Hopkins Junior Highs Keep Students Connected During a Time of Distance

Two students sit in desks facing teacher in front of room wearing mask.

This year, Hopkins seventh-graders did something no other class had done before — they transitioned into junior high without ever entering a building. Due to the pandemic, all scholars in grades 7-12 started their year in distance learning, and most remained in that learning model until after winter break. In fact, when junior high students entered the classroom for the first time, it had been nearly a year since they were physically in school.

Starting school in a virtual environment was an unprecedented decision. While there was no roadmap for what this would look like, the Hopkins junior high program was especially mindful this year about creating virtual communities through unique What I Need (WIN) sessions that were held in the morning before the official start to the school day. The topics of these sessions helped create a sense of belonging for students, while allowing them to explore their passions.

Inspiring confidence and connection

Andrea Dale, a student services coordinator at North Junior High, is one of the staff members hosting virtual WIN sessions this year. Not being able to be in person was hard for Dale, who describes herself as a hugger and someone who cares and stands up for all kids. This year, she started a virtual affinity group for Black girls at North Junior High called Black Girl Magic. It’s a safe place where girls of color can talk about everything from social justice to hair care, TikTok, books, and mental health.

“They are so thirsty for it,” said Dale. “They just want to connect with each other. This group is a fortress, you can make your way through anything when you have a group and a community. That’s part of the magic.”

In the first Black Girl Magic session, three girls showed up. The next session had 13 and continues to hold strong. Dale said her goal for the group is to create a sense of community and to help girls of color build confidence. Whatever they want to be or aspire to do, she wants them to be the best version of themselves. In a time of isolation, this group is a lifeline. Dale has heard from parents and grandparents who have thanked her for starting the group and shared that they have noticed it has made a difference in their child.

“I think I am the person they can come to if they have difficulties or have a question,” she said. “This work is my calling.”

Creativity in the kitchen

Jennifer Poncelet, a language arts teacher at West Junior High, always wanted to share her passion for baking with students. In traditional school, there was never an opportunity because she did not have access to a space with a kitchen. In distance learning, she was able to start a baking club, which students join virtually from their kitchens at home.

Baking holds a special place in Poncelet’s heart. Three years ago, after experiencing a difficult time in her life, she took up baking as a form of self care and eventually started her own business. Realizing the therapeutic effects of being in a kitchen and creating, she wanted to share this with her students.

“I definitely think a lot of our students are experiencing some level of trauma right now,” said Poncelet. “This club helps break through the isolation. Baking brings us together.”

Food is a natural way to talk about who you are. In one of her classes, during a discussion about holiday baking, a Somali student described a honey cake that is part of her family’s culture. This sparked a conversation among the students about what they cook at home and how it connects to their cultures.

“These topics come up naturally, and it seems really open and comfortable,” said Poncelet.

Finding common ground in video games

Even before the pandemic hit, special education paraprofessional Tim Williams noticed that many of his students enjoyed talking about video games. Williams would use video games as a way to begin building relationships with his students, and he started an after-school video game club. When schools shut down, this group transitioned to a virtual space. Students both talked about video games in the club and played together. Williams found games that did not require a console and could be played on a smartphone. In addition to being a COVID-friendly activity, video games helped his special education students develop communication skills.

“Video games provide the special education students that I work with a lot of opportunities to interact in their mainstream areas in authentic ways,” said Williams.

Using what we’re learning now to inform what school should be

Student wears mask at desk with iPad and looks at the camera.

The Hopkins junior high program began phasing in in-person learning in February and expects to be operating mostly in-person at the end of March. Hopkins is determined to use what it has learned during distance learning to continue to reimagine schools from the ground up. Virtual sessions have played an important role in helping students feel part of the school environment, and some students prefer the flexibility of connecting virtually in some spaces and in-person in others. Moving forward, Hopkins wants to create a structure that honors both types of learners.

Andrea Yesnes, a seventh-grade counselor at North Junior High, has been working closely with her students in a virtual environment most of the year. Now that school is beginning to phase in, she is meeting them in person for the first time. Many prefer in-person learning, but also appreciate the ability to be more independent and have more control over their schedules.

“Most are just so happy to be here,” she said. “I think this has helped them gain a new appreciation for school.”

When school is able to operate in normal conditions again, Yesnes hopes it will look different. She is not alone. Hopkins is evaluating if learning in a contained environment for a set amount of time best serves students. How can the best parts of distance learning continue to be part of the secondary school experience moving forward?

“If we can survive COVID and being shut down for 11 months, then there is nothing that we cannot do,” said Yesnes.