The 180 Podcast: P.S. 340 — Getting to Know How Students Are Feeling And Functioning

Listen to the episode on Turnaround for Children’s website. Also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Podbean.

In our previous episode, we heard from Christina Theokas of Turnaround for Children about how their Well-Being Index was designed and is meant to work. In this episode, we get to hear details from the field about how it works in action.

P.S. 340 is a K-5 school in the Bronx, NY. Frankly, it’s one of those incredible schools that goes well beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to help students learn and grow.

P.S. 340’s mission, stated clearly on its website, is to educate the whole child. To do that, the school offers an extraordinary range of programs not only to their students, but also to their families.

This year, P.S. 340 is working with Turnaround for Children on a new way to learn about and help their students. They’re using the Well-Being Index.

This series of questions helps children describe how they are feeling. By regularly taking these measurements over months, teachers can learn not only what their students might be facing on the inside, but also what they might do to help.

So how is it going? To find out, we talked with the school’s principal, Alexei Nichols, and fifth grade teacher Diana DaCorta. As you’ll hear, P.S. 340 is creating something that all schools — and parents — may want to learn from.

Complete Transcript

Diana DaCorta: Yes, thank you for having us.

Alexei Nichols: Yes. Glad to be here, Chris.

Chris Riback: So Alexei, let’s start with you. Tell me about your school, tell me about PS 340. Tell me about the families and the community that you work with and that you serve. Your website offers elements that go far beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, Alexei. You’ve got a cash assistance program, you’ve got a location to click here for free or reduced internet. You promote breakfast, lunch, and dinner for students and families, not just the students, including grab and go meals. You make it highly convenient to people’s real lives. You’re a full partner in your students and their families lives, aren’t you?

Alexei Nichols: Well, we kind of like to say at 340, that it’s a big family atmosphere and that we work together and we play together.

We really feel that the partnership between home and school is critical to the success of everyone, all of our students. To us, it’s about relationships, it’s about building trusting relationships. Quite frankly, we realize that a lot of us maybe didn’t have the best experiences going to school. Some of our students’ families are a little bit hesitant at first to want to join in and come into the building. So it’s really our job and our mission to make them feel part of the fabric of our school. And that means yes, extending beyond reading, writing, arithmetic, it means making home visits. We are really big on going to homes and meeting with families.

Chris Riback: Describe the families for me? What is your community like?

Alexei Nichols: We have about 85% of our community is Latino-Spanish-speaking. We have about 10% of African-American families and students, and we have about 5% that are European, mostly Eastern European, Albanian. We have a huge population that’s learning a second language or a third language. We have 30% of our students are in temporary housing. About 30% of our students have individual education plans, where they get particular special needs services. That’s about the demographics in our community. We’re in the Kingsbridge Heights section of the Bronx.

Chris Riback: Diana, what would your characterization of your students, and of their families be?

Diana DaCorta: This is my 10th year now with the school. This is just a community that there’s nothing that I couldn’t say to someone or there’s no one that I couldn’t rely on. I’d say the students are hardworking individuals, they really want to make their families proud. Their families are pretty much right beside them to help them along the way. It’s very easy for me to just pick up the phone and to text or to contact a parent. I know that whatever… I’m asking them to help do with their child, that they’ll be right there to really help them along the way. So I would say is they’re a really loving community. I think making that bridge between school and home, like what Alexei had just said that a lot of parents are a little hesitant at first.

Chris Riback: Why are they hesitant, do you think?

Diana DaCorta: It might just be their own experiences where school was so rigid. It’s just come in, learn the lesson, whether you get it or not, and sink or swim. If you’re sinking, no one’s helping you. But if you’re sinking with us, we’re giving you a life vest, we’re going in to help you get up to the surface. So I really think that our school is differentiating, we’re helping all types of learners and parents need to know that.

Alexei Nichols: Can I just add one thing to that what Diana said?

Chris Riback: Please.

Alexei Nichols: About maybe what’s behind some of the hesitancy. We do have many undocumented parents and so a lot of times, they are not comfortable at first, until they knew that this was a trusting place and that we were a community that would support them, take care of them. They at first did have some hesitancy but that did change with time and with building those relationships.

