Does COVID-19 Mark the End of Small Business?

Three Twins Ice Cream Bittersweet Chocolate

By Ilah Ross

On April 16, 2020, Neal Gottlieb, founder of Three Twins Ice Cream, one of America’s leading grocery store brands in organic ice cream, announced that his business of 15 years would be ceasing operations as of April 17. Many were distraught to hear this news, as Three Twin’s iconic flavors of Lemon Cookie, Dad’s Cardamom, Land of Milk and Honey, and more, were staple ice creams in countless Bay Area homes. The reason for this abrupt closure was not unique to Three Twins; many other small businesses are also closing up shop due to the immense economic strain brought about by COVID-19.

When citizens of the United States were sheltered in place during the months of March and April, many were worried about the most pressing insecurity that COVID-19 introduced: the health and safety of their family members and themselves. However, a significant subset of Americans had other worries on their minds in addition to this basic concern. For the 49.2 percent of Americans who are owners and/or employees of a small business, COVID-19 was not only a matter of health, but also of livelihood, as the pandemic had a direct impact on the way in which these vital businesses function. Beyond the primary issue of many businesses completely closing down during March, April, and May, small businesses had to reevaluate how many people they could keep employed, and whether they could afford to stay open at all.

According to the latest research by Yelp, 72,842 businesses in the United States have been forced to close permanently due to the impact of COVID-19 on businesses. The food industry has been one of the most harshly affected by COVID-19. An estimated 15,770 restaurants have permanently closed in the US alone. One out of every 10 restaurants which temporarily closed in March, April, and May has since closed permanently. These intimidating numbers are concerning for small business owners, as they serve as a reminder of the looming threat bigger businesses pose in encroaching on their market share. For Gottlieb, this threat came in the form of companies like Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs. 

“The biggest challenge of the grocery side of the business even before COVID was competing with the likes of Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs, which are cheaper grocery market brands. It’s just really challenging to offer a clean and organic product, and to get consumers to pay significantly more for it,” Gottlieb said. 

The concern of national chains eliminating small business may have been highlighted by the pandemic, but Gottlieb’s account suggests that it existed long before COVID-19. Most consumers opt for the more convenient and cheap option when it comes to food and other products. Supporting small businesses is becoming less of a priority for the American public.

Unfortunately, Three Twins’ business model was inherently harder to sustain due to their commitment to producing reasonably priced organic ice cream through environmentally friendly means of manufacturing. In the current consumer economy, it has become increasingly difficult to survive as a business while staying true to these values.

“I wanted to create a business that was organic and environmentally friendly, but appealed to the masses for reasons far beyond just being a green business. So I wanted to put that out into the world at an affordable price, which was something that had a lot of initial success, but that also proved to be very challenging as far as getting to a place where the business was sustained and profitable,” Gottlieb explained.

Then came the pandemic, an obstacle which introduced a new level of financial instability that Three Twins was unable to keep up with.

“The more established companies just have deeper pockets, and they have established profitability. So they are able to weather the storm when there’s a downturn, whereas we just didn’t have that. We were already running on fumes before the pandemic,” Gottlieb said. 

The story of Three Twins Ice Cream is one of hope and resilience, but ultimately loss. The 72,842 businesses that have permanently closed in the recent months suggest that there are many other stories like Gottlieb’s. COVID-19 has served as a harsh awakening for small business owners who started companies from the ground up with hopes of providing consumers with unique products. Many of these businesses were ultimately unable to withstand the combined forces of an economic recession fueled by a raging pandemic and the competition created by bigger companies who have established profitability.

In a time where the average American’s trips to the grocery store are increasingly centered around finding the least expensive products in the shortest amount of time, many wonder if small businesses and brands still have a future in our world and consumer economy.

This article originally appeared in The Athenian Pillar on January 10, 2021.

Athenian’s Film Students Gain Recognition at Major Film Festivals

Athenian’s film students have been taking the festival circuit by storm. Led by film teacher Peter Tamaribuchi, students have created short films and submitted them to multiple festivals, with results that have brought them recognition locally, online, and across the country, both pre- and post-pandemic. 

Athenian’s film program emphasizes storytelling excellence and social change, and currently, most students are working on documentaries that will make a positive impact on their communities.

