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How 2 TFA Alums Are Working to Support Students During COVID-19

Taking care of students’ wellbeing during the pandemic means ensuring they have internet access and counseling support.

November 17, 2020

Myrialis King and Avione Brown Pichon have a lot in common: Both are Howard University and Teach For America alumnae, with backgrounds in the legal system and extensive education leadership experience. And both Myrialis and Avione call New Orleans home.

Their similar entrepreneurial mindsets, belief in the power of education, and love of community brought them together in 2019 to lead Community Academies, a new charter management organization that aims to “nurture students’ character and critical thinking ability in responsive learning environments, thereby equipping them to be impactful community leaders.”

Their collective leadership experience and dedication to educational equity helped fuel Community Academies' intense growth in its first year of operations. However, as Myrialis and Avione learned, no amount of experience can fully prepare you for a pandemic.

Supporting Students During a Crisis

When Myrialis received word that schools would be closing last spring, her first thought was how to support students' wellbeing during a potentially traumatic time. Myrialis is a trauma survivor. She knew that many kids and families experienced trauma and would be greatly affected by the shutdowns. School closures would mean that some students would have no safe space to go. Others would suffer from food and housing insecurity or the effects of violence in their households or communities. She anticipated that many would experience additional challenges due to immigration issues or language barriers.

As the virus was disproportionately affecting the communities that Community Academies served, the additional possibility of losing a loved one amplified the trauma their students were experiencing.

“I can’t imagine losing a parent as a child and then being expected to be in class and learn when you are grieving and under duress,” Myrialis says.

Because trauma impacts both social and academic growth, Myrialis set to work revamping Community Academies’ trauma-informed approach. Previously, their trauma support services were focused on the students in their schools who had experienced the greatest trauma.

With help from the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, her team shifted their focus to fully support roughly 1,500 students in her schools—90 percent of whom have experienced trauma at some level. This was no small feat with approximately 375 staff members to manage over three schools in four locations.

“I can’t imagine losing a parent as a child and then being expected to be in class and learn when you are grieving and under duress.”

Myrialis King

CEO, Community Academies

Greater New Orleans Corps Member 2011

As COO, Avione had her work cut out for her. Compelled by the urgency of the moment, her team created a plan to ensure that learning could continue outside of the school building and students were receiving the support that they needed.

Within weeks, Community Academies provided their students with one-on-one devices and WiFi hotspots, organized virtual office hours for kids in special education classes and English language learners, created YouTube videos for asynchronous learning, and eventually brought online co-curriculars like music, art, and physical education, as well as much-needed counseling services.

This required extensive professional development for teachers to learn best practices for teaching in virtual environments.

“Teachers had to get up early to make and teach their virtual lessons, and then get on the phone at night to check in with families,” Myrialis says.

Communicating with students’ families also was top of mind for Avione.

“My constant queries were: Did we call, text, and post on social media and our websites? Is this information easy to digest? And, do we know what our parents think and feel?” she says.

two community academies staff members and a student working at a computer

Reflecting on What They've Learned

Despite the tumult of the experience, Myrialis and Avione both take away important lessons from this unprecedented time in our country’s history. Myrialis found inspiration in the way that the Community Academies team came together to support their students and families.

“This work is really hard and there’s no need to make it harder by doing it by yourself,” Myrialis says. “We should always put our mission and vision first, and you need people on your team who believe that in order to be successful.”

Avione found strength in her team’s flexibility and ability to adapt to sudden change.

“We saw the pandemic more as an opportunity than a challenge,” she says. “Anything is possible—school is more than the building, but the building is an indispensable feature of how school is currently designed. Structure with the built-in ability to be flexible stands the test of use far better than blind rigidity.”

The pandemic may be an unprecedented challenge, but together, Myrialis and Avione are working to give educators in Community Academy—as well as students and families—the support they need.

As Myrialis said, “Teamwork really does make the dream work!”