Chris Riback: So in an environment where you have students who may be struggling with issues, with documentation issues, family stress, parental stress; when you have students who are dealing with perhaps housing insecurities, with food insecurity. What does that do for children’s mindset, sensibility, internal readiness.

Alexei Nichols: Yes, great question. It does a lot. One of the things that as a school we really believe in and we’ve worked towards is a few things. But one is growth mindset versus fixed mindset is like helping kids to know that there’s going to be frustrations, we have challenges. That’s all real, that’s all that we experience. But we can together support and give you processes and structures and supports to persevere and be resilient. However, it’s not just about growth mindset. Yes, I’m not there yet, I can persevere and do this. Yes, that’s great to say. But when you have daily trauma and basic needs aren’t being met, we have other layers of support. So one of the things that we have talked about as a school is the impact of trauma on the brain and what that does to students learning experiences and social-emotional needs. What we have really been focusing on is just understanding how that can impact learning, how trauma can impact learning. That it’s truly a biological… The trauma impacts both your body, your mind, and your ability to comprehend. So when you have a brilliant child who is faced with homelessness and maybe abuse or challenges in their life, their prefrontal cortex it breaks down. There’s this excess of stress and anxiety that really kind of can incapacitate students and families.

So we’ve been working with actually, a couple different organizations, really around helping us to use some tools to help to assess where the needs are and figure out ways that we can both build on the assets that our students have internally and work on needs and next steps.

Chris Riback: Diana, what Alexei was talking about… about the role of trauma and what that can do physically to the brain and what it can do to the cortex and what it can do to a child’s readiness. How does that manifest itself in the classroom? Does that show up to you as a teacher when you’re trying to teach?

Diana DaCorta: Absolutely. Like Alexei was just saying, you could have a student who scores, who is just so intelligent. That if they go through a week or they walk in the door or they’re on Zoom. You could see in their face or in their gestures that something’s off. I think that the most important thing that we try to tell our kids is that they have a voice. Just because you’re only in fifth grade doesn’t mean that you don’t have issues or you don’t have ways that you can solve things. I know a year or two ago, there was a boy whose father was taken by ICE. A week before that we made speeches and his speech was about immigration. It just brought me to tears that this is what he’s talking about. Fast forward a week later and his father was taken. I could see that he was distraught and I just said to him, “You have to have hope and you have to think about what your voice says.” He was completely torn but I was just trying to help him to realize that hey, there is something that we can do and we’re here to help.

Chris Riback: How do you as a teacher prepare for, it sounds like, almost literally anything? You have to be prepared to teach math, to teach the social studies, the science lesson. But you also, I guess have to be prepared to help educate and guide when a child’s parent gets deported. How do you prepare for all that as a teacher?

Diana DaCorta: I would just say you have to be very flexible and understanding. You can’t just brush things off and say no, we have to get to this math lesson. The math lesson can wait, the reading lesson can hold off. Maybe today we can’t read this book we’re supposed to read. You know what? There’s another read-aloud that I think we could really connect to as a community that I think we all need to do this instead. So there’s the curriculum that teachers need to get through but there’s also life. There’s also the right moves as a human being that have to be made, in order to have kids want to open up to you. If you just keep going and keep pushing on with the lesson, what child is going to open up and let you know how they’re feeling?

Alexei Nichols: What Diana was talking about is that flexibility and responsiveness. I really feel like our school and our amazing teachers are really becoming so expert at doing exactly what Diana just said. It’s like wait a minute, take a pause, I am trying to teach a ratios lesson. José is telling me that his dad was just deported. We need to take a pause and we need to take a moment and we need to support him. It’s not to say that we don’t need to teach that math lesson because we do. But we may need to take a pause, we need to bring something in. We may need to bring our support team and our social worker and counselor to the table to do follow up. To make sure that we reach out to the family and that we provide all those additional supports that we believe we need to provide.

Chris Riback: So you both are describing a steady-state, let’s call it a P.S. 340 status quo that is filled with a range of challenges, So what’s been the effect of the pandemic on top of all of that?

Alexei Nichols: First of all, we’re no longer just teaching kids, we’re teaching families, the aunts and uncles and abuelas. We are bringing everyone into the fold because that’s what it takes. Is that it’s not just us in the classroom together now, it’s like we’re all in this. Especially, with all of the technical challenges, it becomes hard because often times we’re in the middle of a lesson and you lose three kids because the internet went out or something like that. So you’re trying to do catch up and you’re trying to differentiate. Teachers are doing breakout rooms to differentiate based on needs and assessments. But what I think has been the hardest is not being able to be in the hallways and just touch base. So that space that’s normally there is not there. Everything that we do, it takes 10 times longer, right, Diana?