“It’s been amazing to see so many students do so well in so many film festivals. I think one of the things we have learned from this experience is that student filmmakers do extremely well when they have a story they are passionate about and are given the freedom and support to make that story into a compelling film,” Peter said.  

In film classes, students begin by developing their ideas, followed by pre-production and planning their film shoot. Students then shoot their films and edit them into a final product. While film students previously worked in teams with shared video cameras, they are currently working on their own solo smartphone films. 

As students follow their passions and interests, their high-quality storytelling has audiences taking note. 

Jeremy L. ‘21

In his film “instant,” Jeremy L. ‘21 portrays a man close to the point of death, chronicling his last few moments. 

“Shortly before I made the film I went through a personal loss so that kind of influenced some aspects of the film, and I think in some ways I kind of made it to cope with it,” Jeremy said.  

“As someone who uses creativity a lot to process emotions, I think the main thing that I wanted to take away from that was just turning something that was personal and turning that into something that not necessarily something that was enjoyable, but something that can be seen by others.” Jeremy said. “I wanted to turn something sad into something beautiful.” 

“instant.” by Jeremy L. ’21 (Best Young Producer : Animation at the Berkeley Video and Film Festival).

Jeremy created the second film, “Adrenaline,” for the Athenian Film Festival. A more fast-paced combination of animation with live action, it shows a teenager doing math homework while pulling an all-nighter fueled by coffee. 

“That’s a common experience most students have, so I thought it would be relatable,” he said. 

“Adrenaline” won Semi-Finalist at Top Shorts, which is known as the world’s leading online film festival.  

Adrenaline” by Jeremy L. ’21 (Semi-finalist at Top Shorts Film Festival).

Jeremy has been admitted into the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and will enroll in the fall. 

“I think I’m just going to see where it takes me, I don’t really have any set goals but I think to some degree that’s a good thing, like to go in with as little expectations so I can kind of just be shaped by it,” he said.

When asked for his advice for other film students, Jeremy reflected on his own creative process. 

“I think the main thing I would say is that anything can be a good idea. I kind of struggled with this when I was starting with filmmaking. I would come up with an idea and then immediately shrug it off as a bad idea,” he said, adding that he came up with the idea for Adrenaline while drinking coffee and doing math homework. “I feel like some of the most successful films I’ve made were the ones that just came out of the smallest observations.” 

Matthew Y. ‘20

Athenian alumnus Matthew Y. ’20 caught the film bug in elementary and middle school, when he shot movies on his iPad with his brother and friends. His genre of choice is live action comedy, and he is very intrigued by the combination of action and comedy.  

In Matthew’s short film, “Love and Time,” a guy asks a girl out over and over, in what he eventually discovers is a time loop. Once he understands the repetition, he evolves his approach each time, ending by meditating with the young woman he is pursuing. 

“I was interested in the concept of reliving your day, and I wanted to explore that concept more.” 

Matthew completed shooting the film in November 2018, and edited in the spring of 2019. The film gained recognition in multiple festivals: it was a semifinalist in the Top Shorts Film Festival, won the Best Shorts Film Award for the teen bracket, and won third place (and $500!) in the high school division of the Grand Foundation Student Film Festival.  

His advice to upcoming students is to be persistent and to practice.

“If you want to be a good filmmaker, you have to experience filmmaking multiple times,” he said.

Now in his first year at the University of Rochester, Matthew is interested in producing mini-documentaries in college and hopes to become part of a film club.

Olivia A. ‘22, Frances F. ‘22, and Caitlin S. ‘22

Years after attending the Aurora Elementary School in Oakland together, Olivia A. ‘22, Frances F. ‘22, and Caitlin S. ‘22 found themselves once again together at Athenian freshman year in a March Term film class, Filmmaking for Change. During March Term, Upper School students take three-week mini classes of their choosing, diving deeply into a subject they would not otherwise get to experience in their high school career. 

When Olivia, Frances and Caitlin gathered to discuss ideas for a film, one of the issues that came up in discussion was increasing gun violence in schools. With the knowledge that young students were participating in active shooter drills, they decided to return to the Aurora School to explore how the increasing prevalence and knowledge of gun violence in schools was affecting younger children. They filmed K-5 students during a lockdown drill and interviewed some fourth and fifth graders about their experiences with lockdowns, seeking to understand how the awareness of the possibility of a shooting had impacted their time in elementary school. Editing the material together as a team, they included clips from survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting in 2018. 

