How One Action for Healthy Kids Partner School is Focusing on the Strength of Its Community to Overcome Challenges
Affectionately calling them ‘kiddos,’ it is no secret the care and commitment Nancy Sanchez has for her students. Ms. Sanchez is the principal of Dr. Lynn Armstrong Elementary, a school with approximately 500 students in Missouri City, TX, just half an hour southwest of Houston.
The community of Fort Bend, the independent school district in which Armstrong Elementary is located, prides itself in its diversity, and Ms. Sanchez’s goal is to have her school community reflect this diversity. Armstrong Elementary is a Title I school, with over 90% of its students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. 75% of its students identify as Hispanic or Latinx, 18% identify as African American, and the remaining 7% identify as Asian or two or more ethnicities. Armstrong Elementary is a Dual Language Model school, in which students speak both Spanish and English in the classroom and are often bilingual by the age of ten. Her commitment is apparent: since she became principal in 2018, Ms. Sanchez has brought her school from a D rating to a B rating.
The importance of community is palpable in everything Ms. Sanchez does for her Armstrong family. She hired a new family outreach leader to oversee programs in which parents were invited to eat breakfast with their children before school began, attend parent and family classes, and participate in after school activities. This was a resounding success– Ms. Sanchez began to notice a dramatic shift in parent and family involvement. The welcoming environment that Ms. Sanchez and her faculty created was a bright spot for the school. It was also, unfortunately, one of the many aspects impacted the most when the pandemic began.
Adjusting to Change
In March of 2020, Armstrong Elementary went on what they thought would be a week-long break, but like so many other schools, they ended up remaining closed for the rest of the year. The school quickly switched to online learning, thanks to technology planning that Principal Sanchez had done leading up to the pandemic. Although Ms. Sanchez was able to ensure a 2:1 student to device ratio for online learning, this time period was still a challenge– from students staying engaged with online learning, to food insecurity for families impacted by the pandemic.
Over the summer of 2020, Ms. Sanchez and her staff worked hard to develop a plan that would allow students to safely return to school. When that day finally came, students were eager to return. While things were different with health and safety protocols in place, they adapted well to the new requirements, and Ms. Sanchez was impressed by the resilience of her students through these tough times. “Kids are much more adaptable than one might assume– even more so than adults,” she reflects. “I don’t think that children are given the credit that they deserve.”
Keeping the Community Healthy
Keeping families healthy and nourished is a top priority. Action for Healthy Kids works directly with Brighter Bites which partners with the Houston Food Bank and helps educate students on healthy eating, nutrition, and movement. The program introduces students to all the different colors of fruits and veggies, offers the teachers an opportunity to teach about healthy eating and cooking in the classroom, and provides students with a piece of the lesson that they can take home to their families too. In one activity at Armstrong, teachers bagged produce for students to learn about and take home to their families.
There have also been events with the Houston Food Bank and the surrounding communities outside of Armstrong Elementary to distribute food. Recently, over 100 families from the community attended an event. One family, when receiving a gallon carton, exclaimed, “We’re getting milk?!” All the families were incredibly appreciative, and events like these are an eye-opener for the struggle that families are still experiencing in the pandemic.
Since the onset of the pandemic, there has been a greater push for social-emotional learning support. The pandemic and school closures have taken a toll on kids- particularly the younger ones. For example, the number of younger students crying at drop off at the beginning of the year increased greatly since the pandemic. To address this, counselors have been meeting with individual groups of students on a regular basis for support. Thanks to these types of interventions, social-emotional issues have noticeably improved this school year.
Before COVID-19 hit, Armstrong Elementary had goals like most other elementary schools, with student achievement being at the top. Ms. Sanchez has seen the most changes in the younger grades, K-2. Entering the current school year, most of these kids have not received the foundation of learning that they usually are exposed to at this point. As the school recovers from closures, the highest priority for students is growth and learning– not necessarily meeting a specific benchmark. As long as students have improved upon their own achievements from the year before, that is a success.
One story illustrates how students are often the ones to come up with the best solutions– even in the most unlikely of circumstances. The school had been struggling with getting students who needed extra help to participate in tutorials the Assistant Principal had arranged. When one fifth grade student was suspended, the school staff asked him to come up with a way to get more students to participate in these interventions. The student suggested that the school pair the tutorials with an hour of sports after academics. School staff helped the student create a survey to send out to students to get their opinions on how to best implement this. Now that this approach is in place, participation has gone up substantially. Students attend tutorials, and then play soccer, baseball, and other sports- and they even get their own jerseys.
Taking Care of Heroic Teachers
One group that can often be overlooked is the teachers who are hard at work day in and day out to make in-person learning smooth and accessible for their students. One of the biggest worries for Principal Sanchez and her district colleagues is teacher and staff burnout. To confront this problem, they moved Teacher Appreciation week, which normally falls in May, up to this month. As part of the appreciation efforts, students brought the teachers coffee in the morning, wrote them notes of gratitude, and even gave them flowers. This has been a huge boost for teachers.
The school is finally at the point of being able to invite parents back to campus. They recently held a Veteran’s Day event at the school for families of kindergartners and first graders, which was especially poignant as these parents and families have never seen a normal school year. For the first time, they met Principal Sanchez and other staff in person. It was wonderful to finally be able to put a name to a face, and build connections in person that cannot be done virtually.
When asked what Sanchez really needs now, she answers, “More resources. We need volunteers and staff who are able to act as interventionists in difficult classroom situations.” The more people who are able to help out and spend more time with specific students, the more likely they are to succeed.
After all, that’s what makes the Armstrong Elementary community so strong– the connections formed between staff, students, and families. While the pandemic may have temporarily distanced the community, Ms. Sanchez and her team are working hard to build it back up, and it is only getting stronger.
Story: One Family’s Pandemic Experience
This is the story of three siblings who attend Armstrong Elementary, and the power of personalized attention the school offers for each child. Before the pandemic started, the student who had been receiving special education services was making great strides with her teachers. However, things took a turn when the school closed for distance learning. The closure was incredibly difficult for the parents. They ended up separating, and the single mother had to manage her three kids at home. When they finally returned to school, it became evident that the girl who had been in special education classes had regressed. The importance of in person instruction- especially for vulnerable students- became evident. The younger boy also began to show some similar symptoms to his older sister. Ms. Sanchez and her staff were able to assess and intervene and create a curriculum and structure that worked well for each sibling individually. The girl was able to re-enter her courses and work closely with her teachers and has made huge strides since the beginning of this year. The boy, as it turned out, was doing so well that he was placed into the Gifted and Talented (GT) program. Ms. Sanchez and her faculty and staff were able to accommodate these specific students, and in turn help them re-enter the Armstrong community in a way that made the most sense for them as a family, and as individuals.