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A unique challenge

Every school in Oregon, even those which are fully open, has been forced to change much about how it educates children since COVID-19 took hold here back in March. And while each institution’s revised game plan likely resembles dozens of others throughout the state the level of adversity baked into those blueprints varies considerably.

And due to its unique demographics combined with its proximity to the Almeda fire, Kids Unlimited Academy in Medford may be one of the schools that has been hit the hardest this year. According to its 2018-19 at-a-glance profile, tabulated by the Oregon Department of Education, 70% of KUA’s students are Latino, 51% were classified as “Ever English Learners” — this number is reached by combining both the English learners cohort with those once classified as English learners — and more than 95% qualify for free and reduced lunches.

Those numbers point to an elevated challenge for KUA staffers and students tasked with distance learning, and that was before a fire ripped through Ashland, Talent and Phoenix on Sept. 8, leaving 41 of the charter school’s 470 students homeless, according to Tom Cole, KUA’s founder and executive director.

“When you look at academic data on state report cards,” Cole said, “there has always been — and this is also reflected nationally — a disparity for student achievement that is categorical to both students of poverty and certainly students who have language barriers and students of ethnicity.”

For instance, according to Sunshine Price, KUA’s academic director the school’s baseline reading data in the fall of the 2019-20 school year showed that 41% of its students were “at risk” in reading, with the highest level of needs in comprehension and vocabulary. For English language learners, she added, extra support is needed. This fall, 47% of KUA students are considered at risk in reading.

The pandemic’s long-term impact for such students has yet to be determined, but even Cole, ever an optimist whose girls varsity basketball teams at South Medford High School regularly outperform expectations, paints a bleak picture of what the future may hold. While its families were provided computers and hotspots necessary for remote learning, Kids Unlimited staffers have worked diligently to help students overcome other barriers, of which there are many.

“You’re now developing a model for children that rely on their home environment to be their primary conduit, and their home environment not having English skills,” he said. “You then think about how difficult that is. ... So imagine when your parent at home not only has to become a teacher, but they themselves may have a very low education level from Mexico and they have no ability to speak English.”

To help lessen the damage KUA, which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade, has opened its classrooms to 175 of its most at-risk students, with plans to expand its in-person opportunities to 250 as soon as that can be done “safely.”

While school itself is crucial, Price said each student’s social-emotional development is also paramount, especially in these times. Each student, in groups of 12 to 14 kids, meets daily with an advisor, focusing on study skills. But the quick Zoom meetings also affords staffers an opportunity to get a read on issues that may be impacting a student’s performance. For elementary students, morning meetings include a check-in of sorts which could identify students who may be facing hardships at home.

“We’re about relationships,” Price said. “If you don’t have a good relationship with a student and with their family, distance learning is going to be a huge struggle.”

Developing those relationships virtually has been a unique challenge for every teacher or counselor at every school, but that wall becomes almost insurmountable when you combine language and poverty barriers with the technology sort, explains Susie Garcia, KUA’s family resource manager.

This is because when you think about it, she says, there is quite a bit that has to happen in order for a successful virtual meeting — the kind that, best case scenario, happens several times a day for each student at KUA — to take place. Forget about the class itself, in order for a student to successfully log in, they must first understand how a computer works, how to turn it on, how to charge it and make sure it remains charged, how to adjust the lighting, how to use the software and how to troubleshoot all of the above.

“So we’re asking children to do this,” Garcia said, “and then on top of that they also have to do assignments. They’re learning difficult subjects. We’re stretching their minds in more ways than I can say.”

Most of KUA’s students are fairly tech savvy, Garcia said, but that’s not the case for their parents, many of whom have never owned a computer or tablet. Thus, minor problems can become deal-breakers. A family may believe its Chromebook isn’t working, only to discover it’s a charger issue. Garcia estimates that since KUA switched to distance learning, 75% of her job is tech support.

Kids Unlimited has systems in place to respond to virtual absences, too, which was developed at the start of the school year. If a student hasn’t been turning in work or showing up to Zoom classes, their family will soon be getting a call from the KUA front desk. If that doesn’t work, Garcia reaches out via phone or email and leaves a message, asking families to call her any time. And she means it — Garcia has received calls late at night and on weekends.

