Distance learning at Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary

By Kalvin Valdillez, Tulalip News

The Marysville School District (MSD) recently announced their plans to begin the school year online. With the coronavirus pandemic still looming overhead, many businesses, institutions and organizations are finding themselves at a crossroads, having to decide whether or not to return to ‘business-as-usual’ and the way of life we grew accustomed to pre-COVID-19, or hang tight for a few more months to see if the nation’s current state improves. 

On the education side of the coin, a strong debate could be made on behalf of the students who thrive in group settings and benefit from in-person interactions between both their teachers and peers. Another point could be made for Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary (QCT) students specifically who also learn about Tulalip culture, in addition to their basic educational foundation, as many songs, stories and teachings are interweaved into the lesson plans and activities at the elementary school. 

“With the news that the Marysville School District is going to be doing a remote learning start, we want to prioritize student safety, community safety, staff safety, family safety above all else,” said QCT Principal, Sarah-Marie Boerner. “We recognize it’s a difficult decision and that it is going to create challenges for everyone. What we’re looking at, at this point, is identifying what are our priorities and what are the things we can learn from our spring experience and do better; refine, polish, adjust, change, so that we are better meeting the needs of our student population and our families. That isn’t to say we don’t have an incredibly dedicated staff that put in their all last spring, but a huge part of being an educator and being a part of a learning institution is recognizing that we also have to learn and grow.”

The virus outbreak occurred before the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year began. When Washington State Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order and people went into lockdown mode, MSD handed out over 1,000 Chromebooks to their student body in order to finish out their school year amidst a world-wide pandemic. The students held on to their Chromebooks during the summer months, and with school starting in a few short weeks, they are already prepared for what the district is dubbing ‘Continuous Learning 2.0’.

Continuous Learning 2.0, Principal Boerner mentioned, will be a more detailed approach to distance learning, or the online learning experience that occurred at the end of last school year, with a strong emphasis on garnering more engagement from the students and their family. 

“These times right now are very difficult for our families,” said QCT Assistant Principal Yolanda Gallegos-Winnier. “Businesses are closing; people are getting laid-off from work – people are figuring out what’s next for their family. Unintentionally school can be put to the wayside, so how do we think outside of the box and develop opportunities for learning?”

She continued, “A lot of our kids come from traditional fishing families. My husband is enrolled Yakama and we fish on the Columbia. As a teacher, my mind started thinking about how can we model this for staff; how do we learn more about Indigenous ways and teachings. I started taking photos of my daughter fishing, I was inspired by Natosha Gobin’s videos. I’m going to narrate as my daughter pulls fish up and uses the net, and while she is cleaning and cutting we’ll talk about math and how many fish she caught for the day. If we can get to a point where we can disseminate that information to the Tribal parents, maybe we can do something together similar to the online powwows where we incorporate those teachings into our lesson plans and involve the community. Perhaps we have a kid who is crabbing narrate the process– that is essentially writing an essay about what it means to crab for his people and bring food to the table. Kids out here are so smart, they know about the seasons and the specific crabs, they know about fish; blueback from a sturgeon to a steelhead. We have to connect those things quickly so we can have more engagement.” 

A lot of conversation, debate and intention went into planning for the upcoming school year, both at the individual school level and at the district level. Several sub-committees were created, as well as task forces who sent out numerous surveys via e-mail and phone calls, trying to get a better idea of how to best serve their students and community during such trying times. Continuous Learning 2.0 is actually just the first phase in a three-step plan that will ultimately help kids transition back into the classroom by the end of the 2020-2021 academic year. The first phase is strictly online, while phase two is a hybrid model that will require participation both in the classroom and online. In phase three, lessons will be ‘100% in-person instruction’.

Bearing all of that in mind, there are many checkpoints that must be made along the way back to the classroom to ensure both staff and student guardians are on the same page. Which brings us to the five key areas that QCT plans on prioritizing during the first quarter of the year and will likely extend into the long-term planning for the elementary.  

“Priority one is thinking about our model for distance learning,” Principal Sarah-Marie explained. “We’re thinking about how we can have clear consistent guidelines to make the schedule easily accessible and easier for families to navigate. We’re also thinking about the essential standards that we need to identify for student learning, so our kids are still getting those core foundational pieces that are going to serve them well all the way through, in both this distance model, the hybrid model and going back to a traditional schoolhouse at some point.

“Priority three is about the engagement of students and families. One of our biggest areas of growth and possibility is better engaging our students on the online format. Because honestly, many of us haven’t done this before. We have professional learning resources we’re engaging in with our staff.

“We’re also thinking about equitable access and our kids who are furthest from educational justice. Not only identifying who those students might be, but also thinking about tailoring some additional support for those families. And the final priority is recognizing we need to step up our communication. We aren’t going to have as many opportunities through person-to-person contact, so recognizing that we need to be planning how we’re going to communicate consistently, regularly and provide two-way communication with families.”

 Aiming to keep the lifeways of the Tulalip people a central focal point of their teachings, QCT plans on sticking with some of the traditions put in place many years ago to continue highlighting the Tribe’s culture such as Lushootseed lessons, and continuing to start each day with a traditional Tulalip song, famously known by the students as ‘the morning song’. The school is also making an extra effort to ensure that at least one Indigenous staff member sits on the various committees, guaranteeing that the Native voice is heard, valued and considered during decision-making processes.  

“We’re moving forward with a thoughtful three to five-year plan,” said Assistant Principal Gallegos-Winnier. “Our vision and dream for the school is following the Tribe’s voice and the Tulalip people’s expectations for their children. Lushootseed is absolutely a part of that. We as Indigenous people have always had traditional ways of knowing, learning and teaching. School walls don’t define education for our people or our children. Our schooling and education have always been developed in our families, in our community and with the knowledge and teachings of our elders and ancestors.”

“Although school is online, we will continue to fish, hunt, sing, and support each other within our families and overall community as a people,” she continued. “There is writing in our hunting experiences. There are speech and math opportunities in our knowledge and skill set of our young fishermen and women who have been fishing and crabbing with their families.”

QCT is reaching out to you, the Tulalip parents, family, students and community, for any feedback on how to better engage the students at the start of the school year to ensure they are receiving the knowledge of the Tulalip people and implementing it when necessary into their daily teachings. 

“I miss the kids; the staff misses the kids,” Yolanda expressed. “There’s a lot of grief in not being able to have those one-on-one class relationships. Just walking through the hallways, it’s so quiet and empty, wondering when will we be safe to open up and have the kids back. Right now, my hope is that as a community we can come together and figure out how to be able to make a successful online educational program for our students here at Quil Ceda Tulalip. In closing, the question is, how do we tie all of that into online learning and make the connection between school and home for your student. We need your help in this process, we can’t do this without you. Please call or email us for ideas, suggestions and feedback.”   

For more information, please contact Quil Ceda Tulalip Elementary at (360) 965-3100.