“We wanted to further explore how the media coverage of school shootings impacts young kids,” Frances said. “It impacts us, but we didn’t necessarily remember a lot of having the knowledge of what was happening in the world when we were in elementary school.” 

The trio made the film, titled “Avoidable Trauma,” during the three-week March term period. They split the work evenly and each did some of each task, gaining experience with filming, and editing with Adobe Premiere. 

While there were some frustrations related to editing on unfamiliar software, the group enjoyed working together, and at the end of the class, they were encouraged to apply to several film festivals. ”We applied to a handful of them that were just free,” she said, adding, “We actually forgot about it for a while.”

Little did the first-time filmmakers know that their hard work would gain them national recognition—“Avoidable Trauma” was accepted into the All-American HIgh School Film Festival, the largest high school film festival in the world. Over a weekend in October, they traveled with Olivia’s mother to New York City for the event. 

“When students do well in film festivals, it’s so rewarding for them as artists to see their work celebrated and gives them the confidence to believe in their work and their artistry,” Peter said.  

A Uniquely Amazing Semester of Athletics

By Josie Chapman

Despite everything that has unfolded since the start of school, given the realities of COVID-19, our athletes and coaches came to the fields, makeshift courts, and campus surroundings (with masks on) and made us all so proud. None of this would have been possible without our incredible coaching staff, bus drivers, and maintenance team. Day in and day out, they worked tirelessly to keep the Owl athletes safe, connected, and inspired to play during this unprecedented time.

Since this first semester was entirely clinic-based with no opposing teams or spectators, the Athenian Athletics Department wanted to share a few highlights:

The fall semester was broken into three sessions to represent the traditional three-season model we follow each year: fall, winter, and spring. Each session represented the appropriate sports, and athletes participated in four weeks of clinics as a team. We had over one hundred Owls on campus each clinic day, playing on the field, running the campus, on our makeshift parking lot tennis courts or basketball courts, and for a brief moment in the gyms. 

Owls showed up with their positive spirits day after day, in the rain, during a heat wave, and after days off because of poor air quality. This positive spirit is what our Owls have been all about this fall semester of 2020 – simply an amazing display of resilience and community.

Josie Chapman is the Athenian School’s Associate Athletic Director.

The Carter Innovation Studio

Abuzz with invention in a typical year, the Carter Innovation Studio (CIS) is a focal point for hands-on work at Athenian. In its bright, airy spaces, students can be found focusing on their creations as they drill, saw, draw, create 3D models, or bring robots into motion for major competitions. 

Home to the school’s engineering, architecture and making classes, the studio also hosts Athenian’s robotics and entrepreneurship programs. While it’s quieter now, plans that have been on hold due to COVID-19 are regaining momentum – a tiny homes project with the architecture program is in the works, and a hydroponic garden project is brewing. 

CIS Director Vivian Liao is in charge of long-term planning for the studio.

CIS Director Vivian Liao is in charge of long-term planning for the lab, and is excited to have students back in person.

“It’s a nice energy to have students back. I like seeing them focus on their projects,” Vivian says.

At the beginning of of this 2002-21 school year, Alicia and Vivian spent time putting together kits for students in CIS classes so that they could work on projects at home. Now, with the school on an alternating-week in-person schedule, they are making improvements in the lab in preparation for its return to full activity. They are conducting maintenance on the machines and tools and have ordered a new professional-grade Ultimaker 3D printer. 

With architecture and engineering back in person, small groups of students may soon be allowed to use the machines. One of the challenges now is to figure out the flow of people through the shop and the safe shared use of tools. 

“We are just in the process of figuring out how we can let students do hands-on work while maintaining the hygiene and safety standards that COVID requires,” Vivian says.

As shop manager, Alicia Wang maintains machines and trains faculty to use the CIS.

Trained as a furniture designer at the Rhode Island School of Design, CIS Shop Manager Alicia Wang makes sure everything is running smoothly in the CIS, maintaining the machines and the facility. In preparation for students coming back to campus, Alicia has been organizing and labeling materials, and has cleaned up the hydroponic towers outside so that students will soon be able to plant vegetables hydroponically. 

Alicia is interested in making of all kinds, and was drawn to Athenian’s experiential model. 

