At Overbrook Educational Center (OEC), located in West Philadelphia, the constant work of this digital learning season has been to learn the needs of families and then step in to find strategies to meet those needs. Principal Meredith Foote and the entire school staff have been all hands on deck to figure out what families need to help in any way possible. The four core values that OEC’s staff try to uphold are leading with love, providing grace and flexibility, treating everyone with dignity, and focusing on humorous moments. We can see the ways that these core values play out in the ways that school staff have been connecting with families.
At the beginning of school closures, Principal Foote made the decision to have all K-5 teachers teach the same cohort of students that they taught last year. By keeping the teacher the same for all students, teachers already had relationships with the family members that they had last year, which helped to maintain existing relationships with families. One of the major ways that OEC’s school staff has been stepping in for families is through home visits. School staff members directly went to the students’ homes to assist with things like Chromebook distribution, getting the Chromebooks fixed, dropping off new Chromebooks, dropping off school supplies and materials, and checking in on overall wellness. Principal Foote personally set aside one day a week to do home visits for families as well. These home visits have given school staff members a chance to connect face-to-face with family members and stay engaged in the lives of their families.
Throughout this time, many teachers also created hard-copy packets of work for students and created distribution days so that families could pick up these packets. Sometimes, teachers dropped off these packets directly to the families if they couldn’t come to pick them up. OEC’s Special Education Compliance Monitor, Lori Keefer, has led the efforts on home visits and ensuring that special education students (specifically students who are visually impaired) have access to the technology and supplies that they need to learn. Sharon Weiss-Cohen, OEC’s guidance counselor, has been working with the families of eighth-graders to get them prepared for high school. With the help of Counselor Weiss-Cohen, 100% of eighth-graders were accepted to the high school of their choice.
There has been a slew of ways that OEC staff members have been staying engaged with families. One way is by using apps to continue communication with family members. OEC’s music teacher, Mr. Rivera, and the grades 4-5 ELA teacher, Ms. Obozian created ways to showcase students and families during their virtual talent show and Black History Month virtual show called “My Voice Matters.” OEC alumni have taken the reins on helping the school with video editing and social media work and have helped to share information and promotion of events with students and families. There have also been many events for families and students to enjoy including virtual escape rooms, pajama parties, town halls, and family cafes. The school’s climate team (Josh Chaney, Channell Livingston, Maylayah Wearing, Emily Petrosky, Laura McKenna, and Caroline Robinson) also put together different events for the younger grades including a movie premiere, life skills event, and escape rooms catered to younger students. Every month, there is also a student of the month who is selected–each time a new student is chosen, a staff member will call the family and student who was chosen to read an affirming paragraph about why this student is the student of the month.
Not only are there engaging events that take place at OEC, but Principal Foote also made an intentional effort to ask families what their greatest needs were. One of the greatest needs that families stated was food. Caroline Robinson, the Community Partnerships Coordinator at OEC got connected with different community partners to obtain donations for families. These donations have included money, school supplies, bookbags, groceries, free dinners, diapers, general home supplies, Valentine’s Day treats, etc. Staff members have delivered groceries and dinners to students’ homes. It’s evident the ways that teachers and staff members have come together as a community to figure out ways to help families.
However, it has not only been staff members at OEC who have been connecting with and reaching out to families–it has also been families reaching out to other families! Families have been a source of encouragement to one another, often calling each other and sharing similar experiences and things they may be going through. Many families have shown how willing they are to help others in the school community. For example, Principal Foote wanted to distribute hotspots to some families; however, due to a lack of time, she knew she couldn’t distribute them all. Principal Foote sent out an email to family members, and many mothers came to the school to deliver the hotspots to other parents in the neighborhood. These mothers really stepped up and provided for one another, giving their time and energy generously. This was one of many examples of the ways that family members stepped in for each other at OEC.
At Overbrook Educational Center, we can see that rather than randomly apply strategies, the school staff intentionally asked family members what they need to provide the specific help that families need. During this digital learning time, student attendance has actually increased! Principal Foote commends many family members who have been doing a great job making sure that students are logged on, engaged, and participating in their coursework. Principal Foote says, “It’s been such a difficult time for so many people, so I give a lot of credit and kudos to our parents who have stepped up to become teachers, safety, officers, chefs, and others, and I can’t thank them enough.” It has taken a village at Overbrook Educational Center for the whole team, school staff, and families alike, to join together and assess their needs and help one another during this time.