When the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in the foundation of public education in Santa Fe, Principal Amanda Chavez and the staff at César Chávez Elementary School had to shift with it.

Chavez said the south-side school’s focus turned from the classroom to the homes of students and families directly affected by the pandemic. It was about making sure families had necessary supplies at home and ways to manage financial crises from job losses, such as aid funds to pay for rent and utilities.

It also was about having a counselor available to students during lunchtime so they could talk about things that were affecting them, even if the session was conducted virtually.

And it meant working with community partners, such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe/Del Norte, to provide child care for the children of parents working two or three jobs to make ends meet.

Chavez said the school’s goal of becoming a conduit to help families find resources and services that would allow them to endure difficult times was as important as ensuring students succeeded in the classroom.

What she described was an example of the community school model, in which schools provide access to wrap-around services — such as health care, clothing, food aid and social workers — for students and families. A local organization dedicated to educational needs in the community is hoping to support such a model in Santa Fe schools amid a pandemic that has both complicated such efforts and exacerbated the need for them.

Chavez participated in a Wednesday night meeting with members of the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education, emphasizing the school’s efforts to address families’ increasing needs.

The coalition aims to support public education in the city by finding ways to boost academic achievement and community engagement.

Chavez told the group, “We’re paying less attention to those educational opportunities because the stability needed in the household to get through the pandemic falls more on basic needs.”

George Otero, a global education expert who is a part of the coalition, said it is important that community schools function as a catalyst, as opposed to a service agency, and said he believed the staff at César Chávez was doing its part. For the community school model to function effectively, he added, the relationship between schools and parents must be reciprocal.

“We’re only as good as the parents and the families who are working with us,” Otero said.

Chavez praised her students’ parents, who she said stay in constant contact with her, her staff and teachers — whether it’s for emotional support, talking about their child’s progress or to find services they can use.

She also credited the school’s community director, Hilda Perez-Vargas, with playing an essential role in keeping those lines of communication open.

Perez-Vargas said assessments the school did with families showed there were greater demands at home that had to be met before addressing the educational needs of students.

That meant reaching out to community partners to help parents access services.

“A lot of our families are months behind in rent because they are losing their jobs because of the pandemic,” Perez-Vargas said. “It’s not necessarily that they are being fired. It’s that their hours are being cut.

“So, somebody who used to work 40 hours that’s affected by COVID is kinda slowly written off their schedule to the point where they’re not working anymore,” she said. “They’re not fired, but they’re not working.”

Dave Greenberg, the National Education Association’s statewide coordinator of community schools, who also spoke at the meeting, touted the wraparound services of community school models.

“So much policy is focused on teaching and [in-school] support,” Greenberg said. “We spend so much time on that when 80 percent of kids’ lives are spent outside of that.”

Chavez said César Chávez began doing research on trauma-informed teaching practices to help mitigate some of the emotional issues students were experiencing.

“César Chávez is considered a low-performing school, and it hit us as a team that there has to be a correlation between trauma our students are going through and test scores,” she said.

Students were making significant academic progress in some areas prior to the outbreak, she said. The school’s assessment programs revealed the number of students scoring in the lowest levels in math fell by 17 percent compared to 2018-19, while those who scored in the highest levels grew by 27 percent.

And then the pandemic hit and schools were forced to close their campuses and teach students remotely.

César Chávez has seen a 10 percent increase in the number of students from third to fifth grade who had at least one failing grade this school year, compared to 2019-20, rising to 50 percent from 40 percent.

Still, Chavez said the school is upholding its mission to support its students.

“To us at César Chávez, a community school means a culture of love,” Chavez said. “We’ve established this culture where our students are told they are loved, our parents are our family and we go above and beyond to support them anyway we can.

“It’s all about wellness efforts — how can we positively impact our communities in their homes so that it has a positive effect on students at school,” she added.

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