Diana DaCorta: Yes.

Alexei Nichols: You feel like you’re losing kids or you’re losing people. Are you still there with me? Are you still there with me?

Diana DaCorta: It’s just like I say are you there, Jonathan?

Alexei Nichols: Yes. So it’s just a feeling like we’re not able to fully teach the whole child in the way that we normally can.

Chris Riback: Yes, it sounds like it. It sounds like there surely are ways in which it forces this is the opportunity side. So within the context of everything that we’re talking about, Alexei, let’s start with you. Why do you elect to use the Well-Being Index?

Alexei Nichols: Interesting. Something that we’re really good at is assessing our students academically and how they make progress on their math or their ELA or their science or social studies. We’re really good at looking at data and saying look at this. So what’s that telling us? Now, what do we need to do about it? What’s the plan? But we were not so great at assessing the social-emotional wellness of our community, of our students. We never had really a tool to capture that data. I was very excited when Turnaround for Children kind of approached us and said, “Hey, 340, would you like to pilot this Well-Being Index?” I’m like, “What is that?” Well, it’s basically they shared with us that it’s a tool with some really powerful questions around feelings and functioning skills that our students either have or don’t have. We have given it, I think three or four times, Diana, at this point to our students.

Diana DaCorta: Four times.

Alexei Nichols: Four times. I think Diana will be able to even speak deeper to some of the information we’ve learned from this. So I guess the answer is we said yes because we needed this. This was the next phase of our work to really be able to, especially now during the pandemic when we’re so cut off, it was a safe tool to use. Our kids could fill out this five-question survey about how are they doing and how are they holding up?

Chris Riback: So, Diana, you were told you’ve got this Well-Being Index. Were you trained on it? Take me through the entire process from when it was introduced to you to how you are engaging with your students on it.

Diana DaCorta: So I actually was just brought on to this team to pilot it this year. So I was able to be given all the information and the links to watch. So when I had first looked at it, looked at how the students are going to be rating themselves, I saw that it was on a one to five scale. So it was none of the time, rarely, sometimes, often, and all of the time. I just knew as a teacher that just from the get-go, that students will want that. I know students might not really be able to differentiate what is rarely, what is often. So I just kind of took it upon myself to do a couple of trials, like how often I brush my teeth. Thank goodness, most of them said all the time. I go on vacation. Well, we don’t really go on vacation anymore, so that would be a rarely or a none of the time. So I wanted to make sure before we jumped into this, that they understood what these different points really meant.

Chris Riback: To establish the scale.

Diana DaCorta: Yes, exactly. I had explained to the students, we’re doing this so that we could get to know you in a different sense. We want to be able to get to know you or get to know how you’re feeling and also how you’re functioning. So those are the two aspects. Every time we do it, I always remind them this is the same question, same six questions. So it’s more about the data and how they’re reacting to it throughout this school year, throughout this pandemic. I know for a fact we purposely did it right before the holiday break, right after the holiday break, to see really what the data is showing and how they’re feeling.

Chris Riback: How have they reacted to the process? What are you learning about your students that was not previously evident to you perhaps?

Diana DaCorta: So now, I just think it’s second nature. Twice a month, we call it Turnaround Tuesday. I give them the link, they know to sign in. Now, they’re able to, they’re like it’s Turnaround Tuesday, let’s do this. So what I was noticing based on the data is that so like how they show the data is that they take pretty much the feelings aspect, those three questions of feelings. It shows it across the four times that I administered it and that it does the same thing for the functioning. So I really am a visual learner and I like to see the bar graphs.

So what the data had told was that the kids are feeling cared for. So they were rating that on like a four. So five is the most, pretty much 4.5, 4.4. So that was really nice to see that even though most of these kids are staying home, I think they are realizing why their parents are choosing for them to stay home. That they’re not making this decision so that they’re bored, they’re making it so that they’re safe. So that was the highest-rated one out of all the six components. There really is no surprise but the one that they scaled the least on is are they getting enough sleep. I teach fifth graders and everybody’s playing video games and everyone’s staying up late. They’re not getting enough sleep and who wakes up late, and comes on to the Zoom. With that data that we’ve gotten, we’re really trying to tell them hey, you really need to put the phone down, put the iPad down at night, and just fall asleep.

