On November 8, students will arrive at Achieve Charter School’s two campuses in Northern California to begin another week of engaged learning.
In Chico, they’ll be greeted by Principal Steven Wright, who will probably use his daily morning assembly as another opportunity to break out one of his beloved guitars and energize students with some music on a Monday.
In Paradise, they’ll be greeted by Principal Erika Etchison, who is enjoying the challenge of inspiring students each morning in her first year as a school leader after many years of doing so as a teacher and athletics coach.
“Our main goal is to show up every day and provide a school that builds relationships,” Etchison said, “and is looking to rebuild Paradise.”
Most likely, the November 8 school day will feel as normal as ever, and that’s exactly how Wright and Etchison want it to feel. But the day will also serve as a powerful reminder of how far the Achieve community has come since November 8, 2018, when the Camp Fire spread across the rural mountain town of Paradise and became the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.
On that day three years ago, Wright and Etchison were among the 90-percent of staff at Achieve Charter School who lost their homes in the fire. But what mattered most to these educators back then—and still does today—was being there for all of their students who also lost their homes in the traumatic event.
“We went through the hardest experience of our lives as a community,” Wright said, “and that was way better than going through it by yourself.”
Even before the fire, Achieve Charter School used mentoring to create authentic connections between students and teachers. Wright, who has been with the school since it opened in Paradise in 2005, said mentoring took on greater importance after the school relocated 15 miles west to temporary classrooms at Life Church in Chico following the fire.
Together, students and teachers coped with stress and displayed resilience to persevere through an unimaginable life event. Then, just when school and life started to settle into a rhythm, the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Once again, Achieve’s teachers used mentoring to help students feel like they were not alone and understand that they had a trusted adult going through similar experiences.
“Our students know the struggles we’re going through,” Wright said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘Let’s all share a current thing we’re going through.’ And sometimes it’s, ‘Hey, here’s one thing that’s related to what you’re going through that I’m going through as an adult.’
“We just try to tell them about life. We all go through it together.”
These days, there’s a lot of joy in the daily lives of students and teachers at Achieve Charter School’s two locations. Wright is ecstatic about his school’s new permanent Chico campus, which welcomes students K-8 and was approved in May to be a part of Chico Unified School District. Etchison has taken on the meaningful role of Principal at Achieve Charter School of Paradise, which opened in August to bring students (K-5) back to Paradise for the first time since the fire.
Etchison, who was 36 weeks pregnant and had a 2-year-old daughter at the time of the fire, doesn’t have much downtime to reflect on the past three years. But she knows Achieve wouldn’t have grown to two campuses in the aftermath of a fire and amid an ongoing pandemic without genuine bonds between educators and students.
“What allowed us to push through all that is relationships and showing up for each other,” Etchison said. “At Achieve, relationships and trust and community are the top priorities to us all the time. We obviously want the kids to learn and grow, but I don’t think that happens until you have trust and relationships in the community.”
After going through two real-world crises in consecutive school years, Achieve Charter looked for ways to enhance its mentoring and place even more emphasis on the social-emotional well-being of their students. That led Achieve Charter to partner with Summit Learning, which has a robust mentoring program that provides every student with weekly one-on-one check-ins with an adult mentor.
Etchison, who helped Achieve Charter in Chico successfully implement Summit Learning for grades 4-8 during the 2020-21 school year, was excited to bring the program to her fourth- and fifth-graders at Achieve in Paradise this year. Etchison said the regular mentoring schedule has helped the school—featuring several new staff and students—quickly create a similar relationship-based learning environment to their Achieve counterparts in Chico.
“Mentoring is so much of what Achieve is about,” Etchison said. “That mentoring piece and building that culture was the top priority for us. We know the academics will come, but I need these kids to know that we are here for them.”
After all the Achieve community has been through, Etchison and Wright don’t plan on ever taking their relationships with students for granted. Both school leaders strongly believe that honest communication through mentoring will help their students overcome whatever challenges come their way.
“What all this has taught us is how to respond when big things happen,” Etchison said. “I feel like we’re able to stay calm and respond in a more efficient way.”