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Each principal of the five high schools in LJISD has seen their students, teachers and staff adjust tremendously in the wake of an unprecedented spring semester.
When discussing the new routines and issues faced at each campus, all five expressed pride in the district population for everyone’s continued unity throughout the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Principal Antonio Cano – La Joya High School
Antonio Cano, the principal of La Joya High School, never would have thought that Spring Break would be the last time they saw their students and teachers in person.
“I do think it’s unprecedented,” Cano said. “It caused us to rethink the way we do things, and it made us learn things we never learned before.”
Zoom meetings, Google Meets and virtual conferences became much more common than ever before, and Cano believes changes will be made to school protocol in the years to come.
“This has given us fair warning for us to be ready if something else similar, or even worse, would happen in the future,” Cano said. “We need to make sure that we are capable of providing services to our students and our staff for remote learning.”
Cano spoke on the implementation of technology into curriculum, and noted that students and teachers had to adjust to new mechanisms of learning. In the next school year, Cano said he has asked teachers to start implementing regular online learning practices even in the classroom.
“At least once a week, [teachers should] do a lesson via Google Classroom, so that students get used to working with it, know what it’s about and how to interact,” Cano said. “This caught us off-guard, we had to adapt and adjust as we went – and I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, because it’s not – but I think this has allowed us to open our eyes and survey the situation.”
Cano anticipates that everyone, not just educators and students, will feel the need to remain prepared for anything in the future.
“It’s just like why we practice fire drills,” Cano said. “We do it not wanting it, but in case something does happen we’ll be ready to do it because we’ve practiced it.”
Rising from adversity is one of the tenets of being a Coyote, according to Cano.
“As a human being, you are able to adapt to changes in your environment and lifestyle – we’re not set in a robotic way,” Cano said. “I know this has been hard for our seniors because they’ve missed out on a lot of events. I think they feel blessed that they’re okay and they’re not ill – in the time that they’ve been in high school, I hope they know they have to be able to rise when adversity hits us.”
Cano stressed that seniors still have a future to look forward to, and they should take it on eagerly.
“We are capable of so much more,” Cano said. “This has been a detour, and we’ve been able to continue. We cannot predict what’s going to happen, but we’ve been able to maintain a form of education and instruction for our students and staff. Things will be okay – we will move on and get better and stronger from this.”
Principal Yvonne Ayala – Palmview High School
Yvonne Ayala had the unique experience this year of leading a high school campus remotely as her son Robbie prepared to graduate himself.
“I’m not just a principal, I’m also a mom,” Ayala said. “There were so many things that I was looking forward to experiencing with my son as a parent – it was very unfortunate that we were not able to experience those things, but the good thing is our district is moving forward with face-to-face graduations, so the fact that they’ll be able to somewhat experience a traditional graduation ceremony is going to be giving them good closure for this school year.”
As a principal, she said this is something she has never faced before.
“We had to make the adjustment basically overnight,” Ayala said. “I frankly never imagined not returning from Spring Break.”
Palmview High School created instructional packets and began moving to online learning in order to do the best they could to continue curriculum as normal.
“I think the students adjusted well – I know some students had some difficulty with adjusting because it was something we had never done before,” Ayala said. “But all things considered, students understood that they needed to finish all their classes to earn their credits in order to graduate.”
Ayala noted that not only students, but teachers had to change their usual methods of educating.
“The teachers have been really flexible in helping out the students in any way that they could,” Ayala said.
The Palmview High School Lobos are resilient, according to Ayala.
“They’ve done whatever they needed to not just complete their credits and their graduation requirements, but also to make as many memories as they could,” Ayala said, noting Palmview High School held curbside pick-up for their graduation caps, gowns and regalia. “It seems that every pickup was more and more elaborate, and they would come with their cars decorated, and they would create their own parades. It may not be the traditional experiences, but they were creating memories that no other class was able to create before.”
Ayala is not sure what the future will hold in terms of protocol, but knows the students will continue to shine every year.
“They represent strength, and they represent the best of what the future has ahead of them,” Ayala said. “I hope they know and understand how much the community stands behind them – everyone in the community is rooting for them.”
Principal Ricardo Estrada – Juarez-Lincoln High School
Ricardo Estrada is the third principal some of the Husky Class of 2020 graduates have had in their high school career – and expressed his impression of their resilience.
“The biggest challenge has been mostly for our students,” Estrada said, noting that Wi-Fi connectivity was difficult at first due to the social economic status of the area. “However, our district and campus has done everything to make it work.”
Estrada was glad that the grants earned by Juarez-Lincoln were put toward devices and technologies for students and staff.
“The teachers had to learn new tricks to be able to teach virtually without looking and the kids’ faces, emotions and engaging,” Estrada said. “We are trying to do justice, but it’s almost like having a substitute – you can’t replace a teacher in the classroom.”
Estrada said the school needs to become more prepared in the event that something like COVID-19 happens again.