I know that the fact that they have these devices now is fantastic. But I hope that they’re not getting almost like addicted to them, where they have to be on them constantly.

Chris Riback: In your previous 10 years of teaching, did you talk to students about the importance of sleep? Did you have the hard data on how much or how little they were sleeping? Is that part of your repertoire?

Diana DaCorta: Well, we definitely didn’t have the hard data because it was either they showed up to school or they didn’t.

Chris Riback: That was the metric.

Diana DaCorta: Right. Yes, pretty much. So now, they might show up to our Zoom at like 10:00 AM. Then if that’s happening on a consistent basis, we’re going to talk to their parents. We’re going to say hey, you need to make sure that they get to sleep. I’ve been teaching fifth grade for all my 10 years and it’s always video games. The parents will tell me during parent-teacher conferences they stay up late. But this year is way more evident with the Well-Being Index. Also, being home all the time because everybody’s getting bored. Some of our students have not left the house since March. They have not. That’s their parent’s decision and that’s totally fine. But we definitely need to make sure that we’re checking in and helping the parents in that aspect of make sure you take the device away and get a good night’s sleep.

Chris Riback: Alexei, fill me in on the two Fs, feeling and functioning.

Alexei Nichols: The amount of time on screen has quadrupled and the lack of sleep has quadrupled. The other thing that is pretty alarming in terms of thinking about well-being, I always say healthy body, healthy mind. Right now, we’re not so healthy physically because we’re not moving. Just the functionality of the sheer fact that we’re sitting in front of a computer screen, teachers, us as well and kids, we’re not moving. We’re not getting the exercise, we’re not getting those endorphins that we know is so important for learning. It’s mind, body. In terms of functioning skills in this index, we have a question that says I’ve been getting enough sleep. That’s a functioning question. I’ve been feeling like… I’ve been eating healthy and good foods. So this idea of not eating well, not having enough… So I’m not feeling, that’s a feeling. I’m not feeling well and therefore, I can’t function well in my school. So I’ve been…

There’s this question, it is really powerful to me that kids answer on this index. It’s I’ve been interested in my daily activities. So that one we have seen, unfortunately, to prove we’ve got a lot of ones and a lot of twos across the board. So as the feelings I’m feeling cared for is high, the functioning is still quite low. In the sense that it’s not transferring because I think its that we’re unbalanced. So the mind, body is not in balance, and therefore, we’re not our best selves, we’re not functioning in our best capacity.

Chris Riback: Connect if you would for me: Teachers have a set of social and emotional learning tools in their repertoire. A challenge often can be which tool, at which time, with which student, in which format? Connect the Well-Being Index if you would please and the insights that you might gain from that to what that does to help teachers understand what social and emotional learning tools they can employ at a particular time?

Alexei Nichols: Sure, great question. I think that yes, one of the things, we’ve been doing social-emotional learning work and thinking about the five competencies. Self-awareness, self-regulation, all those things. We’ve been using tools like the mood meter, to understand first, what are we feeling and name it. So those are tools that we’ve used, the mood meter, the meta-moment. When we’re feeling stressed and we need to take a moment to cool down, to think about it. I think that having these repertoire of tools and now having the data to really break down where the needs are, we now know which tool to use. For example, if I’m thinking about some of the feelings data that I get from the Well-Being Index and I’m like, well, they’re just feeling like not cared for, they’re feeling frustrated, and they’re feeling anxious. We can go to those, the mood meter, we can go to the meta-moment tools, which helps us to teach our kids strategies for regulating that.

I call it you have to name it to tame it. So once we know the emotion, we have some tools that help us regulate that, so that we can function better. So I do feel like and thank you for asking that question because one of the next steps that we knew that we needed was a way to glean the specific data. So that we knew exactly which tool to go to in our bag of tricks. What strategy specifically could we use to address that? If they’re feeling like they’re really not part of the community, remind them about the class charter, remind them about the norms we talked about as a community of learners. How we need to be together? How do we need to support each other? Maybe it requires our morning meeting, where we have a listening circle, and we give affirmations to people to pump each other up. So there are all these structures and tools that we already use. Now, with the Well-Being Index, we can kind of isolate those, and decide which tool is going to support that need.

