“Making Sure Every Student is Seen and Heard:” A Q&A with Executive Director/Principal Ayanna Gore

Ayanna Gore is the Executive Director/Principal of Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Washington. We interviewed her as part of our Promise in the Time of Quarantine: Exploring Schools Responses to COVID-19 case studies, released today. Unlike many schools that hoped to open their doors for hybrid schooling this year, Summit Sierra made the early decision to open fully virtually. I spoke with Ayanna about what they learned from virtual school last year and how they’re improving upon it now.

When did you know you would be fully virtual and how did that shape planning for this school year?

By the third week of June, we shared with our families that we were planning for a fully virtual online experience. If things changed (due to a vaccine or the governor’s recommendation to reopen), we would set up workstations where families could come in and get in-person support, while learning still occurred virtually. But we committed to a 100% virtual model for consistency.

This meant reshaping our entire new-student and all-student orientation. And for onboarding new faculty, we connected with them a little earlier than we normally do. We had conversations about things like computer/Zoom fatigue, so we built in natural breaks for a schedule that still meets our academic goals. 

It’s about community and making sure every student is seen and heard. That’s how we started our new student orientation. We flipped it from the traditional “here is your schedule, these are your teachers.” We started with every student hearing from our leadership team on our mission and our individual journeys and stories. New and returning students all got interviewed and had time to share their journey and their story. 

Can you share more details of that orientation?

We spent four days on stories and discussions before we launched traditional aspects of orientation. Every day of virtual orientation (one day with new students, three days with all kids) started with what we call [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] DEI activators. We covered topics like systemic racism, privilege, college access v. inclusion, etc. 

Something new this year was that we established mentor buddies where everyone is in a trio. The trios did breakout groups on Zoom, shared their stories and contact information, and planned to check in with each other and hold each other accountable for attendance. We asked them to talk in their trio about how they could best support each other. 

Mentor groups were used to spend the rest of the day together. We made it clear to students that the goal was to get to know you first, and for your peers to connect in this virtual space. Additionally, some students called to welcome the new students. That phone call connection saying “welcome to the group” enhanced community building.

What about basic preparation, such as technology?

We did something new this year called “school in a box,” trying to be a little fun. Of course new students received a Chromebook. Then we prepared boxes that included things they needed for classes, such as a jump rope if they signed up for P.E. or art supplies if they had art class. We gave them posters (setting smart goals, habits of success) and tips on how they should set up their work stations. All new students received a school-branded mask, which apparently was a hot commodity — parents wanted one too! 

Were there any advantages to the June decision to be fully virtual this fall?

Yes! We had all summer to plan onboarding and orientation and to build these individually customized “school in a box” for each student. We could look at our budget knowing we were going to be virtual, and plan accordingly.

Summit Sierra has the highest enrollment we have ever had. Enrollment was 330-345 last year, and right now we are at 389 (our max is 400). In one grade level alone, we have about 26 transfer students. We received a high number of transfer students from word of mouth about our online program and virtual school. What I hear from our transfer families is about the mentorship program and the learning. In an uncertain world, people want a little bit of clarity or something to be consistent. How can I feel confident that my child will have some kind of touch point for connections and growth?

There are so many uncertainties. Every time we turn around, there is something new. The level of intensity — socially, emotionally, changing the way we are starting the school year — requires changing the way our people are connecting in a way that is visionary, inclusive, and exciting for folks.

How are you working with your teachers and staff to maintain a sense of community and collaboration?

We connected in early July for a week with basic onboarding (on our platform and curriculum) and then created connection points such as social icebreakers to get familiar with each other. New teachers came back before returning teachers to do onboarding about the history of our school and our network. They spent time with the curriculum to feel comfortable. When all teachers returned, we spent two days taking our teachers through the same experience as our students, where we only did connection work. They experienced it before the kids did, using the DEI activators and interviewing every teacher to get seen and heard. We normally start the year with a camping trip to build connections, but I had a returning teacher say they felt more connected with staff this year than any year before.

We got to hear about peoples’ backgrounds, peoples’ identities, peoples’ cultures, their experiences, how they’ve internalized things. People got to be vulnerable about what they are coming into the school year with, and where they might need care. It felt good.

What advice would you give to school principals about school culture during virtual learning?

It is important to have my ear to the ground with my parents, students, and teachers, so that I know what is going on and can be intentional about creating those spaces and avenues. Through my office hours, community forums once a month, and weekly blasts with video recordings, I am making sure there are different modalities to reach folks. We want to CONNECT at this time. With so many unknowns, we have to remain connected.

Don’t be afraid to do what seems unheard of, like spending 70% of my time on the phone with parents the first few days, checking in on them and letting them hear my voice.

What has given you hope or inspiration throughout this pandemic?

That learning can happen and that kids can feel successful in this time — this gives me hope. I have kids starting a gender empowerment club virtually. Another student wants to make a website for his club. To see kids thrive and see their leadership even through this time, and for them to take on these roles, becomes a catalyst for change. 

I know it’s hard. This pandemic comes with a lot of grieving and disconnection, and yet I see hope in the way kids are trying to rebuild community for themselves. I think it’s really going to push our approach when we go back into the brick and mortar setting. It will change what it looks like there.

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