“I feel like hands-on learning, this approach, is not the norm, and that’s also an experience that I’ve received in my own education in furniture design, so I want to see what it’s like to build a community that centers this type of education.”

While students are still learning online, using Arduino or online rendering software, Alicia notices how happy they are to be back in the shop. 

“They pick up like nothing happened,” Alicia says. “They’d sit down and just start chatting and working on their stuff, and that’s nice to just hear in the background while I’m doing other things in the shop.”

Architecture: A Hallmark of Experiential Learning at Athenian

Just past the small airplane under construction on the left as you enter Athenian’s Carter Innovation Studio (CIS), it’s nearly impossible to miss the rows of intricate architectural models that line the shelves on the far side of the room. From urban analyses to project proposals and the creation of these imaginative models, Athenian’s architecture program is a hallmark of the school’s noted emphasis on experiential learning, with innovation at its core.  

“There is always this idea of invention in the end,” says architecture teacher Monica Tiulescu. “The way the class is evaluated is based on understanding that the students are developing a process and a method, and innovation is the goal,” she says. 

The Oakland-based artist, who currently has work on display at the deYoung, holds a B.S. in Architecture from Cooper Union, an M.S. in Architecture from Columbia and a CTE in Architecture and Media Arts from UC Berkeley. Before coming to Athenian in 2016, she taught at the college and graduate level for 17 years, and her classes reflect that rigor. In a unique program that makes use of the schools’ idyllic studio space, she teaches Introduction to Architecture, Advanced Architecture, and Architecture Theory. Monica also teaches 3D art and Digital Art. 

The Cycle of Design 

With loyal students returning to retake her class after completing a year of her introductory and advanced classes, Monica treats her students like young professionals who are creating a product for a client. Her classes emphasize innovation, organizing information, and understanding of the principles and process of architectural design, with students learning practical skills such as drafting and modeling along the way. Structural feasibility matters, but creativity reigns as students learn to think about the cycle of design from idea to completion, with an acute awareness of the social, cultural, demographic, and geographic contexts of their work. Students change hats throughout the process, learning to approach the project as politicians, business owners, or other members of society.  

“I run it like a design office, where they are able to engage at every stage of the process,” she says.

Distance learning 

Her architecture classes lend themselves to working in person, but Monica and her students adapted to an online environment during distance learning. Students have been learning SketchUp and 3D Models at a distance, and have been working individually on projects that are typically collaborative. 

“Starting a project online is always a little bit harder,” she says. 

But with Athenian’s hybrid schedule, things are getting back to normal. Now onsite half-time with an alternating-week schedule, those who are learning in person are again benefiting from Monica’s expressive, hands-on teaching style. 

Monica’s classes make use of many of the tools in the CIS to produce their models. While many projects are made with small, portable tools, particularly this year, in the studio they have used the bandsaw, the table saw, the laser printer, and occasionally the 3D printers.

Architecture Within a Social Context

Monica teaches architecture in the context of the world in which the building will be received. She considers the social construct of the city, its history, politics and other dynamics that can be used to better understand the types of architecture that we use. 

The idea of the client is central to the class, with students building empathy toward that person or group. This year’s cohort has started a research-based urban analysis, and is now designing and drafting floor plans for a 40,000 square-foot library focused on antiracism. In both its informational content and its architecture, students are exploring how to build a space where racism cannot exist systematically. 

Future projects will have a similar sense of social justice. The class plans to build a tiny house, where they will be fully engaging with all the tools in the CIS. From engineering to electricity and plumbing, this will be a major project requiring outside help. Before the pandemic they had been planning to build tiny houses together, and they are hoping to revisit this project in small groups. Monica hopes for each finished home to be fully functioning and to eventually donate homes to those in need. 

Monica encourages students to bring in their interests as they work on their projects. One student, for example, is focusing on hip-hop music, which informs his design choices. 

“I try to tap into personal narratives to drive a project,” she says.

Students stay with Monica, many taking a full year of architecture and an extra semester of theory, and even repeating classes to continue their work with her. 

After two years in Monica’s class, including introductory, advanced, and theoretical classes, Odiso O. ‘20 is using theoretical concepts in her work in the way she organizes a project, analyzes a city and creates architecture. 

