BVSD, SVVSD prepare to welcome students back to school

BVSD, SVVSD prepare to welcome students back to school

About 40 incoming freshmen at Erie High spent two weeks getting to know the school, learning a little math and language arts and connecting with teachers, classmates and older student mentors.

St. Vrain Valley’s “JumpStart” transition program provides a slower introduction to high school life, easing nerves and, especially for those who spent most or all of last school year online, giving them a chance to get back in the school groove.

Erie High teacher Tori Curtis talks to mentors Aria Pickett, left, and Alex Pawlowski. Incoming Erie High School ninth graders participated in the district’s JumpStart program on July 29. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

“It’s even more important this year for them to learn how to talk to each other and make friends,” said Erie High language arts teacher Tori Curtis. “They missed out on a huge portion of their educational experience last year. I want these kids to be excited about starting high school. I want them to know it’s literally my job to help you. Don’t just sit there and quietly struggle.”

The St. Vrain Valley and Boulder Valley school districts are preparing for students to return to classes this week, with an increased focus on extra social and emotional support and plans to continue work started over the summer to help students who fell behind gain lost academic ground.

The rise of the highly contagious Delta variant complicated that planning, with both districts delaying announcing COVID-19 rules around masks, quarantines and school operations until last week to give local health agencies time to evaluate new state and national recommendations.

The verdict: Masks will be required inside for all, quarantine rules will be loosened and school will return to a five-day-a-week, fully in-person experience.

“We know the beginning of this school year is going to be different than the beginning of other school years,” said Robbyn Fernandez, Boulder Valley area superintendent. “We are prepared for that. Our teachers have been preparing for this moment to welcome our students back five days a week. We’re all thrilled to see our students rejoin us.”

Support for the transition grades

Both districts expanded their summer school programs this year. Along with summer school, St. Vrain offered a voluntary, weeklong transition program for incoming sixth graders and a two-week transition program for incoming ninth graders, held in late July and early August. The district is considering expanding those programs to more students next summer.

“It’s really critical for student success,” Diane Lauer, St. Vrain’s assistant superintendent of priority programs, said about the importance of supporting students in those transition grades.

All St. Vrain sixth and ninth graders also will have their schools to themselves on the first day back this week. Boulder Valley offers similar first-day transition programs for their new sixth and ninth graders. On the first day, older students are assigned as mentors and will lead the newly minted freshmen through community building activities. This fall, many schools also are inviting seventh graders and 10th graders who were online all last school year.

The Centaurus High School H.E.A.R.T. code, which stands for honor, empathy, achievement, respect and triumph, is seen on the wall as C-Squad members work on on Aug. 6 to plan for the first day of school in Lafayette. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Leaders in both districts said they expect teachers and schools to spend extra time building relationships and community. Unlike last school year, when buildings remained closed, some schools this year also are organizing the typical, in-person back-to-school events and family nights to get to know families.

Looking beyond the start of school, St. Vrain Valley hired retired elementary school principal Jill Lliteras to lead a new afterschool tutoring program dubbed the Achievement Advancement Academy. The district plans to use federal coronavirus relief money to fund the program.

Lauer said the tutoring could include in-person and online options, with Lliteras planning to spend the spend the first few weeks of school gathering data on student needs and existing resources to help design the program.

“We want to create new supports to expand opportunities for targeted student populations,” she said.

Boulder Valley is putting together its own tutoring program, called Accelerated Learning Labs, in partnership with Impact on Education. Impact on Education Executive Director Allison Billings said the plan is to invest $250,000 to provide extra instruction to about 3,000 K-12 students.

At the elementary level, paraeducators or teachers will supervise students working with online programs in literacy and math — a model that proved successful in a pilot program last year at Esceula Bilingue Pioneer.

For middle school students, the plan is for math tutoring focused on foundational  pre-algebra skills. High school students will attend ACT and SAT preparation classes, with Impact covering the cost of taking the tests in the spring for students with financial need. Credit recovery classes will be another high school option.

‘This is what I needed’

At Lafayette’s Centaurus High School, seniors and a few juniors who are leaders of the school’s C-Squad mentor program recently spent a morning planning the freshman orientation schedule, as well as the training sessions for the rest of the mentors. About 100 upperclassmen participate as mentors.

