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A school year like no other

New Edmonds-Woodway principal leads in the remote-learning era

 
Series: Coronavirus | Story 264

Last updated 9/13/2020 at 11:51am

Brian Soergel

Allison Larsen is Edmonds-Woodway's new principal. She spent six years as assistant principal.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken away high schoolers' most cherished memories. For the Edmonds-Woodway Class of 2020, that meant missing out on an uplifting graduation celebration before proud parents and family members.

The Warriors' incoming freshman class – the Class of 2024 – will miss out on the loud and boisterous freshman orientation, one of many highlights shelved due to remote learning.

But first-year principal Allison Larsen wants freshmen – and all students – to know one thing in advance of the first day of school Wednesday, Sept. 9.

"We are here to support your learning," she said this week. "We have almost 200 staff members who get up every day and think about what they are going to do to support their students. Those staff members could be your counselors and teachers.

"They're also our custodians, our kitchen staff, our librarian, our paraeducators. All of them are here to support students. I want students to know that if they need help, if they have concerns, if they are not learning, please let any adults in our building know."

Although there will be no students on campus, Larsen and other administrators will be, as many have been preparing for much of the summer.

"Our campus is open so people can call, and someone will pick up the phone," Larsen said. "And there are people here waiting to help, and we're receiving emails. But we're not open to public drop-in. People can make an appointment with administrators if that's really necessary."

Larsen has her work cut out for her. But she has experience to guide her. She was assistant principal at Edmonds-Woodway for six years, and replaces Terrance Mims, who took a superintendent position with SIATech, based in California.

Getting acquainted

Larsen wants all students to feel like they're part of Edmonds-Woodway, even if they're distance-learning from their bedrooms, dining room tables, or wherever it is they place their computers, laptops, or cellphones.

While there will be no live freshmen orientation next week, Larsen said an orientation video will soon be available for them. In addition, the school has its Link Crew program, where older students and mentors are matched with a group of freshmen to help their transition to high school. Students will contact freshmen by email.

Another program is for new students who may find themselves struggling with remote learning.

The program, Check and Connect, lets teachers check in with freshmen who might fall behind in their studies, especially during the first semester.

During the first few days of school, Larsen said teachers will emphasize building relationships with their students, even if that relationship is over Zoom.

"We're going to also emphasize club activities," she said. "When I think about how we connect students to their school as a community, clubs are really important. So we're going to emphasize those more as a way to connect virtually with another group of students who have like-interests.

"We're still a school, and students are still learning. We're community. So what are things that we can do to continue to build that community spirit, even when we don't have athletics (and other school staples)?"

What remote learning will look like

No sports. No students. Empty parking lots. No buses. No clubs. No hugging.

The earliest Edmonds-Woodway would be able to resume in-person learning, or a hybrid of in-person and distance learning, is Nov. 12. That's according to the Edmonds School District, determined by the district with guidance from health authorities and COVID-19 rates.

With that in mind, Larsen said she and her staff spent considerable time adjusting to new realities.

Edmonds-Woodway students are already logging into the district's online learning management system called Canvas, which allows students and parents to view assignments, documents, instructions, activities, and calendars. As you could imagine, Edmonds-Woodway is emphasizing Canvas during the 2020-2021 school year.

The school has a structured class schedule so students know when they should be showing up for Zoom classes, which could feature live interaction with a teacher, segueing into independent work and back-and-forth with a teacher – and all of it interactive.

Teachers also can use breakout "Zoom rooms" for class discussions or small-group work sessions.

Larsen used the term "synchronous learning" for Zoom sessions with a teacher and a cohort of students learning together.

"Asynchronous learning," on the other hand, is for more independent learning where students can access Canvas and dig into work outlined by their teachers.

"It could also be teachers calling students back to do some small group work if they see a group needing specific help," Larsen said. "It could be individual help from a teacher emailing back and forth with a student. So all those could be taking place in the asynchronous time. That's really practice time, where students can do their homework or schoolwork.

"Our teachers are also working on learning how to create videos with direct instruction. So they might have students look at videos where the teacher is instructing. Then they can think about questions they could take back to their synchronous learning."

Edmonds-Woodway teachers have a choice of working from home or from campus. Many, Larsen said, prefer to work from their classrooms, where much of their teaching materials are, and their access to technology is close to hand.

