"Welcome Back Roadrunners" proclaims a sign at the front gate at Marco Forster Middle School.

CUSD middle schools earned state honors for pandemic response

By Daniel Langhorne

Bernice Ayer and Marco Forster middle schools have been honored by the State Superintendent of Schools for adeptly navigating the less-than-ideal conditions created by the pandemic during the 2020-2021 school year.

The Capistrano Unified School District welcomed students back to the classroom on Sept. 28, 2020, choosing to resume in-person learning earlier than many other districts.

The California Pivotal Practice Award specifically recognized how districts and schools handled student engagement, distribution of technology, nutrition services, and student behavioral health amid COVID-19 restrictions.

“It honored the hard work of my staff here because they did some things, and I think the state agrees, that weren’t being done elsewhere,” Bernice Ayer Middle School Principal Nick Stever said. “Even when students were learning at home we kept our intervention program. Every day students who needed it got intervention and that was so powerful for our site.”

With their classrooms closed due to COVID-19, teachers had to immediately create from scratch an instructional framework that they felt would be successful in distance learning. All of this had to be done on the fly, Stever said.

“This team never let go of our core values. It’s an unwavering decision to meet the kids no matter what circumstances,” Stever said.

Overcoming the pandemic’s challenges was a full-team effort, Stever said, adding that front office staff were also on the front line in fielding hundreds of calls daily from students and parents asking for help to troubleshoot their technology and make sure they were logging into the right virtual classroom.

Marco Forster Middle School Principal Catherine Thompson spent the first year in her current role under these unprecedented conditions.

“I think my biggest takeaway is that we always have to keep the focus on what’s most important and in our role that’s always the kids,” she said. “I feel like as I get further and further along from that time and what we were going through, we sometimes take for granted the time we spend with kids. Each day we spend with kids is a gift.”

In the months of distance learning, teachers’ face-time with their students was reduced down to 25 percent of a normal school day. Thompson said teachers had to get very international with their class time and strategic about what they were teaching. This often translated into tackling more collaborative or strenuous lessons together.

“What I’m most proud of at our site was keeping students at the center of our decision making. We recognize that many of our students are school dependent and our goal was to get them intervention and connected with school resources,” she said.

Besides providing a safe, distraction-free place to learn, CUSD schools are an essential source of meals, counseling, and academic support for many low-income families. Thompson said she’s proud that her staff never missed a beat and that they’ve received statewide recognition for their service to students and their families.

“The acknowledgment is awesome but really the excitement is not about getting the award but the pride in the work that was done by our staff and especially our students in a really hard time,” Thompson said.

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