Sometimes, emails and phone calls aren’t returned and in those rare cases, a KUA staffer will hop in their car and pay a personal visit to the student’s home. If nobody answers the door, they’ll leave a message. About 98% of the time, Garcia estimates, they’ll track down the student by using the above protocol, and if that doesn’t work they’ll look to the student’s emergency contacts, which almost always finishes the job.

And what are the most common excuses for missed classes once a student is contacted? It runs the gamut, from technology issues to unavailability, but often it’s the desire to simply avoid a fixable problem out of frustration or a lack of understanding that leads to unexplained absences.

“The families are out of options — they don’t know what else to do, so they just start avoiding our phone calls,” Garcia said. “We’ve had two that have blocked us, not because they hate us but because they’re just sick of hearing from us because they don’t know what else to do.”

That’s why Garcia says it’s important to develop a personal relationship with families that are struggling. Once a connection is established, she says, it’s crucial that the family in question feels comfortable reaching out the next time things get tough.

“And they do,” she said, “they call me and text me every day sometimes. And they’re like, ‘Hey, no problem with the computer anymore but I was wondering if you could hook me up with some food resources or some clothing, or a heater because it’s cold.’ Anything they need, I’ll find them a resource.”

For the vast majority of students who do log in each morning, Kids Unlimited Academy’s version of comprehensive distance learning, like that at most other schools, has been designed to provide its students with at least a recognizable approximation of real school. The more hands-on projects, the better.

Students pick up materials for special art projects every three weeks. Fourth- and fifth-grade students, through a partnership with Rogue Valley Farm to School, learn how to plant fruits and vegetables and even receive a garden activity pack for home use. Through a “very user-friendly” application called Seesaw, Price said, kindergarten through fourth-graders are able to record sight words and send the recordings to their teacher.

Kids Unlimited decided against employing the popular online school platform Canvas, which is being used by most of the local school districts, including Medford, Ashland and Eagle Point.

“We tried Seesaw out in the spring and the teachers really liked it,” Price said, “so we decided to use it for K-4. And then for fifth grade and up, we use Google classroom.”

KUA also purchased a platform called GoGuardian, which allows the school to monitor each student’s online activity, which Price considers a crucial piece of distance learning.

“Parents at work, they don’t know what the kids are doing at home during the day,” she said. “(Using GoGuardian), teachers can actually see (the students’) computer screens, they can see what websites they’re on, they can block websites.”

Price says that’s a major reason why KUA’s attendance numbers have been steadily rising, from 80-85% last spring to 92% this school year. She’s equally proud of the school’s commitment to direct instruction, which equals four to five hours a day for the lower grades and close to six hours a day for middle schoolers. Also, music, art and physical education classes have continued, she added.

“P.E., the kids are so cute and have so much fun,” Price said.

But even as its distance learning becomes more refined and its outreach efforts more efficient, KUA, like other schools in Jackson County, is still missing a certain ingredient previously considered essential to a healthy school. The students themselves. Yes, Limited In-Person Instruction is allowed, but the 100,000 square foot academy is comparatively empty. And, as Cole pointed out, when youngsters who spend most of their days at KUA’s various child care sites head out to the playground during recess, the effect of seven months of COVID-19 restrictions are apparent in every socially distant, stilted and decidedly un-kidlike interaction.

And Garcia, for one, is eager for a return to normalcy.

“You have no idea,” she said. “I love kids. There are some people who are like, ‘I love kids except a few.’ I’m not like that. I don’t think that there’s a bad kid and when I look at a child with difficult behaviors I think, this child’s behavior is telling me something. So, identify what it is that they need and problem solve. And honestly, I’ve always had success identifying what the issue is and problem solving. You just have to think outside the box.

“So I love having kids around; I’ve never wanted them to go away and so now, especially, more than ever, I can’t wait for them to come back.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneA second grade class in session Friday at Kids Unlimited in Medford.