Schools’ efforts to connect families with resources they need helped stabilize enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic at Creighton School District, and school leaders hope those strong relationships will help next year too.
Here’s what worked for Creighton School District, whose nine schools serve about 6,400 Pre-K through 8th-grade students in historic central Phoenix.
When the number of “COVID-19 cases escalated rapidly within our communities and our schools became remote, we knew we needed more than just our usual communication strategies – robo-calls, text messages, social media, e-newsletters, backpack express, etc. – to reach our families with next steps on iPads, hotspots, and learning resources, said Emily Waszolek, communications manager at Creighton School District.
Under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Donna Lewis, “we embarked on a grassroots campaign to ensure we made contact with every single family,” Waszolek said.
“We started by issuing a learning needs assessment survey and captured the learning needs of each student. From there we identified which families had not filled out the survey and called them directly. If we were not able to get in touch by phone, we made home visits,” Waszolek said.
“And if a home visit wasn’t successful, we got in touch with their neighbors, friends, or relatives to find out their new address, telephone number, etc., ”Waszolek said.
“By having these personal interactions with our families, we were able to identify rudimentary needs beyond lack of internet access, to include family employment, food or hunger issues, transportation needs, diapers and clothing, and childcare in some cases,” Waszolek said.
“Through bi-weekly personal conversations with our families, we were able to pinpoint the exact needs of our community,” Waszolek said.
Meal distribution was a huge need for families of Creighton students.
“When we began full-time remote learning, we started a weekly meal distribution where families could drive up to the curb at their child’s school and receive a full-week’s worth of breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper,” Waszolek said.
Creighton School District also deployed school buses into the communities for mobile meal distribution to families without transportation.
“On average we were distributing 19,320 mobile meal packages and 61,600 curbside meal packages a week,” Waszolek said.
“Now that in-person learning has resumed, we are still providing mobile meals, weekly curbside grab and go meals, and breakfast and lunch in the classroom,” Waszolek said.
Through the Creighton Family Resource Center, we did home visits helping families fill out EBT applications, provided food and basic necessities, helped with job applications, and helped with connectivity issues for remote learning, Waszolek said.
“Our parent liaisons were the direct catalyst between our community with the resources they so desperately needed,” Waszolek said.
“By identifying the large number of families’ living in the same apartment complexes without internet capabilities, we were able to deliver hotspots to the apartment complexes themselves so multiple families could access remote learning together,” Waszolek said.
This year, student enrollment in Creighton School District declined by 4 percent, according to data reported to the Arizona Department of Education.
“Dr. Lewis’ all-hands-on-deck leadership initiative was very effective for enrollment stabilization. The direct contact and relationships created with our families-built trust and deepened relationships one-by-one,” Waszolek said.
“Our families stayed with Creighton even if they moved out of our boundaries, because of the connectivity and rapport built individually with their teacher and principal,” Waszolek said.
“I would like to reiterate that leadership is everything when it comes down to grassroots family connections, and we are very lucky to have a leader like Dr. Donna Lewis who had the courage to bring forth this initiative and put families first,” said Lindsey McCaleb, Creighton School District Governing Board President.
“As the public health situation continuously changed, we observed the patience within our community, because the feeling was, we are all in this together,” Waszolek said.
“Our families had confidence in the on-going adjustments we needed to make to include reduced screen time, alternative school schedules, aligning family lunch times, and providing more opportunities for students to speak socially and emotionally with one another,” Waszolek said.
After remote learning stabilized and families had the tools to be successful at home, “we started to survey again and look deeper at who would be interested in returning to in-person learning once the COVID-19 metrics indicated it was safe to do so,” Waszolek said.
“Through this data and more personal interactions we started to discover how many of our families had moved because of more affordable housing or with family, etc. that remained Creighton students through remote learning,” Waszolek said. “This indicated the strong bond we had built with our community that they chose to stay even if they were no longer in our boundaries.”
These strong bonds were the result of a joint effort by all Creighton staff and in particular Community Education Director Ivan Carvajal and the Parent Liaisons as they were the backbone to this being as successful as it was, Waszolek said.
“In any given year, enrollment is always a concern for us,” Waszolek said. “During the height of the pandemic, while other districts were losing high numbers of students, we were staying relatively stable.”
This definitely created a unique challenge for when in-person learning resumed or when families who have left our boundaries decide to send their child back to in-person learning and now their neighborhood school is in a different district, Waszolek said.
“Our hope is that the bonds we have created with our families will keep them coming back through open enrollment, or utilize our remote learning platform in the future,“ Waszolek said.
“No matter what they decide, we will always consider them Creighton Families and welcome them back with open arms, and I think them knowing that means everything,” Waszolek said.
Waszolek encourages other school districts to forge stronger connections with students’ families.
“Never discount grassroots communication. The extra service of home visits and personalized phone calls where you just take the time to listen is what will create those lasting connections,” Waszolek said.
“This seems like a very daunting task, but when each staff member to include custodians, crossing guards and bus drivers ‘adopts’ a few children, every child can be reached.,” Waszolek said.
“At Creighton School District one of our beliefs is loving each child as our own and I think our actions have proved that to be true,” Waszolek said.