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How Schools Brought Community Together, Even While Apart

(NewsUSA) - Had you tried to devise a situation that would bring our public schools to the brink, you couldn't have done better than imagining what happened in the spring of 2020. It happened so fast. Suddenly schools had to figure out how to teach students from afar, without the aid of summer planning or extra training.

High schools navigated a doubly difficult challenge: balancing teaching teens in the moment while also ensuring they remained on track for the future amid rising anxiety, stress, and depression.

Experts warned that the pandemic would have a dire impact on generation COVID and early data suggests they may be right. Since the pandemic struck, more than a quarter-million fewer seniors completed financial aid forms that support affordable college enrollment. The greatest declines came from the students who likely need aid the most -- students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

Even against this bleak backdrop, some high schools managed to shine. The College Success Award identifies high schools that support student college enrollment and success in 25 states.

This year GreatSchools reached out to the most exceptional of these winning schools to learn about how they had navigated pandemic education. Not only did they meet the moment head on, but they devised solutions that worked so well they made them permanent even after schools returned in the fall. Here's what they discovered:

Meeting families where they are. With buildings closed, schools had to get creative about engaging families. El Paso's Valle Verde Early College High School, for example, took its monthly parent forums online and discovered what happens when you remove barriers to family engagement. At the first meeting, instead of 50 parents, over 300 showed up and crashed the system. "[W]e see people making dinner, doing laundry, but listening and asking questions. They're taking care of life responsibilities," says recently-retired Principal Paul Covey. With the simple click of a button, hundreds of multitasking parents were given the opportunity to participate in school activities without having to find childcare, leave work early, or take public transportation.

Meeting alumni where they are. Florida's Mater Performing Arts Academy had always invited alumni to visit the school to share their experiences, but once school was online, they discovered that they could access alumni all over the country. "We're doing a lot of presentations with our alumni who… are in Boston, or in… San Francisco," says college counseling lead Silvino Macho. By leveraging the power of video conferencing, the school engaged its alumni community to share their college and career lessons and mentor students.

Meeting teens where they are. As schools went virtual, teacher Scott Frank took it as a chance to speak teens' language.

He created online videos of core topics in his history classes at IDEA Frontier College Prep in Brownsville, TX. Frank's YouTube channel became an evergreen bank students could reference while studying or doing homework. His biology counterpart made short videos on TikTok and awarded bonus points to students that watched.

For these teachers, the language of social media became a friend request they gladly accepted.

To explore more best practices and see the complete list of 2021 College Success Award-winners, visit


Carol Lloyd is the vice president, editorial director at GreatSchools.

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