Support

Like all schools in the Edmonds School District, from high school to elementary, the prolonged pandemic has laid bare the many hardships students and their families now face.

"There could be family members that are not healthy, or there may be some families under some resource or financial stress," Larsen said. "We're also adding support for students who might be experiencing trauma, stress, and anxiety during the time we're living in right now, when we think about both COVID and also the racial tensions in our country."

What can that help look like?

"We start with what we can do for all students in the classroom," Larsen said. "So that comes down to how are teachers connecting and building relationships with students so they can be someone who can be relied upon while creating that safe environment in the classroom."

For those who may struggle, Edmonds-Woodway has its Check & Connect online program, which provides mentors, as well as school counselors, that students can talk to online or over the phone.

The school also has a student support advocate, Teresa Polendo, a social worker who guides families and students to resources outside the school system, but are in the community.

Polendo also can help homeless and disadvantaged students get connected to the internet, as well as provide resources for students and families that may be food insecure.

With the help of grants, Polendo also can access therapy and counseling support for students with mental health issues.

There are many on campus to help during the new distance reality, but one person who won't be on campus is the school resource officer, which for the past two years has been Tom Smith.

In June, the Edmonds School District board voted unanimously not to renew its contract with the Edmonds Police Department for Edmonds-Woodway.

"I think regardless of whether our SRO is on campus or not, Edmonds-Woodway has always had a good relationship with the Edmond police, and we hope to continue to have that positive relationship regardless of whether we have someone actually stationed here or not," Larsen said.

"When we've needed help, the police have been really responsive, and we've had positive experiences with our SRO here."

Diversity

Beginning a school year remotely means E-W needs to serve its diverse population. Roughly half of students at the school are non-white. But diversity goes beyond skin color.

"We have a diverse population, racially, culturally, ethnically," Larsen said. "We have all sorts of different kinds of learners and a diverse population, economically. We do know that there is a population of our students that will have difficulty accessing education online. So for our students with English as their second language, we do have an English learning program with teachers that supports those students."

Larsen said a challenge is communicating with parents who may not speak English; the school and district frequently translate important parent information in a number of languages. E-W also has interpreters available for parent meetings so all can participate.

And the school's Language Line program allows teachers to speak with parents over the phone.

"If I were needing to call parents, and we didn't speak the same language, then I can call in an interpreter," Larsen said. "We use that quite a bit."

E-W has always had a strong program for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The school has an interpreting service for those students, and is able to add American Sign Language interpreters to Zoom meetings.

A little about the new principal

Larsen, 50, lives in Everett and has grown children. She earned her bachelor's in political science at Western Washington University, where she also earned her master of education. She taught in the Lake Stevens School for eight years before joining Everett Public Schools for nine years. At Cascade High School, she taught history and completed her principal internship.

"Throughout my career, I actually did not set out to become a principal; it's just sometimes people's careers just happen that way, whether they plan it that way or not," she said.

"I have always been dedicated to how students can have equitable access to their education. When I was a teacher in a classroom, I thought about how I could plan lessons to grow students and grow their critical and problem-solving thinking."

While with Everett, Larsen moved into the district office and worked on policy and equity in public schools.

"That was a very interesting job because I could work at a district level about how policies impact students and how we can make our education systems better for all of our students, not just the students who can easily access their education."

From there, Larsen said she began thinking about being a top administrator. And she knew she wanted to be around high school students.

"First of all, I love kids and love learning. And I particularly like high school kids. You know, some people really like toddlers, or kindergartners. My favorite age groups are students and adolescents. I know some parents of adolescents might think, what?

Brian Soergel

E-W principal Allison Larsen: "We do know that there is a population of our students that will have difficulty accessing education online."

"And I think about, 'How do our school policies and programs really impact a student's life?' I do believe that a good public school education is better for a student, and will be better for them in the long term to help them transition to their next part of life, whether it's a career or college readiness. A good public education system really helps the community."

Larsen wants her students to keep one essential thought in mind as they begin the school year – to take care of themselves.

"It's a stressful time for students. Our students can get overwhelmed or start feeling anxious or stressed. School is hard. So remember to take care of yourselves. Take breaks, eat well. Sleep at night.

"Do your work and give yourself some breaks from your schoolwork so you are taking care of yourself mentally and physically and emotionally, so that you can be ready to learn."

 

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