“What I most enjoy about architecture at Athenian is that the courses are conceptually innovative. Students are pushed to see architecture as more than just designing buildings and become deep thinkers throughout the entire process,” Odiso says.

Chad M. ‘22 has had one year of architecture and has strong analytical skills, and shows a sophistication in organizing space.

“I enjoy studying architecture at Athenian because it allows me to express and explore my creativity in a way that I was never able to before.” Chad says. “My instructor Monica is a joy to work with, as her enthusiastic passion for architecture really brings the class to life.”

Pillar Podcast: Sustainable Living with Hudson Scott and Brittany SchlaeGuada

The Pillar, Athenian’s student-run publication, moved online in the Spring of 2020, and with this came the opportunity to report in alternative formats like audio and video. Hudson Scott ‘21 was the first to take advantage of this new form of reporting, creating podcasts on Race in the Bay Area and Sustainable Living for the October 2020 Pillar.

In this podcast, Hudson and Athenian Science Instructor Brittany SchlaeGuada discuss the record-breaking 2020 fire season, electric vehicles, personal decisions affecting the environment, and environmental activism for larger-scale change.

Hudson says he was inspired to work on a podcast “Through watching other podcasters like Joe Rogan. I saw that he would have conversations with interesting and respected individuals on a variety of topics, so I wanted to try my own rendition of that.”

Hudson’s focus is on the quality of the conversation, and this shows through in his work.

“I came up with with both topics thus far – sustainability and race – simply by thinking about which teachers and faculty I would enjoy having a discussion with. Those people happened to be Brittany and Kal, respectively.”

Hudson is currently working on an upcoming podcast on the election. Stay tuned for more audio reporting from The Pillar!

This podcast by Hudson Scott was originally published in Athenian’s student-run publication, The Pillar.

Trailblazing for Social Good: Mary Costantino ’90 on Career and Athenian

Ask Athenian alumna Mary Costantino ’90 about the medical procedure she pioneered in her region, and she’ll tell you it’s “pretty easy”—just fifteen seconds to route a tube from her patient’s wrist to their groin. An Interventional Radiologist with a specialization in women’s health, Mary was the first physician in Oregon to treat uterine fibroids using this less invasive method involving the wrist as a surgical entry point.  

During the six years she spent at Athenian, however, Mary did not consider herself to be a trailblazer. When we asked her how she became a medical innovator, she said, “I didn’t plan my whole trajectory back then and I still don’t have a plan.” Working in Interventional Radiology was not even something she immediately settled on while in medical school at UCLA. She arrived in her current field after seeing an ability to contribute in an area where health care equity was at stake.

The two most common women’s health conditions that Interventional Radiologists treat are postpartum hemorrhage and uterine fibroids. “Interventional Radiology was a field that had real purpose,” Mary reflected. “Forty percent of women over forty have fibroids and the primary way that fibroids are treated is by hysterectomy. The procedure I perform offers a one-week recovery time versus a six-week recovery time, was less expensive at the time when I was in school, and seemed like it could have a big impact on low-income women. It’s a very powerful thing to be able to do something that makes those stressors go away.”

In the fifteen years since Mary began her practice, she has witnessed gradual shifts—a dawning awareness that applies to the treatment of many conditions. “We are now finally recognizing health care disparities, which have been long evident to those of us in healthcare. Uterine fibroids are more common in African-American women, and minimally invasive treatments are almost never offered to women with fibroids. It’s really wrong, and I suspect I’ll spend the next 10 years fighting for equality in informed consent, as I have the last 10 years. Now, however, COVID has unveiled this disparity and there is hope for change.”

Mary credits her regard for social good to strong foundations from home that were built upon during her time at Athenian. “The conversations were centered around the environment and the pillars and being a citizen of the world. It shaped me without me knowing I was actually being shaped.” Unforgettable grand-scale experiences like her Round Square exchange and AWE were pivotal, but so were humbler aspects of student life. “Kitchen duty—what a great lesson. It taught us that we’re all here to take care of each other. Those kinds of jobs and lessons just don’t exist for teenagers anymore.”

People were also a special part of Mary’s Athenian experience. As a whole, she described faculty and staff as “kind, goodhearted educators with an interest in kids. Judy Atai, the art teacher…I just remember sitting and throwing pottery and making jewelry. Sheryl Petersen…all of these maternal figures looking out for you. Ed Ellis…he was always walking around campus, completely invested in us.”

