AWE in the time of COVID-19

AWE is designed to push the limits of its participants. But this year, the program’s own limits were pushed as the directors worked with expert consultants to develop additional protocols to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Additional features were added to an already complex expedition, and the result was a successful trip for a satisfied, if smaller, group of students. 

“Before we went out we had already implemented a number of the protocols. Even so, there was a chance that small groups, or two associated groups, or even the whole course would have to come home,” said AWE Co-Director Phoebe Dameron. But they didn’t—to the delight of students, instructors and families, everything went well and all students completed the course successfully. 

The 26-day High Sierra course, scheduled in late summer, traverses Yosemite National Park north to south – starting in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, resupplying in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite, and ending in the Sierra National Forest. The High Sierra course requires one food resupply, compared to three food and water resupplies for the Death Valley course, as there are opportunities to purify water along the way. 

One of the first and biggest changes to this AWE iteration was to make what is normally a graduation requirement an opt-in course. As a result, while a full trip would have had 42 students, this year’s group had 27. Some families didn’t feel comfortable with the risk, and some were not able to abide by the more strict shelter-in-place requirements before the trip went out. 

After the initial opt-in process, the AWE team, which includes Phoebe, Co-Director Jason Ham and Associate Director Whitney Hofacker, proceeded to research the risks so that they could develop a more concrete plan. They engaged two medical providers, administrators, and an external consultant from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). 

Families were required to abide by a quarantine protocol before the trip began, and all students and staff tested negative for COVID-19 before the trip launched.

In the field, groups followed a modified structure. Similar to the strategy that Athenian will follow when students come back to campus, leaders divided the groups into smaller, “mini-groups” with one instructor, rather than the usual eight or ten students with two instructors. Two mini-groups (a cohort) hiked at a distance but in proximity of each other to account for safety concerns apart from COVID-19. 

“There [were] a lot of logistics that went into it,” said AWE Associate Director Whitney Hofacker, “and I think I was so focused dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s that when we finally got out there there I was able to look up and see how special it truly was.” 

After months of quarantine, the social aspect of the trip was one of the biggest rewards, and students were appreciative of the opportunity to be out in nature.

“I found AWE to be a transformative experience especially during the pandemic. It was a welcome adventure that helped me center myself mentally, physically, and emotionally,” said Amanda K. ’21.

After 14 days in smaller “mini” groups the two cohorts were able to combine into a standard AWE group. “For them to be able to interact with each other in person, to be able to hug, laugh, to go through this challenge together on top of the pandemic was unique, and I think they really needed it,” Whitney said of the students. 

Instead of the usual eight-mile run-in culminating on campus, AWE staff created a four-mile out-and-back run from the final basecamp, complete with a toilet paper finish. 

The special basecamp banquet was also different from the family celebration that usually takes place on campus. However, students still presented about their experiences and each other in the form of skits, songs and monologues about one another’s strengths.  

“It wasn’t the typical run-in or banquet like we usually do, but we did it in the field, which was really special,” Whitney said. 

For Amy Wintermeyer, Head of the Upper School, the value of this year’s High Sierra trip was twofold – to maintain tradition, even in such an unprecedented time, and to give students at home and in need of social interaction this life-changing experience when they needed it the most. 

“This is a huge rite of passage at Athenian,” she said. “It was certainly the greatest gift we could have given them.”

Amy emphasizes that the highly detailed planning and risk-management that went into this trip were an enormous feat. 

“I would give major, major kudos to Phoebe, Jason and Whitney,” Amy said.

A Round Square School in a Virtual World

Daniel Musyoka came to Athenian via a Round Square exchange in 2012.
Daniel says Athenian changed his life.

By Mark Friedman

While the global pandemic upended almost all the in-person exchanges scheduled for our students this year, Athenian’s international exchanges are still an integral part of our way of being.

Nine Athenian students did five-week virtual exchanges this summer at Markham College or San Silvestre School, Round Square schools in Lima. Some of the students have written about their experience for the Athenian exchange blog and you can read about their adventures here.

