With Compassion and Resilience: Students, Teachers, and Team Embrace a School Year Together

by Erin Allen

On Monday, August 16th, Making Waves Academy (MWA) welcomed more than 1,000 students back to campus and 100% in-person learning. Faculty, staff, and school leaders started the day and the week with a mix of trepidation and excitement.  After 1.5 years of distance learning, it felt both foreign and familiar.  “Our 5th graders returned as 7th graders, our 7th graders returned as 9th graders (taking their classes in the upper school for the first time!) and our 10th graders returned as seniors.  This example is a reminder to us of what was lost in our time away from campus, along with how much we need to be patient and observant of the student experience and what they might need from us to adjust to being back,” says Alton B. Nelson, CEO.

Hundreds of students began their first middle or upper school experience on campus, not just the entering 5th graders and matriculating 9th graders of a typical year; students in 6th grade had never been on campus for instruction and 10th graders had never roamed the upper school hallways. More than 600 students experienced a new on-site learning environment for the first time! “The reality is, the first couple days of school involved lots of time dedicated to simply learning how to ‘be’ around each other, and how to navigate our space,” Senior School Director Dr. Evangelia Ward-Jackson shares. “The first couple of days were virtually silent … but now things are buzzing!” As MWA heads into the new school year, the prioritization on safety and a focus on the growth mindset will continue, with two very important drivers: compassion, the ability to want to understand the feelings and distress of others and a desire to help; and resilience, the capacity to recover quickly from difficulty. Both will be paramount to a successful school year.

“Safety, academic learning, and social-emotional well-being are the top priorities for MWA during this time,” says Nelson.  As often cited by parents and guardians over the years, MWA is a safe place for their children to learn and develop. With COVID-19, the idea of safety has taken on a whole new meaning. Leading up to the first day of class, teachers, whether on-site or remote, spent two weeks of professional development actively engaging in training on MWA’s systems and safety protocols. Despite COVID-19 and a statewide teacher shortage, teachers are showing up and doing their best, staff and leadership are offering help and support as much as they can, and together they are working to ensure all remain healthy and safe. “We are continuously changing parts on the metaphorical bus as it’s in motion; this is the nature of this year where nothing is certain and yet everything requires order,” says COO Elizabeth Martinez.

Students walking Upper School courtyard

Rigorous instruction is another pillar of MWA’s approach. Micah Stilwell, Senior Director of Academic Instruction, leads a team of new hires that plans to continuously test and learn to heighten instructional impact. “How best can we improve the dexterity within our approach to teaching and learning to maximize the coherence of instruction for Wave-Makers during this dynamic year in education?” asked Ms. Stilwell at a recent MWA board meeting.

“Keeping in mind that our Wave-Makers are active owners in their learning experiences, and that we are here to cultivate and support the development of skills and competencies that will enable our students to thrive, even in an uncertain future, it is imperative that we work to stay healthy, to stay safe, and to secure mission-aligned talent, so that we can keep our campus doors opened and our classrooms filled with learning,” Ward-Jackson shares.

Led by Emayln Lopez, Intervention Services is at the heart of plans to address the academic impacts of remote instruction.  “We will … identify instructional priorities for specific content areas and allow for targeted and timely support to address unfinished learning and learning loss during intervention programming,” she says. She and her team are well aware of the myriad feelings students and families are experiencing as result of the pandemic’s impacts and all that it will take to help Wave-Makers grow and thrive.

As always, and even more so this year, social-emotional well-being is also critical. According to Senior Dean of Students Eric Mingo, “Students, teachers, and staff are returning to a ‘new normal.’ After almost two years of having zero footprint on campus, Wave-Makers returned amid an ongoing pandemic that continues to bring fear and anxiety around many unknowns. During the first few days of class, students were trying to navigate  familiar spaces within a new context and new rules of engagement.” Anticipating the many social-emotional needs that a return to campus would precipitate, the Dean of Students department conducted professional development for teachers and staff that centered around classroom management, conflict resolution,  and restorative practices. For this department, maximizing teacher preparation for the teacher-to-student interaction is more important than ever.

He Let Me Fail So That I Could Grow and Be Stronger

With a surprise video, the MWA Board honored CEO Alton B. Nelson Jr.’s 10 years of service to the Academy at its meeting on September 9th. “Alton is a visionary leader who always thinks first of what’s best for students,” says Alicia Malet Klein, Board President. “He is anchored in a growth mindset, not just for the youth we serve but for himself and all the adults in the organization as well. His calm, empathetic, and persevering leadership during the pandemic and the racial reckonings of the past year strengthened our community and steadied us all in a difficult time. We are so very fortunate to have him and are excited about where he will lead us in the future.”

Alton Nelson with student

Students in the 24th and 25th Waves began the video with expressions of what it means to be a Wave-Maker … and musings on what a CEO does all day! MWA alums Marco Hernandez and Alexis Argueta, now college graduates and community leaders, shared their sentiments on Mr. Nelson’s impact by speaking directly to him in their clips. “I was very fortunate, you were a leader that had a similar background, similar experiences to me. First as principal and then as CEO, you really understood us, you were someone who could resonate with our stories and you were super helpful,” said Marco. Alexis added, “You were a phenomenal principal, then CEO. You encompass and embody all of the core values of Making Waves.”

Former MWA leader Eleanor Boli explained the tremendous impact Mr. Nelson’s mentorship had on her life. “You imparted a growth mindset, and [the idea that] that intelligence is not fixed, that if you are willing to put in work and repetition you can acquire whatever skills that you need,” she said. “I watched you make hard decisions to take care of a community. I have learned what it means to be a leader and hold on to your integrity and values…. You encouraged me to stop, step back, and look at the larger picture. Very rarely would you tell me what to do. Instead, you would ask me questions to help me, to lead me toward a conclusion, and you let me fail so that I could grow and be stronger. Here’s to another decade of you being an incredible leader and visionary. As you often say, ‘keep on keeping on.’”