Many local school districts make the claim that they operate as one big family, and that may be true. In Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS), the words “you belong” resonate throughout every action to wrap around not just students, but families, teachers, staff, and the whole community. And never before has this been more apparent than right now.
“The overall message for every student and family is that they belong here. And that sense of belonging is a message that we all share. It’s written in our mission that we are a community that honors diversity, equity and justice, and there are so many ways we embrace this every single day,” says Alena Zachery-Ross, superintendent of schools at YCS.
“Here, the focus is clear that with our students and staff alike, we see you, we hear you, we get you, you are valued and we respect you. These are five core principles that guide how we treat each other, and this includes everyone,” says Dr. Carlos Lopez, assistant superintendent for instruction. “It’s the foundation of every relationship in YCS. The relationships we have recognize the value of trust, the sense of belonging and voice. We truly are a family away from home. We’re a hub in the community that is able to meet the most basic needs.”
In tandem with social-emotional strength, YCS supports academic rigor and expectations for high student performance — but never without the critical support to make these successes possible, Lopez says. “Where our standards are high, so is our level of connection and support,” he says.
In short, YCS is a great place to be, particularly for PreK-5 families who are just beginning their educational journey, or who are looking to make a change. That spirit of belonging echoes again and again throughout many district initiatives. Here, we outline just a few.
Family choice, family voice
Belonging lends itself to collaboration, says Zachery-Ross. In the COVID pandemic’s early months, a task force of diverse YCS members came together and developed educational delivery choices for families and staff for the 2020-21 school year. Everyone could choose, based on their own needs, from three options.
“The first group is those who want to and need to be in person, beginning from day one of this school year. The second is a group that elected to start remotely, knowing that one day they would come back to school in person. The third group said upfront they wanted to be online all school year,” explains Zachery-Ross. “We wanted people — families and staff — to make that commitment and we honored their voice. All elementary school classrooms are an average size of 16 students this year because of that intentionality.”
With a segment of the school population not attending school in person, students wouldn’t be receiving breakfasts and lunches as they normally would. So, YCS embarked on an ambitious and successful plan to distribute food in innovative ways. “We have grab-and-go meals in five sites across the community and each Friday, school buses head right into the neighborhoods to deliver food. Families can head to their corner delivery location and pick up their child’s meals,” Zachery-Ross says. “We are ensuring that people know they belong by literally going to where they are and meeting them there.”
Innovative learning labs
For families who elected the remote learning option, YCS — in partnership with the Collaboration for Change — has opened one learning lab for K-5 students at Parkridge Community Center. Here, registered students in small cohorts gather to work on their laptops to participate virtually in live sessions conducted by their teachers. The center is staffed with helpers to provide support, answer questions and help with technology. As a one-to-one district, YCS has provided every student with a laptop and internet access.
Students will attend the learning labs during regular school hours, have breakfast and lunch with their fellow participants and can engage in afterschool opportunities for enriching art and science projects. “The chance to work on these kinds of projects is something students would normally miss out on if they are working remotely,” Zachery-Ross says.
Four additional learning labs are scheduled to open and are located in or near where they reside. An innovative mentoring model includes middle school and high school students to help guide younger students to reinforce the concepts taught by their teachers.
Proactive support for all families
YCS immediately recognized the stress that parents felt when suddenly tasked with managing their child’s daily education, all while juggling the demands of work, family and home, so the district hosted town hall meetings to support parents and help ease their challenges.
“We didn’t wait. We knew people were going through this,” Zachery-Ross says. “At the same time, we have developed a level of trust with our families, and when we share information with the community, it comes with the trust that we support them.”
Through these town halls, experts from Washtenaw County Health Department shared information about COVID-19 and social worker Leah Mills-Chapman shared coping skills and tangible strategies for working with children while they learned from home. Families enhanced self-care with yoga, breathing exercises and mindfulness.
“This has been well-received and parents are learning how they can work through this with their own children,” Lopez says. “Parents felt a bit overwhelmed in our virtual platform and as a result our staff worked hard to support our families and strengthen the home/school relationship. This is something we are not willing to give up, even when we return to in-person instruction.”
Michigan State University Extension shared a cooking class with parents to best support their quick food prep and meal stretching efforts, and members of the YCS IT department shared helpful basics and troubleshooting techniques for the technologies kids are using to learn.
EMU also partnered to expand internet access for every family, and mobile hotspots for students who move from place to place throughout the week. “We are addressing different needs for different families,” Lopez says.
“Technology sounds great, but if parents and students can’t access it, the best technology in the world is irrelevant,” Zachery-Ross says. “Access is a sense of belonging and that can mean access to the internet, access to food, access to teachers, principals and superintendents. We think about gaps. Gaps in education, in income, in feeling isolated. We’re removing that disconnection that comes with lack of access.”
And, to meet families’ most basic needs, YCS established a resiliency center as a one-stop shop for anything from personal hygiene products to clothing to information and support. Established late in 2020 through an initiative championed by Marquan Jackson, YCS homeless liaison, the resiliency center is accessibly located on the campus of the former Willow Run High School in Ypsilanti Township.
You belong at Ypsilanti Community Schools
In big and little ways, YCS supports families because it is invested in success and wellbeing for the whole community. And, following a growth mindset, YCS recognized the opportunities created by the COVID pandemic to innovate and pivot to be attentive to the needs of the community. In the midst of this, YCS is still able to uphold the academic rigor that families expect from a quality school district.
“We are present in every way because we recognize how important belonging is, and throughout, the rigor is there,” Lopez says. “Even when students are working remotely, they are being taught and moving forward. We have not watered down. But always, with high rigor comes high support.”
Learn more about how your family can belong at Ypsilanti Community Schools. Visit www.ycschools.us.