By Eduardo LaGuerre and Cindy Lopez | June 26, 2020

YONKERS, NY – The connection was impossible to miss.

In front of us, to the blaring of a Pomp and Circumstance dance remix, graduating 8th graders and their families paraded in their cars past the Charter School of Educational Excellence (CSEE) to receive their diplomas and awards, be cheered by their teachers, elected officials, community partners, school board members and administrators, and then drive off into the summer.

Off to our left, you could see and hear massive construction machinery digging the foundation for a new building that will house CSEE’s high school campus. State-of-the-art and privately funded, it will be the newest public-school building in our city once it’s completed next year.

We spent this past Tuesday on Warburton Avenue in New York’s fourth-largest city celebrating today and building for tomorrow. And for just a moment, taking a breath after the most unusual school year anyone can remember.

We had made it through the pandemic semester, and our kids had barely missed a beat. And our daily attendance averaged 95 percent. We administered assessments and issued grades as we do every year.

Any educator who says he or she saw the severity of COVID-19 coming is either making it up or should consider a career in sports betting. At CSEE, we were able to thrive during the shutdown not because we saw it coming, but because our academic program already integrated technology and our school’s culture and people are geared toward innovation and adaptability.

When it was clear the virus would cause major disruption in the regular school day, we created a “war room” in our building to anticipate and address problems and issues – in person at first and then virtually. Every single person in our school was working through the end of classes and this week’s drive-thru graduation ceremonies.

By late March, we’d made sure all our families had internet and had distributed almost 400 laptops to families who needed them. We made sure all students – including special education and English language learners – were able to continue their full programs even during the shutdown.

Since we’re a high-tech school and have been providing ongoing professional development in this area for a long time, teachers were familiar with and had been using on-line platforms as part of their daily routine. Students had been completing work online throughout their time here as part of their daily schedule. They’d been working online consistently so they were already fluent distance learners.

Teachers sent parents daily and weekly calendars to let them know what students should be working on and completing. In addition to this, parents and students were given ongoing support and virtual tips and strategies to help students succeed. Teachers used a detailed process to monitor work completed and submitted on-line, took daily attendance, and called students who weren’t completing or handing in work to address issues and provide help. Lesson plans were put on-line every morning, if not the night before.

Spanish, music, art and other so-called “special” classes also continued. Gym classes happened virtually through a program with the nation’s top orthopedics and sports medicine hospital – the Hospital for Special Surgery – with parents receiving physical education lesson plans for home use. After each class, students were quizzed about technique, muscle groups, and more. “It’s teaching them as they’re actually exercising,” Shauna Smalls, a single mom of two CSEE students, told us.

The school’s unique Phys Ed program was developed with the Hospital for Special Surgery’s Sports Safety Program – a relationship that started when hospital officials attended a coaching clinic held at CSEE three years ago by the New York Knicks. Since then, HSS has worked with CSEE coaches and teachers on injury prevention, proper stretching techniques and other state-of-the-art methods to keep students healthy.

But we also helped parents.  Our school’s leadership took it upon themselves to help families’ access public benefits for people who have lost their jobs or needed assistance during the COVID-19 crisis.

Among many, one CSEE dad lost his bus driving job as his wife went into labor. Our parent relations director found a sitter to stay with their other child at home while the dad could be with the mom. Then CSEE helped the family navigate the state Labor Department process to obtain unemployment benefits and obtain formula for the new baby.

This is why we started CSEE in 2005 – to find new and effective ways to help children learn and support families in our city. We are grateful to be authorized by the Board of Regents and to have their support in our work.

CSEE is one of the highest-performing charter public schools in New York State, outperforming the Westchester County and statewide averages in every academic category. Last year, 97% of CSEE 8th graders scored proficient on the ELA assessment and 100% of 8th grade students took the high school level math and science Regents. More than 92% passed the Algebra I Regents and 90% passed the Living Environment Regents, earning credits towards high school graduation.

In addition, the State Education Department earlier this year designated us as a Recognition School for the sixth straight year, acknowledging our work in closing the achievement gap. Only 13 percent of New York’s public schools merited Recognition Award status this year.

This is been like no other school year. We’re proud of the way our teachers, students and families met the pandemic challenges head on. We’ll take a day or two off and then start building on what we’ve learned for whatever September brings.

Eduardo LaGuerre is founder of the Charter School for Educational Excellence. Cindy Lopez is CSEE’s superintendent and an award-winning educator.