Seven CUSD schools awarded for distance-learning efforts during pandemic

By Bradley Zint

A statewide group promoting positive educational behavior recently honored seven Capistrano Unified School District schools for their efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The California PBIS Coalition acknowledged the following schools with its 2019-20 Community Cares award:

  • Bernice Ayer Middle School
  • Capistrano Home/Virtual School
  • Don Juan Avila Elementary School
  • George White Elementary School
  • Marco Forster Middle School
  • Truman Benedict Elementary School
  • Wagon Wheel Elementary School

The Auburn-based coalition said the schools gave “outstanding contribution of support and care during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and resulting disruptions to school. Your heroic efforts to provide support of all kinds to California’s students, families and communities did not go unnoticed.”

PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Intervention Support. Teachers apply it to establish appropriate schoolwide cultures that help students improve their social, emotional, behavioral and academic outcomes, according the Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

At Don Juan Avila Elementary, school counselor Steve Long said his campus’ leadership, staff and PTA maintained distance-learning student engagement through weekly spirit activities. These included a pet day, Earth day and day to dress like a Disney character. 

Those were also supplemented with student work showcases and personalized messages. The efforts even boosted Don Juan’s social media accounts, Long said.

“All of these activities highlighted what students were enjoying during the distance learning,” he said. “The image that we submitted for consideration for acknowledgment by the PBIS Coalition was just one example of how all school staff came together in a special way. 

“Such activities helped to keep spirits high for the entire school community.”

Long noted that Don Juan’s efforts truly reflected his campus’ values.

“When you consider (Don Juan’s) mission statement – ‘To providing the highest quality education where students’ social and emotional needs are met in a safe and supportive learning environment– staff fulfilled that mission through these activities. These instinctive acts by teachers to augment their instruction with recognition reflect our campus values to positively and creatively engage in learning with students, (inspiring) the best performance out of them during such a challenging period in time.”

Mike Brandt, principal of Truman Benedict Elementary, pointed to his campus’ “PAWS at Home” initiative as key to the distance-learning effort.

PAWS stands for “positive attitude,” “academic focus,” “wise choices” and “show respect.” Students were expected to display behaviors like using their manners, having supplies ready for class, using only approved websites for school and — key in today’s Zoom meeting digital age — making sure their cameras and microphones worked correctly. 

Brandt added that Truman Benedict’s teachers used various “virtual incentives” to support engagement, acknowledge excellence and create a positive student experience.

“We have an amazing staff who have really come together to build our Positive Behavior Intervention Support program,” Brandt said. “We are ‘all in’ and because of this have seen a remarkable impact within the first year of implementation, even online!”

Brandt said his school’s parents have appreciated the PAWS program and have shared pictures and videos of how they implement PBIS at home.

 “Our combined efforts reflect the value we place supporting the ‘whole child’ from academics to behavior to social-emotional health and well-being,” he said. “We have systems and structures in place to respond to needs as they arise, as well as supporting students in having and using their voice to seek the assistance they need.”

At Bernice Ayer Middle School, Principal Nick Stever said they created a professional learning community with their mission about “ensuring the academic, social and emotional growth of our students,” although this involved more than they originally thought.

Their efforts included providing students with computers, Wi-Fi access and emotional support, as well as hosting virtual parent information nights.

The monumental task took “grit, hard work and tons of collaboration,” Stever said.

“We were relentless in our goal of connecting with each student, ensuring they had what they needed to access learning and the training to navigate new technology,” Stever said. “When creating instruction, our teams were completely aligned, working collaboratively with one another to develop digital lessons, pre-recorded videos and rigorous activities.”

Stever added: “Not even a pandemic can shake the resolve of this team to meet the social, emotional and academic needs of our students. Everything has changed at (Bernice Ayer), except for our focus on students. Our students’ needs were the driving force for every decision we made and continue to make. We are humbled and honored to be recognized by PBIS as a high-performing school during distance learning.”

For a complete listing of schools the California PBIS Coalition awarded, visit

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