Chris Riback: Diana, how do you see the Well-Being Index connecting to the tools in your repertoire?

Diana DaCorta: I would just have to second what Alexei just said. That this idea of the feelings portion of this, that’s definitely the growth mindset, the mood meter. So those are things that we could easily use to help pinpoint exactly how they’re feeling. Then when it comes to the functioning, that’s almost I’m thinking of this other tool that we use, brainpower. That you need to get up and move, you need to get your mind awake. These are just some of the things that we had been using or we’ve just started to pilot a year or two ago, that it’s all just kind of connecting. Just as a teacher, you just need to know exactly which of your arsenal of tools to use at what time.

Chris Riback: So two questions for you. One is, what does this have to do with getting good grades and learning math skills and learning how to read and hitting the thresholds? Then two, what are some specific tactics that based on what you are learning and based on the insights, that your teachers are able to employ in their teaching in helping the kids learn?

Alexei Nichols: Before, you used to be reading, writing, writing math arithmetic, and that’s all that matters. Well, we know that if you’re teaching the whole child, then you have to think about the whole child. If we are experiencing these traumas, if we are not able to get the exercise that we need, then our brain physically is not operating at full capacity. So there’s a huge connection and I think Diana knows, I say this all the time. You cannot separate academics from social-emotional. Social-emotional and academics are intertwined and have to be woven throughout the day. That leads kind of into the next piece that you asked was what are we doing to mitigate this? What are we doing to help with this?

Chris Riback: What does it empower you to do? Yes.

Alexei Nichols: So one of the things that the teachers have started to do and we’ve actually been doing a lot of, is what we call brainpower wellness and brain breaks as well as exercise breaks. So I was actually reading this book about what does it look like in Finland, education system in Finland. After every 45 minutes, there’s 10 minutes of movement. The research says literally if you get your endorphins going, you get those synapses firing again, guess what? The brain is now ready, minds on. Minds are on for learning. What happens is the minds get shut off because they have just been sitting there dead in the same spot and thinking about all of the woes of life and whatever else is affecting them. So I would say that’s the biggest thing, is that this wellness index and the data we’re getting from it is just confirming for us kind of what we knew. But it’s giving us more specifics and helping teachers to really embed some of these practices throughout the day in their instruction.

Chris Riback: Diana, does that ring true to you?

Diana DaCorta: Yes, I would definitely say so. We’re using the brainpower techniques or the little brain breaks almost every day. Whether we have to get up, it’s almost like Simon says but it’s brainpower says. It’s like ways of concentrating with making two shapes with your left hand making a square and the right hand making a triangle. The kids are just laughing and having fun. It’s so difficult but it’s just a great way to like get up… Not even get up, you could still sit down, and try and practice these brain breaks. But yes, we definitely have way more, I guess you could almost say tricks up our sleeves. With this idea of movement, with this idea of like we need to make sure that you’re paying attention. So we’re doing things on our slides or with our voices or with our bodies just to make sure that the kids are there.

Otherwise, they think that we’re a TV show, this is the Ms. DaCorta Show. I keep telling them you have to wake, this is a two-way street here. We need to make sure that you’re not just listening to me, that you’re paying attention.

Alexei Nichols: Yes, and like you said with math or something I hear like stand up if it’s a prime number, crouch down if it’s a… Getting movement, embedding movement into lessons. Thinking about our time more strategically. Shortening things up and providing more opportunity for collaboration. Even the breakout rooms and kids are in charge. They’re kind of leading some of the this is where we’re moving towards and hoping for. In charge of some of those conversations, not just the teachers.

So trying, it’s so hard, right, in this time. But we’re really trying to think about ways to like Diana said, empower students to have a voice, to have choice. When they feel like they have voice, they have choice, the engagement increases. When they feel like they have an opportunity to move and get up or be silly. Diana is great about that, she does lots of fun, silly things. The engagement, it’s like poof, all of a sudden the cameras go on. Boy, the cameras go off, we’re losing them. What once those cameras go back on and you say hey and you throw them for a loop by asking a crazy question or say it’s brainpower time, the cameras go on.