Mary now lives in Oregon with children of her own who are the same age as she was during her Athenian days. When asked what she would say to high schoolers now, her advice was to stay open. “It puts unfair pressure on younger people to find out what their passion is, because you never know what opportunity will come that might pique your interest. It may come when you’re sixteen, or when you’re twelve, or when you’re thirty-five. There’s no way to predict now what might make you happy when you’re fifty.”

Her second and final piece of advice goes back to the Service Pillar, which she still holds dear. “Always be volunteering. That’s a rule I have for myself. If I’m healthy and able bodied, I’m always volunteering. Humans were meant to be productive.”

How does climate change connect to the California wildfires?

By Noelle W. ’23

In the last few months, thirty-one people have been killed and over four  million acres have been burned all over California, resulting in deadly smoke, ash, and apocalyptic orange skies across the west coast. 

The California wildfires have been burning since August, with little signs of letting up soon. What started as record heat waves and an unusual lightning storm has grown into the most devastating wildfire season California has seen in many years. Worsened by global warming, these fires are likely to return next year, resulting in even more destruction.

“Experts agree that human behavior, land management, arson, and the effects of climate change caused by human industrial activity helped spur these massive fires, worse than any in recent memory,” wrote science journalist Matthew Rozsa in Salon. 

The fires, which mainly started from a major lightning storm in late August, have escalated due to a lack of rain, record high temperatures, and fierce winds. They are now releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the already dangerous heat waves in California.  

“One thing [heat] does, it causes the ground [and] plant life to dry out, which makes it a lot easier once things do catch fire, for things to spread and burn very quickly,” said Environmental Science Teacher Brittany SchlaeGuada. “The warm air also causes weird things to happen like the lightning surges we had which isn’t typical for this area. The actual temperature effects are due to global warming and climate change, and the fires are a subsequent repercussion of that.”

Beyond identifying the numerous factors that contribute to the escalation of wildfires, it is also important to note the key differences between climate and weather in order to understand the causes behind them.

“Climate is essentially the long-term average weather,” wrote Dean L. Urban, Professor of Environmental Sciences and Policy at Duke University in an email to Salon. “So in the west now we’re seeing a warming climate, plus a long-term drought, plus freakish short-term weather (for example, the lightning storms in [California], and the crazier than usual winds). Climate change and weather are linked, of course, in that under climate change we expect warmer weather but we also expect more extreme events.”

The widespread impact of wildfires this year has caused many Californians to seriously consider the influences and effects of climate change.

“[When] people think about climate change, they think [about how] the weather gets hotter or ice caps are melting,” said SchlaeGuada. “[They think about these effects of climate change] that are far away, not really measurable, and that don’t usually come into contact with our lives, but the truth is that climate change and its effects are kind of everywhere and people are starting to realize that with the seriousness of fires this year.”  

Although the denial of climate change has decreased as people start to personally experience it’s effects, it still makes a difference when public leaders recognize and respond to it’s presence. 

California’s governor, Gavin Newsom acknowledged this influence of climate change in a September interview: “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California. Observe it with your own eyes. It’s not an intellectual debate. It’s not even debatable.”

However, Newsom hasn’t just accepted the reality of climate change. He has begun taking much-needed action on behalf of California to reduce it’s impacts. 

“One thing that [Governor Newsom] just signed recently was an executive order in the next 15 years to make California’s car market 100% emission free.” said SchlaeGuada. “So that all new vehicles sold in the state of California 15 years from now will all be electric vehicles or some other type of renewable source. He’s taking strides to try and push California in a better direction when it comes to climate change.” 

Newsom isn’t alone as he combats our climate crisis. Many Californians have been coming up with their own proposed solutions over the last few years. Some popular suggestions include forest management and stronger fire regulations, which although easier to implement, will only provide temporary relief. 

“If we do not address the climate change issue, no amount of forest management is going to avoid this sort of situation in the future,” said Professor Francis E. Putz, botanist at the University of Florida in an interview with Matthew Rozsa.

It is clear that we need a long-term plan set in motion—and soon—as many climate scientists have predicted the wildfires to continue in the coming years, likely getting worse over time. 

This article was originally published in The Athenian Pillar, Athenian’s student-run publication, on October 24, 2020.