“You have all these seniors saying ‘this is what I needed as a freshman,’ ” said librarian Shoshanna Turgel, who co-sponsors C-Squad. “It’s a welcome to the community at Centaurus.”

Centaurus High School senior Alex “A.B.” Brandon talks with C-Squad members during a meeting in Lafayette on Aug. 6. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

After missing so much last school year, senior Alex Brandon said he has a new appreciation of the importance of high school events and milestones.

“We want to make the experience really good for freshmen,” he said. “We had a lack of the usual camaraderie and family feeling we have in the school last year. The whole togetherness of Centaurus is something I really want back.”

Senior Camila Cosentino, who moved with her family from Venezuela a year ago, said she started her junior year online, speaking little English and with few opportunities to meet other students. As part of the C-Squad, she said, she wants  to help second language students feel like they belong at Centaurus.

Her advice for students still learning English is to “work hard and believe in yourself.” She said it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and get discouraged when there’s a language barrier.

“It’s not that you are dumb,” she said. “Learning a language is a whole process. It takes time. You have to be patient.”

Senior Kira Gilliland added she’s hoping for a school year for all grades that’s filled with people and typical high school experiences.

“Planning this orientation day together, it feels normal,” she said. “This is what we’re supposed to do. I feel ready to be back in the real world.”

Over in Longmont at Sunset Middle School, about 40 incoming sixth graders signed up for the weeklong transition program. While usually limited to students recommended by the feeder elementary schools, Sunset this year opened the program to any interested incoming sixth grader.

On the first day, they went on a scavenger hunt around the school, then found all the classes on their schedule. On other days, they met all the sixth grade teachers, heard from a panel of eighth graders and participated in a field day.

“It’s been helpful and fun,” said sixth grader Riley Lantz, who spent her fifth grade year learning online. “I wanted to meet people and not have the pressure to make friends on the first day.”

Vania Gonzales said she really wanted a tour of the school and is a little nervous to start middle school because it’s “new teachers, a new school and new people.”

“Now, we already know the whole school,” she said.

Language arts teacher Lindsey Thomas, who is teaching the transition program along with social studies teacher Colby Jones, said the students who attend the program are often the leaders once school starts, helping classmates find bathrooms or set up iPads.

“They already know what’s going on,” Thomas said. “This is something to get them excited about middle school.”

Attention to details

Mentor Aria Pickett, center, talks to incoming freshman. Incoming Erie High School ninth graders participated in the district’s JumpStart program on July 29. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

At Erie High, the JumpStart program was taught by four teachers and a counselor and included math and language arts classes to give students a head start.

“We want to get them connected early with teachers and other adults in the school,” said Principal Matt Buchler. “We’ve learned, as educators, that investing in those relationships early on really helps kids. They’re much more likely to be academically successful.”

Along with focusing on building relationships, he said, he’s asking teachers as school starts to “pay attention to details so kids are not falling through the cracks.”

“I’m so excited about having some sense of normalcy,” he added. “We learned last year how important the social side of school is, the pep rallies and plays and conversations in the halls. Kids are Zoom-conferenced out. It will be nice to have fact-to-face time.”

Freshman Damian Jamiel, who attended a charter school last school year, said the move to high school now will be “a lot less nerve wracking.”

Classmate Hailey Canas said she’s excited for new opportunities in high school and has liked the two-week introduction.

“You get to slowly open up more and get to know the school more,” she said.

Ethan Mohr, a student mentor and sophomore, said just learning where all their classes are should make it easier for the new students.

“I was pretty nervous about getting lost,” he said. “It took some time to figure out where everything was.”

Sophomore Mizuki Green, another student mentor, said her suggestions for the freshmen include not being scared to talk to teachers, setting up good study habits and realizing high school isn’t like the movies.

She added last school year may have been easier than usual academically as everyone navigated the pandemic, so they should be ready for more challenge.

Mentor Trinity Schiel, a junior, said her best advice is to find a balance between work and fun as they navigate more rigorous high school classes.

“I messed up my freshman year,” she said. “It got too hard, and I just gave up. I was in my middle school attitude. You need to have a balance. Don’t care too much, but don’t care too little.”

Though she earned straight As in her online classes last school year, she added, her biggest fear for the new school year is a virus resurgence will shut down in-person school again

“I need normal,” she said.

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