Chris Riback: It’s funny to me in listening to you, I can imagine that Diana’s teaching, Ms. DaCorta’s classroom has transitioned from Tommy, stop standing up and acting silly to Tommy, please stand up and act silly.

Diana DaCorta: Yes, pretty much.

Alexei Nichols: Yes.

Diana DaCorta: Exactly.

Alexei Nichols: Absolutely. It’s we do whatever we got to do to support, to build engagement, to get the minds on.

Chris Riback: Have any of the insights surprised you?

Alexei Nichols: Yes, actually. When we first looked at the data, I was actually surprised that the feeling score. So at the end, I guess we failed to mention that they do tally and give you an overall feeling score and functioning score, and total well-being. When you break it down to see and they do this individually and trend data, looking across the classes. What’s interesting is the feelings scores seem to be higher than the functioning scores. There does seem to be a lot of students who feel like they have a trusted adult in their life, whether it’s someone at school or someone at home. Yet it doesn’t seem to be transferring over to the functioning. I would have thought that if you have a caring adult who’s there, who’s healthy, that the functioning level would be higher. Yet, that’s not necessarily what we’re seeing so far in the data, which was surprising to me.

Diana DaCorta: It’s also difficult because these parents who might be essential workers have to go to work while a child is home with their oldest sibling. Guess what? They might not be eating as healthy as they used to. Their older brother or sister saying, “Hey, here’s a bag of chips, that’s your lunch.” They’re not getting out, “Hey, you can’t leave the house, stay here.” So you can’t get up and be active or walk around the neighborhood. At that point, by the time their parents come home, they’re exhausted. Maybe they’re not checking up on the child that they’re still up on the iPad watching Tik Tok or something.

So it really is just this whole is such a different world and even just being at home. Who’s at home and when they’re at home, it’s just really changed the dynamics of families.

Chris Riback: I’m curious what you might tell your peers in other schools or other districts. Diana, what would you communicate to other fifth grade teachers, let’s say around one, what you’ve learned from the Well-Being Index and two what the role of something like this tool could play in each person’s ability to be a better teacher?

Diana DaCorta: I would have to say that just because a student is smiling on camera or in front of you, doesn’t necessarily mean that on the inside that they’re really feeling cared for or that they feel like they’re functioning to the best of their ability. That could also go for the student who doesn’t have their camera on. We can’t see how they’re reacting to things and that’s the hardest part. We beg and beg, please turn your camera on. There’s only so much we can do. So it is nice though to see through this Well-Being Index with the students that maybe I haven’t seen their face in quite some time. They do feel like they’re cared for, they are functioning to the best of their ability or they feel like they’re functioning.

So it really, it’s so hard because in person, you could just feel a student’s energy. You could just say hey, they, they need some help, I need to give them some extra TLC today. It’s hard to do that over the computer. So that would be what I would say to my fellow peers.

Chris Riback: Alexei, what would you say to other principals?

Alexei Nichols: I think I would just say slow down and pause a little bit and take time to think about the whole child and I’m what I’m seeing now is the whole family. This tool, the Well-Being Index, there’s kind of a behind the curtain, it’s helping us to peel the curtain back a little bit because we can’t necessarily like Diana said, have those moments of real face-to-face time like we did in person, for those who are remote. Even the blended groups that come in some days and are home other days. You feel like gosh, we’ve got to get everything in on the in person days because gosh, who knows if we’re going to get them back on the online days. So I guess I would say two other principals, is that it’s such a valuable way to qualify or quantify wellness and social-emotional well-being. We were really struggling with how to get this kind of data. To be honest with you, it takes a lot of time to create a tool like this and to have the back-end work be done and help with us through Turnaround for Children’s data department.

It’s something that I think every principal who has the same mindset as we do really would benefit from implementing it. Especially now when we don’t know what’s behind the curtain as much. It allows kids that safe space to just answer these questions. They’re not un-muting and saying them out loud, they’re simply answering them, and then we’re getting the information. So I do feel and I’d be curious to hear from Diana. I do feel that now that they understand it more, that the data is becoming more and more accurate. That it’s going to help us as we move forward to glean some trends that will help us to provide the supports and structures moving forward. That will help to optimize student learning and health and wellness overall.

Chris Riback: Is that what you’re finding, Diana?

