CUSD schools turn to ‘car parades’ to connect with students

By Elysse James

Several Capistrano Unified elementary schools have held car parades in recent weeks to visit — from a responsible distance — with students and parents while school is being held virtually.

Teachers and staff drove through neighborhoods with their windows rolled down as families held up signs and shouted ‘hello!’ from their balconies, driveways, and sidewalks outside their homes.

“This is my 34th year in the district,” said Bathgate Principal Jayne Martin. “There are certain events and certain memories you know will stay with you your entire life, and this was one of those.”

Kinoshita Elementary, Lobo Elementary, and Bathgate Elementary all held car parades in early April to stay connected with their communities. Each parade has had a great turnout and a caravan of 30 to 40 cars.

“It was very emotional, to be honest,” Martin said. Bathgate’s car parade was held April 3. “There were tears on both sides. I don’t think they realized how much they missed them… so many parents said, ‘Thank you, we needed that.’”

Teachers and staff at Kinoshita Elementary also paraded on April 3, meeting at the school to decorate their cars before driving around their close-knit community.

“We were hard to miss because we were honking like crazy,” said Kinoshita first-grade teacher Stephany Rose. “There were so many families.”

During the normal school year, the spring months are the best time of year because the students, families, and teachers have all established a relationship, said Kinoshita transitional kindergarten teacher Jessica Hutchinson. Not being able to see the students or their families has been difficult.

“All of us are having a hard time,” Hutchinson said. “We’re with our own families, we’re homeschooling our own children, we’re all reinventing the wheel in our own classroom.”

The school communities, the teachers said, have all been very supportive and understanding as the entire school district moved swiftly to distance learning. Even though teachers and students are connecting via video, nothing can replace the classroom experience.

“Everybody needed that one-to-one connection and it was perfect that day,’ Hutchinson said. “You just miss that connection.”

The car parade around Kinoshita lasted nearly three hours as teachers and staff drove slowly so that everyone in the caravan could make eye contact and share encouraging words with each community member who came out. Seeing where all the students live was also special for the teachers, Hutchinson and Rose said, adding that they’d like to continue the tradition every year.

“We are coming to make sure you know that we’re in this together and we’re cheering you on and we think you’re the best,” Rose said.

“This is something I will never forget,” Hutchinson said. “It was so needed.”

The Lobo Elementary car parade was held on April 2 and ended at the school parking lot, where the parade circled twice to cheers from families who don’t live in the neighborhoods on the parade route who came out to see their beloved school community.

“For me it was a reminder of how strong our community really is,” said Lobo fourth-grade teacher Julie Payne, “and how much mutual respect and affection staff and teachers have for families, and families have for teachers and staff.”

The first stop on the Lobo route was an apartment complex next to the school.

“As soon as we pulled in, (we saw) a bunch of kids and families with signs and the biggest smiles on their faces,” Payne said. “I just totally lost it. It was medicine for my soul. It just did wonders for my heart and my soul because I miss my kids so much.”

All of the schools are considering adding additional car parades as the stay-at-home orders continue.

“That is forever in my heart and brought me to tears,” said Julie Kulek, a speech language pathologist and mother of two boys who attend Lobo Elementary. “My cheeks hurt from smiling. It was so joyful.”

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