For more than 300 seniors in Yelm Community Schools, the first step in prepping for their graduation ceremony was like nothing they could have imagined just a few short months ago. On April 24, cars lined up around Yelm High School as students picked up their caps and gowns, waving and honking at friends and faculty they haven’t seen for over a month while the statewide “Stay Home” order remains in place.

On April 24 over 300 Yelm Community Schools seniors visited the Yelm High School campus to pick up their caps and gowns for graduation. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

The event was a bright spot in a tough time for families as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reshape every aspect of daily life, including graduation. While the exact form of the June 14 ceremony has yet to be determined, district leaders are focused on celebrating seniors and maintaining their impact on younger students, even if that means a virtual parade of graduates. “The grad walk has been such an important part of our community and it’s tied into the Graduate Yelm program,” says YCS Communications Director Teri Pablo. “We’re working on a way to make it happen so all the students and their families can still be inspired.”

Modifying graduation is just one way the district is adapting its educational model to meet the needs of 5,800 students. With remote learning the new normal, teachers across grade levels have had to embrace technology and figure out ways to support those who may lack resources such as computers, Chromebooks and even paper.  “We had a student the other day who was able to connect with their teacher online but didn’t have paper to do the assignment,” says YCS Superintendent Brian Wharton. “These are the things we’re figuring out.”

Nearly 90 percent of the districts 5,800 students have been able to connect with teachers online and access remote learning materials. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Although typically district-owned Chromebooks have remained on campus, now 3,300 have gone home, mostly with students but a few hundred with staff. Overall, 88.2 percent of students have been able to access remote learning materials through Google Classrooms thus far, with the remainder connecting with teachers via phone or through learning packets. In fact, attendance at parent/teacher conferences reached an all-time high of 98 percent during lockdown.

“Our connectivity levels have gone up significantly in the last few weeks,” says Wharton. “Our teachers are doing really good work and we’re modifying our approach to get even better.”

Now more than ever, educators need to become familiar with their students’ lives and circumstances beyond academics, he notes. “If we don’t know what’s going on at home, it’s hard for us to say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to help you learn,’” he explains. “We’re making a lot of decisions, and we don’t want to base them on assumptions, we want to base them on relationships.”

For students, faculty and staff, the cap and gown pick up event was a rare chance to connect with each other in person during the statewide Stay Home mandate. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Teachers aren’t the only ones connecting with families. The district has adopted an ‘all hands on deck’ approach so that if a student stops attending or participating in lessons, someone will contact them right away. “We can’t risk losing anyone for a week because we only have a few weeks left in the school year,” says Wharton. “It’s been an incredible effort on the part of our classified staff, teachers, and people in different roles to say, ‘Let’s find ways to reach those kids.’”

One method is to make scheduling more flexible. Rather than being locked into a rigid time frame for each subject, students can review recorded lessons after the fact or resume them if they get interrupted. “We have students at the high school who are saying, ‘Please don’t schedule anything before 11:00 a.m.’ or parents who can’t be reached until after 8:00 p.m. because they’re essential workers,” says Pablo. “There are shifts in people’s schedules that we’re all trying to accommodate and support.”

The nature of the June 14 graduation ceremony has yet to be determined but district leaders are working on creative ways to celebrate seniors and recognize their accomplishments. Photo courtesy: Yelm Community Schools

Aside from academic instruction, YCS is providing an average of 1,200 bags of food per day at eight different sites for students 18-year-old and under who live within the district. The program is operating under the Summer Food Program guidelines and the district will apply for reimbursement through the National School Lunch Program once the pandemic has subsided. Students who live in the district but attend school elsewhere are still eligible, as are homeless youth or those who have dropped out. “We’re hearing that it’s helping families immensely,” says Wharton. “Our numbers are very strong and the feedback we’re getting is that the program is removing barriers in people’s lives.”

As this unprecedented school year winds to a close, he wants students and their families to know that the district is committed to supporting them. “Connect with us,” says Wharton. “We want to know how we can serve you. A lot of families are feeling isolated, and I want them to know that we’re listening. This isn’t how any of us want to do school, but we’re doing it the best we can and we’re going to keep getting better.”

Learn more by visiting the Yelm Community Schools website or calling 360.458.1900.

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