In “normal” times, the month of June provides an opportunity to celebrate student success with graduation ceremonies, end-of-year programs, and pomp and circumstance. These celebrations have become cherished rites of passage for students to reflect on their achievements and on their determination to complete the school year strong.
Of course, this was hardly a normal school year. 2020 posed substantial challenges for students nationally and here in Chicago. Not only did our young people face an unprecedented pandemic that closed schools for months and ushered in an uncharted transition to remote learning. They also witnessed the latest terrible acts of racial injustice and police brutality, which stirred overdue calls for reform.
Amid this turmoil, Chicago experienced a troubling spike in violence through the first half of the year. With shootings and murders on pace to rival the devastating count in 2016, Mayor Lightfoot has said the city faces two existential viruses: COVID-19 and gun violence.
Despite this perfect storm of challenge and strife, our students and staff refused to write off 2019–20 as a lost year. Instead, they rose to the occasion and greeted each obstacle they faced with innovation and tenacity. All of this gives new meaning to how we recognize success this season.
Here’s how CIS of Chicago has been working in schools and beyond to help our students feel safe and supported, so that they can continue on the path to graduation.
Ensuring Student Learning by Simply Picking Up the Phone
One of the challenges faced by schools across city once the stay-at-home order began was making sure that all students stayed engaged in their learning. And our CIS of Chicago Student Supports Managers played an important role in working with teachers, administrators, and family members to keep students on track.
Student Supports Manager Ms. Chavara Turner leveraged her own perspective as a mother to build strong relationships with parents while school was in session. And that trust she developed with them helped her quickly tackle the challenge of getting students logged in for online classes. When three of Ms. Turner’s eighth graders were not showing up for remote learning, she reached out immediately to their parents. For one eighth grader, Giovanni, Ms. Turner called his mother, and she found a way to connect him with a school-supplied Chromebook.
When Giovanni was still not showing up for virtual classes, Ms. Turner called again and helped him troubleshoot Wi-Fi issues. She encouraged him to visit the schoolyard to pick up the school’s Wi-Fi signal, download his assignments, and then work on them from home. With Ms. Turner’s support, Giovanni and the two other eighth graders who were initially disengaged all graduated this spring.
Connecting with Students on Google Meet
After Chicago Public Schools announced it was hosting remote learning through the Google suite, CIS of Chicago staff quickly adapted to the new platform. Student Supports Manager Ms. Juanita Herrera found that her elementary students loved to experiment through cooking, so she launched a series on Google Meet called “Tasty Thursdays with Ms. Herrera.” Attendance in the club skyrocketed, with 65 students engaged, and each week, Ms. Herrera demonstrated a healthy, easy, and affordable recipe for her students to practice at home. From Mexican-style elote (corn) to Philly cheesesteak Sloppy Joes, Ms. Herrera kept her students engaged — and covered kitchen hygiene and current events along the way.
CIS of Chicago staff also leveraged Google Meet to celebrate the winners of our Tenacity Awards. Presented annually, the Tenacity Awards recognize students who have overcome challenges and displayed tremendous perseverance to meet their goals. Student Supports Managers honored each of this year’s 31 winners with their very own virtual celebration.
For one student on the Southeast Side, Mireya, the virtual celebration had her smiling from ear to ear. After her Student Supports Manager, Ms. Sydney Hammuck, played Kool & The Gang’s iconic “Celebration” song, Mireya said, “This is something new, so I feel happy. I feel like I fit in. I feel congratulated. It’s an awesome feeling to win something that you’ve never won before.”
Responding to Families’ Essential Needs
One of the priorities CIS of Chicago identified when the pandemic hit our city was responding to families’ short-term and long-term emergency needs. In the face of a shut down, many of our families struggled with economic insecurity and access to basic essentials. Thanks to a $50,000 grant awarded by A Better Chicago, CIS of Chicago staff were able to provide nearly 100 families with emergency assistance. This partnership supported our team’s work with helping students and families weather the pandemic, and it paved the way for a future focus on emergency assistance as we navigate the start of next school year.
Supporting Families through a TeleSupport Line
At the beginning of the stay-at-home order, CIS of Chicago launched a TeleSupport program to assist families with managing stress and supporting students with remote learning. For Student Supports Manager Ms. Stacey Fredericks, this dedicated phone line proved valuable for her caseload of students and families.
Ms. Fredericks checked in with one mother whose family felt the pressures of economic uncertainty, new responsibilities for homeschooling, and anxiety around her husband’s health. Ms. Fredericks connected the mother with resources for emergency funds and helped her troubleshoot technology for remote learning. Ms. Fredericks also assisted both mother and daughter with developing positive coping strategies to help them see their way through the pandemic.
Providing Students with a Variety of Activities on YouTube
With students stuck inside and navigating feelings of isolation and stress, our staff wanted to provide crafts, projects, and even exercises that students could do from home. They started recording short, activity-based videos and sharing them on the CIS of Chicago YouTube channel.
Student Supports Manager Ms. Mimi Macbeth guided students through a hopeful sun salutation and meditative practice. Student Supports Manager Ms. Maria Torres led a merengue sequence to help students feel grounded and strong. And Student Supports Manager Ms. Jessica Juarez demonstrated how to create positive affirmations using items found at home. From art projects to storytelling and even science experiments, these videos provided students with social and emotional care.
Sending Care Packages and Messages of Hope
Some CIS of Chicago staff even assembled unique care packages to continue their in-school programming. For Ms. Juarez, Art Xpress is an integral part to her social-emotional work at Chavez Elementary. Art Xpress helps students convey their thoughts and feelings, and with schools closed, students lost access to project guidance and materials. Ms. Juarez garnered some fundraising to put together art kits for students (complete with a pack of canvas, paints, brushes, a sketch book, and more). She delivered these directly to the principal and then hosted consistent Google Meet sessions to keep her Art Xpress crew creating.
Student Supports Manager Ms. Razz Fullard also wanted to promote healthy activities, so she created care packages of her own — for any student who arrived at meal distribution. The care packages included art supplies and a healthy snack. She also sent each student on her caseload an inspirational postcard with the message, “Life is tough, but you are BRAVE,” to encourage students to stay hopeful.
Reaching Out to Students through Email
When all else failed, Student Supports Managers let their students know that they were available to talk through their CPS-approved email. A simple reminder from our team made a huge difference for many students feeling discouraged. After Student Supports Manager Mr. Daniel Hasak assisted one eighth grader on his caseload, he received the following email:
“I want to thank you for always helping me out, and at times when I would get upset at you, you’ve always helped me and never got upset at me,” the eighth grader said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart… You believed me when nobody did and always gave me techniques to improve my behavior and attitude in school.”
Sharing Our Well-Wishes at Drive-By Graduation
Last, but not least, our Student Supports Managers rounded out the school year by participating in our partner schools’ drive-by graduation ceremonies. Although each school had a unique spin on how they recognized graduating students, these drive-by ceremonies gave our staff the chance to cheer students on, while still adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Student Supports Manager Mr. Varney Selli visited students at Westcott Elementary during their cap and gown pickup, and Student Supports Manager Ms. Diamond Howard celebrated her graduating students at Mireles Elementary by capturing their joyous turn of the tassel.
We are so proud of our staff and students for persisting this school year and reminding us what they are really made of. Their perseverance underscores the importance of our mission and renews our dedication to innovation. While the future is uncertain, CIS of Chicago is prepared to work in schools and beyond to ensure that our students continue learning and growing and that they stay on the path to graduation.