstrating can continue despite the current crisis.

“We’re trying to calibrate already for next year,” Vigil said. Gaps between students will widen, he said.

Paris is one of five schools in Aurora’s “innovation zone,” which means it has unique flexibility to do things differently from the district. This year, each school in the zone, for instance, has a school coordinator, like Gershwin at Paris, working to engage families.

With its flexibility, Paris was already planning a slightly longer school day next year, which might help catch kids up, Vigil said. He’s also considering tutoring sessions on weekends.

The district is pointing its elementary students to online resources for literacy and math lessons. Paris is also using the website as a resource, but teachers at Paris are using their own platforms to assign work to students.

Every morning they do a virtual group call to check in.

Nanci Romano, a fifth grade math teacher at Paris, said approximately nine of her 22 students join that daily morning call. The number has slowly been growing.

Throughout the day she is available for student questions, including office hours when she’s available on a virtual Google call again. And twice a week she sends out videos of how to solve math problems.

As is happening across the district, Paris teachers aren’t entering grades for students during this remote learning time, but are providing feedback on work students turn in, and are keeping track of whether students are improving, or falling behind.

Romano said she is seeing some students improve from where they left off.

“I’m personally not worried about it because the growth I saw last year was really quite incredible,” Romano said.

In her 14 years of teaching, she had not seen students make the progress her students at Paris have been making. And she said the urgency to make sure students progress is the same online as it is in person.

“It’s always a No. 1 priority,” Romano said.

The first phase has been removing barriers for families to participate in online learning. In the first two weeks of school buildings being closed, staff reached out to all but 25 families to ask about their needs. “Through the grapevine,” Vigil said, staff have heard it’s possible those families had to leave the city.

Now, about 42% of students have been engaging in online learning.

Families have said they face other barriers, including access to technology and to the internet.

The district’s distribution of laptops and devices left just 25 Paris students without a device this week. Wednesday the school received permission to personally deliver devices, while practicing safe distancing, to those families.

Gershwin is also working this week to get the school’s Parents in Action group meeting as a virtual support group, and also to restart a student group run by Aurora Mental Health Center. She’s also trying to partner with other organizations offering student activities. The city’s poet laureate, for instance, will have a poetry reading for students and Gershwin will offer the opportunity to Paris students who want more activities to do at home.

“It’s about communicating that love and care,” Gershwin said.

At the end of the assembly last Friday, the Paris staff sang Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” reminding students that “you can still lean on one another” for help.

“We’re always optimistic,” Vigil said. “Our young people need to see us completely personifying that.”

Just before everyone said goodbye, Mr. V asked students if they wanted to have an assembly again in a week. “Oh, yeah,” students said.