Sixth Graders Back on Campus, with the Rest Soon to Come

Preparing the Middle School to welcome students back to campus under new circumstances was an adventure in logistics. Yet despite the challenges the pandemic presents, the school has achieved its monumental goal of getting students back on campus. By strictly following county guidelines for schools, Athenian became one of the first schools to gain a waiver for sixth graders to come back to campus on September 21, with grades 7-12 soon to follow. 

“It has been so exciting to see our sixth graders back, engaging with each other, and connecting in-person with their teachers,” says Athenian Head of School Eric Niles. “Tremendous kudos to those teachers for their amazing work in making this happen. As always, they make it all about our kids and their experience here at Athenian.”

From the big picture to the smallest details, Athenian has worked with Forensic Analytical Consulting Services (FACS) since early spring to achieve risk reduction throughout the pandemic. FACS and a medical expert helped Athenian draft the school’s comprehensive Safety Plan, enabled the school to offer COVID-19 testing on campus, and helped teachers and staff to prepare classrooms for optimal spacing of students and teachers, among myriad other steps toward a contactless campus. 

With sixth grade students and teachers having acted as trailblazers for a new educational model in the time of COVID-19, the school is now prepared to welcome all students back in a part-time, low-density fashion. On October 20, the Athenian will start a two-week reintroduction to campus for all other grades on an alternating-week schedule. 

Large and small changes have been made to the campus, including the addition of outdoor learning spaces, hand sanitizing stations outside each classroom, and cleaning supplies inside each room. Our sixth graders are being tested every week for COVID-19 and we will be testing all of our students and teachers regularly when they return.

Teachers separated the groups into pods of 10-13 students while still in distance learning. This gave kids a sense of familiarity with their groups when they came back, and a core group with whom to start their Athenian career. 

“In preparation, we had to think about how it would work, what we were going to be able to do in the classroom,” says Middle School English teacher Justin Guerra. “We learned a lot through that experience.”

The sixth grade faculty worked hard to prepare classrooms, which went from shared spaces among which students would rotate from room to room, to a model where each student is assigned their own desk to use throughout the day, with teachers rotating instead. During breaks between classes, teachers pack up their materials in wagons that have been provided for them by the school, and move to their next classroom. 

“We are walking around the classrooms and things feel very normal, other than kids [previously] being able to collaborate inside,” Justin says.

Keeping students assigned to a single desk while indoors is meant to aid in contact tracing—if there were a COVID-19 case, the school would easily be able to determine where any points of contact might be. Students bring their materials from home, keeping everything organized in one place.

“They look beautiful, like little workspaces,” Justin says of the desks. “It’s really awesome.”

With a small number of students still learning from home, teachers are maintaining distance learning while also teaching in person by setting up “owl cameras” while they teach their in-person classes. 

And while students aren’t as mobile indoors as they have been in the past, new outdoor classrooms are offering them a chance to collaborate with each other and mix groups and spend time six feet apart with masks, or 10 feet apart without masks. 

“We are going outside, we are really utilizing the outside the classrooms,” Justin says.

As is often the case, there is a silver lining to all this. The sixth graders have been able to gain confidence as the only students on campus before the seventh and eighth grades arrive, and they are developing a closeness in their small pods that would not exist if they had not been cohorted in this way. 

“They are able to have some face-to-face conversations laying outside on the peanut, or on the soccer field, or in the outdoor classrooms, and so that’s starting to feel a lot more normal,” Justin says. “It’s starting to feel like Athenian again.”

Community Service at Athenian

As one of our Pillars, the key values we share with the Round Square consortium of schools around the world, Service is an essential part of an Athenian education. The beauty of community service lies in the way that it allows for people of all ages and backgrounds to come together and advocate for causes that they are passionate about. Not only does it help those in need, it is also a way in which students can grow and develop themselves as individuals. At the Athenian Upper School, students are able to gain these experiences through weekend service trips, ongoing community service groups, and intensive individual projects. The following essay, by Radman Z. ’21, speaks to the depth of one student’s experience at White Pony Express, a Pleasant Hill-based nonprofit that provides food and goods to those in need.

