By Nicholas Pasion
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Despite having a full year of virtual learning, the Chinatown-International District’s Summit Sierra charter school provided the necessary resources for their students to succeed and graduated their third senior class.
After a tumultuous year for secondary school’s around the country, Dr. Ayanna Gore, the principal and executive director of the Summit Sierra charter school, said this year’s students were able to maintain a strong academic proficiency while remaining virtual. She said the local public charter school was able to provide students the resources and connections to succeed and that next year the school will move back to in-person learning.
“With virtual school, students kept their same schedules, their same bell schedule, everything, but teachers within their classes, built in a more asynchronous experience,” Gore said.
She said the staff of Summit Sierra realized the difficulty of an entirely virtual year for students and tried to best accommodate them through mindfulness meditation, time for breaks, and a designated period to check-in with their in-school mentors to update them on how they were doing.
Summit Sierra has also been commended for their mentoring program, which connects students with a ‘mentor’ who they check in with “at the start of the day, everyday,” telling them about their school work, home life, and other emotional stressors—all to the student’s comfort level. Gore said this bond is one of the cornerstone’s of Sierra’s success.
“We wanted to make sure everything felt seen and heard. And the biggest piece was through a mentoring program. And our mentors’ communicating back to administration,” Gore said.
The pandemic also heightened existing inequities, with many families struggling to provide the necessary resources for their students to succeed in a virtual setting. Gore said Summit Sierra was able to largely avoid this issue because the school had already provided laptops to all their students. And if laptops weren’t enough, the students received “school in a box” kits which contained other necessary items for their learning, like art supplies, jump ropes, and yoga mats.
But students were able to adapt quickly to the virtual learning, Gore said. When the pandemic began, the students already had computers, so the school was able to quickly move its curriculum online. Summit Sierra also maintained the same pre-pandemic bell schedule, with classes starting at 8:20 a.m. and ending at 3:30 p.m., so the students were more accustomed to the new learning style.
Gore added that cultural and community events were held throughout the year to build community for students. She said there were celebrations for Black History Month, AAPI Month, and Women’s History Month, as well as virtual talent shows, parties and dances, all held online.
“The biggest thing I heard was that they appreciated the level of continuity we had,” she said. “By keeping the structure—even though there was a lot of flexibility within because everybody has different needs—but keeping a structure at our school for the students, they loved it,” Gore said.
While remaining virtual this year, 99% of this year’s seniors graduated with 94.7% of the seniors being accepted to college, exceeding the national average of 88% of students graduating high school, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Gore added that while Summit Sierra’s graduation rate remained the same, more students this year opted to stay closer to home, by attending in-state schools or through gap years, and pushing back the time before they begin higher education.
Gore said that while there was a class-wide virtual graduation ceremony held online, there were also smaller in-person graduation ceremonies for students and their mentors. The smaller ceremonies were all held on one day and were limited to groups of about 20 students.
Next year, the school will return to in-person learning, and it will not be mandating the COVID-19 vaccine. Gore said the school will make other efforts to ensure the safety of the students by maintaining socially distanced desks and mandating all students and faculty wear their masks.
“It’s been an illuminating year. Doing this virtual schooling got us back to the basics. What is it that’s important? What do we want to hear for kids and just highlighting the importance for us to ensure that students are the focus of everything—that they’re seen and heard. And I think that’s going to continue to translate even when we go back in person,” Gore said.
Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.