School went all in for families to keep kids engaged

JESSICA CALEFATI and KRISTEN A. GRAHAM
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Student Zikirah Skinner runs towards Lisanne Brown, dressed up as a Panther, the mascot of William Dick Elementary, during a surprise visit to her home to celebrate high attendance in North Philadelphia on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

PHILADEPHIA — Lisanne Brown stood in her classroom and studied the map she'd printed out and attached to a clipboard. It showed the North Philadelphia homes of William Dick Elementary students learning remotely who had near perfect attendance, and it would be her guide that day when she left school to congratulate them.

Brown was dressed from head to toe that spring morning as the Philadelphia public school's mascot: all black fur, whiskers, and tail.

"I'm a first-grade teacher by day, but I became a panther by lunchtime," Brown said.

This pandemic year has been tough for educators and students alike. But for many Philadelphia schools, which function as lifelines in their communities and largely have not had children back inside buildings for most of the year, keeping connections with families has been especially crucial. That the school succeeded in a corner of the city once overrun with virus cases and despite broad concern that vulnerable children might slip through the cracks amid the chaos is even more remarkable. Sending a large fuzzy mascot through North Philadelphia is just one of the things Dick teachers and staff did this past year to help the school's 450 students and their families survive a year of virtual learning.

Early in the pandemic, when schools closed abruptly and staff lost contact with more than two dozen students, the principal hit the streets and knocked on doors to find them and to praise those who consistently attended. When technology problems kept kids from coming to class online, a literacy specialist morphed into a tech-support guru. And when a paraprofessional noticed certain students were routinely late to sign on, she started calling every day to wake them up and remind them.

The school's all-in approach worked.

The share of Dick students who attended school 95% of the time or more this past school year, the district's gold standard, is among the highest of any elementary or middle school in North Philly.

Brown's costumed arrival at her first stop on that warm April day brought screams of joy from Theresa Meggett's household — five siblings and a cousin all enrolled at the school.

"The panther is here!" first grader Jakiera Raynor shouted as Brown walked through the doorway in full fuzzy regalia.

"Yes! They all have perfect attendance," said Meggett, Jakiera's mom. "Hard work pays off, the struggle of waking up and doing what you have to do. I have to keep on top of them."

Teacher Lisanne Brown, center, has story time with students, Major Williamson, left, Yahya Elyamani, center, and Jazzmyn Malave at William Dick Elementary in North Philadelphia on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Teachers and staff at the school took extraordinary measures to keep attendance high this school year despite the challenges of learning online. Brown dressed up as the school mascot every week and walked around the neighborhood to surprise students who had high attendance. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Brown posed for photos and distributed hugs and high-fives. At one point, she removed the panther head to better have a conversation with Meggett and smile at the children. She remarked on how much had changed since she saw them last.

"Everybody grew," Brown said.

'Where are all of our kids?': Amy Williams, Dick's principal, devoted herself to keeping the school's attendance rate up this school year despite the pandemic, and about 300 of her students, about two-thirds of the school, came to class at least 90% of the time. But she remembers how worried she felt when the district first closed schools to slow the spread of the virus, and some children vanished.

"In the beginning, it wasn't about them being absent, it was about: Where are all our kids?" said Williams, a veteran principal who's spent her career in North Philadelphia.

One child who went missing in those frightening, early days of the crisis was a mentee of Williams', and she admits she panicked when his family stopped answering the phone. The school later located him at an aunt's house.

"Not knowing if everybody was safe, not knowing if everybody was fed. That weighs on you," she said.

When Williams and her staff couldn't reach families, they didn't hesitate to mask up and start knocking on doors in the school's dense catchment area, which includes Raymond Rosen Manor, a sprawling public housing community.

By mid-May of last year, all 27 Dick students who'd gone missing had been located.

Next, Williams set out to tackle families' technology problems, recognizing there was no hope of keeping up attendance in the pandemic without addressing them.

Reyshe and Chantel Sullivan relied heavily on Dick for support this COVID-19 year, the couple said. Between them, they have four children and two nephews enrolled at the school.

At first, "it was rough, having the kids home, getting used to the computers," Reyshe Sullivan said.

The kids were late getting their computers and had makeup work to do. But they've settled into the rhythm of pandemic schooling, and all of the kids now attend in-person classes two days a week and spend the remaining days learning from Martin Luther King Rec Center at 21st and Cecil B. Moore.

The Sullivans liked how the school staff prioritized children's attendance.

"If the kids are one second late, you'll get a 'Mikhi is late, is everything OK?' They're always on their game, and they meet us where we are," Reyshe Sullivan said. The kids "are not missing a day."

From the school nurse, who helps the family stay on top of when their son needs a refill on his medication to staff who reminded families where they can get free food and find warm coats for kids who need them in the winter, there was always someone willing to help, Reyshe Sullivan said.

"This school always makes sure the kids have what they need," she added. "William Dick isn't going to let you slip through the cracks. If something's lacking, they'll say, 'Mom, Dad, we need you to help your son.' I thank God for William Dick — I say that every day."

The technology hurdle: At the start of the pandemic, technology was a hurdle for many students.

Ryan Mann, a teacher who became the school's technology coordinator, led the charge to get students connected — corralling the school's Chromebooks for distribution, getting them to families and troubleshooting the issues that arose as children attempted to get online.

Mann's cellphone rang every day, from early morning into the evening, with students, parents, and teachers asking how to unlock their machines, how to get internet service, how to get into a Google Meet. He fielded their calls from his home office in West Philadelphia, which was so strewn with monitors and devices at one point that it resembled a repair shop.