“I don’t want to start like this, I want the kids there,” Estrada said on the next school year. “The seniors had so many plans.”
Estrada misses talking to the students every morning before class.
“It would give me the fire for the day, and hopefully gave some inspiration to them,” Estrada said. “This is their home. I call them my second family.”
Estrada noted that students have felt more pride since the school has been beautified, and was happy to see them believe in themselves.
“This pandemic is going to prepare them for life,” Estrada said. “It’s going to make them stronger.”
He added that when students graduate from Juarez-Lincoln, there is a 20 to 30 percent mobility rate of leaving the district – and stressed that building their own community is also important.
“It’s getting better, let’s stay here and invest here to become a better community,” Estrada said. “The parent involvement at Juarez-Lincoln is massive and beautiful, and I want our students to know this area is good and can be great. Slowly but surely, we’re changing the culture here.”
Principal Claudia Gomez-Perez – Jimmy Carter Early College High School
Claudia Gomez-Perez, the principal of Jimmy Carter Early College High School, said the pandemic was unprecedented for all their students and faculty.
“We’ve all had to adjust and do things in different ways,” Gomez-Perez said. “We’re a very small campus, so we’re used to making sure we’re offering support to our students not just academically, but emotionally.”
Teachers and staff at Jimmy Carter often check in on students regularly to ensure assignments are completed and things are going well in their lives socially. While they have still been turning in their work, the distance-learning created from the abrupt change has caused concern from staff over students’ mental health.
“Are they doing okay? Are they going to therapy or to their counselors?” Gomez-Perez said. “We know they’re working academically, but on a personal side, we’re basing it on what the students are telling us during our phone calls.”
At Jimmy Carter ECHS, administration set up a system where each administrator was assigned a grade level, and every teacher was assigned 15 students to mentor.
“Our job was to call once a week and just check to see how they’re doing,” Gomez-Perez said. “It has nothing to do with assignments, it’s just to check that as a human, they’re doing well. Their stress levels are so high because they’re having to do dual enrollment and high school.”
Homework and assignments were handled in separate phone calls. As students in this campus are enrolled in both high school and South Texas College, they are more familiar with the mechanisms of online learning platforms.
“We’ve adjusted well, I would say,” Gomez-Perez said. “The expectation for our students had already been toward using Google Classroom and Blackboard – we were not in a bind where students did not know how to use those platforms.”
Missing out on congratulatory ceremonies has been difficult for students, parents and faculty alike.
“We know all of the kids, and they know each other,” Gomez-Perez said. “So that has been their biggest adjustment, not being able to do things with the rest of their classmates.”
Gomez-Perez wants the community as a whole to know and continue to see that they will always do what is best for the students.
“Anything that comes our way, it’s always going to be ‘what is the best thing for our students, our staff and for our community?’” Gomez-Perez said. “Every decision that we have made as a district and campus is always making sure they’re going to be okay.”
Principal Victor Rodriguez – Thelma R. Salinas STEM Early College High School
Victor Rodriguez was in his first year as the principal of Thelma R. Salinas STEM Early College High School when campuses closed. After five years as a vice principal, he had accepted the new position ready to take on the 2019-2020 school year.
Because it’s an early college campus, students already have technology starting in their freshman year.
“They all have Chromebooks, and the majority of our staff are already utilizing Blackboard or Google Classroom and doing online learning,” Rodriguez said. “For the most part, the transition for us was smooth as far as online learning.”
Because of some of the major grants received by the school, Wi-Fi hotspots were able to be issued to students on an as-needed basis prior to COVID-19 even being a possibility. Two weeks before they had to close campus, Rodriguez reminded students that if they were having difficulty with their Wi-Fi or internet at home, they could fill out a form at the library and have a hotspot issued.
The bigger stressor has been the lack of in-person contact for emotional issues.
“When a child is having issues, we can always bring them in, work with them and speak to them one-on-one,” Rodriguez said. “But when we can’t have any contact, it’s worrisome.”
Teachers were assigned a call log, and each contacted 25 students twice a week to follow-up on how they were doing.
“The first month was very difficult, it was just something that we were adapting to,” Rodriguez said. “It was not the same thing, not being able to socially interact.”
Rodriguez said the district helped teachers by giving technology training to teachers in order to implement new strategies in their lessons.”
Rodriguez anticipates that the events of the last few months will change protocol.
“It’s going to change our approach,” Rodriguez said. “Going forward, with district permission, it’s going to be my requirement for teachers that everybody utilizes Blackboard for everything. It will also prepare our kids for dual enrollment and college readiness.”
He noted that in spite of the circumstances and guidelines, the district is doing its best to give the proper recognition to the graduates. Rodiguez added that the success of this year was due to the resourcefulness of the staff at Thelma Salinas STEM Early College High School.
“It’s going to be something different, and it’s been a lot of work and planning,” Rodriguez said. “The district has gone above and beyond to make sure they have some type of normalcy.”