During a recent morning assembly video to his students, Achieve Charter School principal Steven Wright displayed a photo of a bouncy ball in motion.
“This represents us bouncing back when something happens in life,” Wright told his audience of fourth- through eighth-graders. “At some point, bad things are going to happen. But being resilient means you can face those hard times and then you do something about it to move on.”
Wright, who has been at Achieve Charter School since it opened in 2005 in the rural mountain town of Paradise, Calif., knew his resiliency message would resonate with his students given all they have endured over the last few years.
“Our whole school has had this focus on being really trauma-responsive, because we’ve had to be,” Wright said.
In November 2018, the Camp Fire—the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history—destroyed the homes of all of Achieve Charter’s students and 90 percent of its staff. Amid the unthinkable trauma, the school quickly relocated and set up temporary classrooms at Life Church in Chico, Calif., which is located 15 miles west of Paradise.
Using any available spot they could in the church, Achieve Charter continued its 2018-2019 school year with an emphasis on social-emotional learning as everyone processed the crushing reality of the fire. Achieve Charter then proudly opened a new building for K-8 students in Chico in time for the 2019-2020 year and put together a robust plan to maximize the learning.
“Our big initiative last school year was, ‘We are going to teach a year-and-a-half worth this year and close that gap we lost during the fire,’” Wright said. “Last February, we were feeling really good. I remember saying, ‘I think we are actually going to do this.’
“And then we shut down school in March.”
The nationwide closure of school buildings because of the COVID-19 pandemic caused understandable stress and confusion as schools transitioned to distance learning. But for Achieve Charter’s students and staff, they had their recent trauma-response work to reference as they adapted to more unexpected change.
Erika Etchison, one of the many Achieve Charter staff members to lose their homes in the Camp Fire, had a simple message for her students during their first week of remote school in March 2020.
“This is something that is hard, but you’ve gone through harder,” Etchison said. “So let’s figure out a plan, let’s take it day-by-day, and let’s get through this together.”
Etchison was 36 weeks pregnant and had a 2-year-old daughter at the time of the fire that forced her family to find temporary housing. In the face of these challenges, Etchison found comfort and inspiration from her students.
“It was actually unifying that we were all going through the same thing,” Etchison said. “Our entire community just lost our entire town, our school, and our sense of belonging. We just rallied around each other and there were days where we just cried. But it brought us closer together because we were all doing it together.
“Looking back now, we’ve come a long way and it’s almost made it easier to go through COVID because we’ve been here. We know that this is hard and it’s resetting a lot of trauma, but we know how to support each other through that trauma.”
Going through the aftermath of the fire and enduring COVID-19 in a close span reinforced Achieve Charter’s emphasis on the social-emotional wellbeing of their students. That led Achieve Charter to partner with Summit Learning and implement the program for grades 4-8 for the 2020-21 school year.
In particular, Wright and Etchison were excited about the mentoring program that would allow them to provide further one-on-one support for their students.
“The students needed that connection with us just as much as we needed that connection with them,” Etchison said.
This school year began with students learning remotely before transitioning to in-person instruction. But no matter the setting, each day began with a morning assembly video that featured Wright speaking about one of Summit Learning’s 16 Habits of Success—mindsets and behaviors that students can use to succeed in school and in life.
“Whatever habit we’re focusing on that week becomes the talking point that teachers integrate into their class and use them in mentoring,” Wright said. “So the teachers are learning about these resiliency strategies every week and the kids are getting wrapped up in them constantly.”
Wright will remain the principal at Achieve Charter Chico going forward and Etchison is now the principal at Achieve Charter Paradise, which is returning to Paradise in the fall to serve students K-5.
“This is only our first year with Summit and we’ve seen so much success already,” Etchison said. “I’m so excited and cannot wait to bring this to Paradise next year. These past few years have really shown me that it’s all about relationships. Building relationships is what helps people get through trauma.
“Our kids have missed out on so much learning and we can’t afford to let them miss out on any more. We are determined to make sure nobody falls through the cracks.”