"In the beginning, I was like a switchboard operator," said Mann, who has also worked as Dick's literacy specialist. "I would have third graders calling me and saying, 'Mr. Mann, can you help? My brother is in kindergarten and he can't log on.' It was a huge barrier to entry for a lot of students."

Internet access was a problem for many Dick families: Even if they were able to afford wireless service, the networks were overwhelmed with multiple people trying to simultaneously use video chatting programs. The city and Comcast offered free service, but it wasn't a silver bullet.

"It was spotty, it was dropping, and kids would get kicked out of Google Classroom," said Mann.

Wireless hot spots were crucial for a sizable portion of Dick families, including those experiencing housing insecurity and those with large numbers of students at home. Mann drove many hot spots to families' homes himself and found that the reliable internet access the hot spots provided was key in getting kids who weren't logging on back into their virtual classrooms.

Other students need a daily nudge to log on, and that's where longtime paraprofessional Shuna Neal came in.

She had a dozen families she called or texted most days between 8:30 and 9 a.m. Not even an early morning doctor's appointment could stop her from making the rounds.

"I have their numbers packed in my phone, so I can call from anywhere," said Neal, who worked with seventh and eighth graders this year. She made her calls and texted families one recent morning from the corner of an empty classroom as she sipped coffee from a large Styrofoam cup. "A lot of the kids are really grateful. They need that extra touch."

Neal said students have been receptive to her efforts because they know she's one of them. She lived in Raymond Rosen, too, and attended Dick, starting in 1978. She returned to work at the school after graduating from Dobbins High School. Her mother also works at Dick.

"Like I always tell the kids: You are not your environment. Your environment doesn't define who you are. Your character defines who you are," Neal said. "I want these kids to know they're leaders, not followers, and they can do whatever they want."

Principal Amy Williams poses for a portrait outside of William Dick Elementary in North Philadelphia on Thursday, May 6, 2021. Teachers and staff at the school took extraordinary measures to keep attendance high this school year despite the challenges of learning online. (Heather Khalifa/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Neal noted that the online learning model the pandemic forced on Dick students, and students everywhere, had some upside. It brought families into the classroom on a daily basis and allowed school staff and parents to bond. Parents got to see firsthand how much their children are loved.

"We're doing this together, as a unit," Neal said.

Finding a way: Brown, the first-grade teacher, launched Dick's attendance rewards program — encouraging students with prizes and certificates — well before the pandemic began. But dressing up like the Panther is a ritual born out of lockdown.

One day in November, when Brown and Mann were out visiting students with near-perfect attendance, she noticed the kids didn't seem interested. Some didn't even answer the door, and Brown wondered if they recognized her beneath her mask and bulky winter coat.

"We wanted the kids to come to the door and be excited. Instead they were coming to the door like, 'OK, what's going on?' " said Brown, who's wrapping up her seventh year at Dick. "I told Mr. Mann: We need a new look."

Like many elementary schools, Dick's attendance this past year was lowest among its kindergarten, first, and second grade students because they're the ones who needed the most help logging on. The share of Dick students who attended school at least 95% of the time was roughly 20 percentage points higher among seventh and eighth graders than it was for kindergartners.

That's where the Panther comes in. The prospect of a visit from their mascot was a real incentive for Dick's youngest learners to come to school. Brown also enters the names of children who attend regularly into a quarterly drawing for ShopRite and Target gift cards.

One recent morning, Brown taught a lesson on seeds to 21 students learning online as well as three kids, all masked, sitting several yards away from one another in her classroom on Diamond Street.

"Kylee. Hey! Do you have a sentence on seeds for us?" the first-grade teacher asked while squinting at her virtual students' faces, each one no larger than a postage stamp. Brown is hearing impaired, and reading lips was a lot easier when all her students were seated in front of her. After turning away from the laptop to speak with a student sitting beside her, several virtual learners began talking at once.

"Use your virtual hand, please, when you'd like to share," Brown said with a calmness that belied the cacophony of eager first graders talking over one another.

Fall plans: Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has acknowledged how tough the model is for staff.

"Hybrid instruction is not ideal (nor) a sustainable option," he said in May, announcing schools' reopening plans for the fall.

Though Philadelphia is planning on offering full-time, in-person instruction five days a week, it will also offer a fully remote option for students whose families do not feel comfortable with in-person school. Those students will be taught not by regular classroom teachers like Brown, but by educators who focus solely on remote pupils.

Pandemic schooling was tough on everyone, and early on, Brown wondered whether she could keep the attendance program going.

"So many kids were missing so many days, and I wondered, who could qualify?" Brown said. "But I decided, no. Our goal stays the same. That's what great attendance is. Setting high expectations and communicating them. Asking our students to show up regardless."

Many Dick families found a way.

Supervising the kids' remote learning has become Theresa Meggett's full-time job. The routine: up at 7 a.m., breakfast by 7:45, logged in by the time school starts at 8:30. She spread the children out in different rooms — the living room, with her, the kitchen, a hallway, bedrooms.

It's been a challenge, Meggett said, but after a time, she had everyone's schedule down pat, knew the teachers' voices.

It wouldn't have been possible without partnership from Dick staff, Meggett said.

"I get text messages, phone calls, even from the principal," said Meggett. "The teachers have been compassionate. I love the school."

Meggett replicated the school environment as best as she could: brightly colored walls with rainbow and sunshine stickers, school certificates framed and hung, medals the children have earned for meeting reading goals on display in the hallway, backpacks and books organized in a neat row.

"I have to help them understand, 'You're not in school, but it's still a school environment,'" Meggett said.

There have been challenges, she said — a lack of structure when school abruptly shut down last year, broken computers, kids who try to test boundaries — but Meggett said she's met them with the Dick staff's help. Williams, Brown, and others answer every question she has.

"They make us feel welcome," Megett said. "Even when we're not there."