White Pony Express

By Radman Z. ’21

Radman Zarbock

In my view, many community service programs, including Athenian’s, use service requirements to educate individuals about the values of civic duty, selflessness, and our responsibility not just to our community but to each other by virtue of our shared humanity; our participation in the human experience. While I have certainly become wiser with respect to all three values, the primary outcome of my service project was something else – the experience bestowed upon me a better understanding of human purpose in the context of our ephemeralness in a constantly changing universe, pushed forward relentlessly by the torrents of time.

Prior to conducting my service project with the White Pony Express (WPE), I believed that personal achievement was the most important objective in life. In our society, we are often taught that nothing short of perfection is acceptable, and that anything less than that is failure. Even the way we look at food at the grocery store is reflective of this judgement. There are many who would not even consider buying, for example, corn whose rows are not perfectly straight or tomatoes with too many disfigurations, even though there may be nothing amiss with the product. In light of this, Imperfect Foods, with whom I have collaborated through WPE, was founded to rescue food that is senselessly neglected. Before my project, I believed that we as humans should work towards perfection, and to a good extent still do. However, I used to think this was the ultimate goal of life, and I was shown otherwise.

When I heard about the opportunity to conduct a 200 hour service project as a sophomore, I decided it would be in my best interests to take on such a project as it would bring me closer to the ideal of a perfect model citizen. Since service was valued highly in my community, I believed that excellence was correlated to service, and that consequently this achievement would make me a better community member. I also reasoned it would be a great use of my time, especially since as a teenager, I knew there were not very many conventional ways for me to be a useful member of society.

My first year of volunteering at WPE taught me leadership above all else. It also showed me both the power and value of civic duty, and why it is important to be taught selflessness – so you can logically identify and act on societal needs greater than your own wants instead of succumbing to the common compulsion towards Netflix and popcorn. When multiple people come together in responding to their sense of civic duty, it is nothing short of incredible what can be done. I got several opportunities to lead others in my first year at WPE; I gained experience in leading by example, by directive, and through peer leadership, all of which were immensely gratifying. I felt as if I was giving back to WPE by assisting the flow of the operation and helping new volunteers, as I had been given guidance when I was new.

As a whole, the first year consisted of connecting to my sense of civic duty, striving to be as useful as I could through both my work and leadership, and finding fulfillment in contributing to society. Yet I still believed what was important was to work towards becoming the ideal citizen or community member, to attain this personal achievement of perfecting one’s self with regards to one’s societally given duties. It was not until the second year of my project that I realized that personal achievement, even pertaining to one’s excellence in their fulfillment of the tasks their community deems valuable, is not what ultimately gives us purpose.

In my second year of volunteering for WPE, I took a position as a deliveryman on food distribution runs, a role I had never done before. I would usually arrive at the distribution center early in the morning and go out on a truck to rescue surplus food from local grocery stores. This time, I went out on an afternoon delivery to supply food to pantries and soup kitchens so they could distribute it directly to those in need.

One day, after unloading at one of our stops, I encountered a homeless man sitting on a bench near the pantry. I offered to grab him anything he wanted from the truck, and upon his agreement, I jaunted to the back of the truck, where my eyes fell upon a crate of fruit cartons I had quality-controlled and packed that morning. As I handed a pack of strawberries to the man, who gratefully accepted it with a smile, something clicked in my mind. I came to the crucial realization that personal achievement is not purpose itself, but a contributing factor to a much larger cause. 

The strawberries I handed the man were not the finest but, as opposed to their shiny comrades sitting idly on grocery store shelves, they had a purpose. For the strawberry that goes unused, regardless of how marvelous, will have had a purposeless existence. Hence, I saw that what matters is not purely one’s personal achievement but what you do with the knowledge, skill, and opportunity you have. Many of us desire to do something that lasts longer than ourselves, to leave some imprint in history so that our existence will not have been negligible. Yet one’s achievements, regardless of their magnitude, will eventually all be lost in the sands of time. But the impacts we have on each other’s lives, from the genuine smiles we evoke in friends and strangers to the technological breakthroughs we make that improve the lives of thousands, are permanently imprinted in the being of other observers of reality. In this, we may know that we were not negligible, that we mattered, that we made a positive difference that cannot be erased.

Our personal achievements matter only insofar as we use our gifts to positively impact the lives of others. With great ability comes great responsibility. And I am determined to use mine to its fullest potential.

This essay was originally published on the Athenian Community Service Blog on October 4, 2020.