Diana DaCorta: Yes, I would say so. I’m actually just glancing one more time at the data and it seems like that pretty much in every category, it’s increasing, so it is getting better. So I don’t know, I would hope that the students realize that we’re doing this so that we can help you. So that if we see a trend, we’re going to reach out to you. We’re going to make sure that our guidance counselor and a teacher have lunch with you. So that we can kind of crack this outer core, to say, “Hey, what’s going on? We’re here to help you.” So I do.

Alexei Nichols: I use the analogy with the onion, we just keep peeling away the layers to get to the core issues. This is another really helpful tool to do that, yes.

Chris Riback: So to close out the conversation, as you are getting to the core, getting closer to the core of the kids and their families. Alexei, I can start with you. Is there something that you have learned or is there something perhaps, in particular, that as you’ve gotten closer to the core that you admire about the kids, about your kids, and your community?

Alexei Nichols: Yes, I admire a lot. I think that the first thing that comes to mind is just I know it’s a word we throw around a lot but resilience and grit and stick to it-ness. It’s incredible when you actually sit down and have conversations with families. I think one thing that I would like to say is when this pandemic started, it’s actually allowed us to get closer to some families that never came into the building because we kind of had them trapped. They were in the apartment and on the screen and we were like, “Hey, Joey, get your mom.” Sometimes we could never get Joey’s mom into the building. But when we were like hey, he’s doing a great job, we just want to connect with you. How else can we help him better? Starting from that positive place, I can’t tell you how the involvement of parents, I almost want to say has increased because of the need to support this new kind of learning.

So I would like to give props to all of the working families who are just trying to hold everything together. Maybe five balls are in the air and one drops but you know what? They pick it up and keep on going. So I guess I would say that I just I’m every day astounded by how many parents are really trying to work in partnership with us. Have felt our care, our ethic of care come across even through the screen and therefore, have been able to share with us some beautiful stories and some real hardships. By creating that sense of community and relationship building, it’s helped to mitigate some of the other stresses that are there because we know then how we can support. So I just am grateful for our families and the parents that are going out there, working a couple jobs, and still coming back and have time to check in with us and their kids.

Chris Riback: Yes, I’m sure. Diana, how about you?

Diana DaCorta: So I would definitely say that I really admire the perseverance that our students have, that our families have. This has not been an easy transition. We’ve sort of started it back in March but looking back now, what we taught in March is just completely different with what we’re doing now. Just how we go about these lessons online and March, everybody was just like my gosh, what do we do? We’re just all trying to survive. Now, we’ve had so much time to really better our craft and the students have really learned by now. It’s taken a while but we’ve learned together what we’re expecting of them and learning the new norms of what is online learning supposed to be like and what they can expect. So I would just say that it took the students, took their families patience and perseverance-

Alexei Nichols: Flexibility.

Diana DaCorta: Yes, is really what I’m glad that we’ve all done this together.

Alexei Nichols: Yes. I’m sorry, one last thing. I was just thinking about our character assembly, our spirit Fridays we had this morning. Each month we have like a theme or a value or a concept. This month in Black History Month was about fair and just and celebrating our identities of who we are. I was just so blown away by the evolution of our students and in their sense of self. I really attribute that to the work that we’re doing here. The social-emotional as well as the academic and how those are equally weighted. That’s our vision, is to equally, maybe we’re not quite there yet but that’s the vision. Is that we weigh them equally because they are. If you think about the world and what’s needed and the skill set that our kids need now in 21st Century, that’s it. So I was just blown away by their voice. We’re trying to provide more and more platforms for them but they’re telling their stories, telling their experiences. Today was just it touched my heart to see our third, fourth, and fifth graders just sharing out about why they’re special and who they are.

So hopefully, we’re going to keep on this journey and it’s going to get better. But sometimes it’s a rough road, we fall down, we pull each other back up.

Chris Riback: I’m certain that you do, I’m certain that’s how PS3 40 works. I’m certain as well that that’s how your students and importantly, their families feel, I’m certain that’s what they get every day. Alexei, Diana, thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you more importantly, of course, for what you do for your kids and their families and that community every day.

Alexei Nichols: Thank you.

Diana DaCorta: Thank you, Chris, my pleasure.

Turnaround connects the dots between science, adversity and school performance to catalyze student development and academic achievement. www.turnaroundusa.org