These schools in Peru will be holding virtual classes for the rest of 2020, creating unique opportunities for more partnership with Markham and San Silvestre, which conduct classes in English. I will be organizing some social activities and discussions for our students to have with students there, and there is a potential for faculty to connect online academic courses between Round Square Schools. It could be a one-time meeting or an ongoing partnership. This can be an interesting way to bring new perspectives into a class and to dialog with students from other countries.

For many decades, Athenian has been sponsoring students at the Starehe Boys Centre and Starehe Girls’ Center, Round Square schools in Kenya. The Athenian faculty/staff put on a show in the spring to support students there. We had a student from the Starehe Boys’ Centre, Daniel Musyoka, come on exchange to Athenian a few years ago. The Athenian community then financially supported Daniel through his university studies. Recently, I came across Daniel’s thank you letter to Athenian. He gave it to me when I led a trip to East Africa a couple of years ago and the letter got lost in a file. Daniel’s letter is a lovely ode to Athenian and a moving example of our community in action. Even if you never meet Daniel, I think you’ll be inspired by it. Here’s the link

I look forward to working with our faculty and larger community to create powerful, internationally-oriented learning experiences for our students.

Mark

Athenian After School Debuts This Fall

This is what owls do after school!

Athenian will soon be expanding its reach into the larger community with an exciting new program—Athenian After School! The program will accept students in grades 5-8, offering classes in both extracurricular and academic areas. 

Course offerings will include innovation and making, visual arts, leadership, DEIC/cultural competency workshops, math and writing support, and computational thinking.

Like Athenian Summer Programs, the program will offer classes to members of the Athenian community and the general student population as well. Because of the pandemic, classes will initially be held online, but in-person classes are planned for the future. Classes will meet twice a week from 4:00-5:00 PM, Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday, starting October 5. All enrichment classes for the fall will be posted and live for registration on Monday, August 17. 

Interest in the afterschool program is strong, with more than 93 percent of families whose children attended the summer program hoping to join.

Justin Guerra, who is in his third year as Director of Summer Programs at Athenian, says the pandemic has caused somewhat of a pivot in the afterschool program, which Guerra initially envisioned as more of a community center focused on arts, making, computational thinking, and leadership. 

“Originally the academic component was not the priority of our game plan,” Guerra says, adding that with some school districts planning on being completely remote in the fall, academic support now seems like a real need in the community. “We want to offer academic support, just knowing that remote learning is hard.” 

Another need Guerra sees is for free programming. While Athenian After School charges tuition, once each 12-student cohort reaches eight paying students, the remaining four spots will be reserved for families in need. Guerra will reach out to local partners and invite them to come enjoy Athenian After School’s programming for free, and other families are welcome to apply. 

“I see what kids that can’t come to our school full time get from our summer programs, the way we can connect to the community and the services we can provide, even on a smaller scale,” he says.

After working on the program for about two years, Guerra is thrilled to see it launch, even under unusual circumstances. Despite the pandemic, Guerra feels that the value is there, and plans are firm to go through with the October 5 start date. 

“There is a general excitement about bringing a new program to Athenian,” Guerra says, adding that there is “a great energy about supporting this new program at our school.” 

The Board of Trustees Welcomes New Members

With the departure of deeply appreciated members of the Board of Trustees John Kohler ’88 and Tony Dominguez, this summer the Board gained three exciting new additions: Jeannine Bell Whittaker ‘98, Jonathan Nickens, and Ginna Girzadas.

Jeannine Bell Whittaker ‘98 is a Regional Vice President of Sales at Special Counsel, a leading consulting and solutions firm with a domestic and international footprint. 

Jeannine is a firm believer in the mission of the school and all of the various ways Athenian strives to educate the whole student, both inside and outside of the classroom. She is an avid traveler, having explored over 50 countries; several trips included visiting Athenian alumni and former faculty as well as Round Square schools. After 10 years in New York, Jeannine returned to the Bay Area with her husband and young children in tow. She looks forward to supporting Athenian in its ongoing journey as a leader in education.

Jonathan Nickens, parent of Athenian students: Ryan ’22 and Natalie ’25, left the financial services industry after almost 20 years to find more meaningful ways to give back to his community. He currently serves on his local school board and transportation agency.

Jon decided to join the Athenian Board of Trustees as a way to give back to a community that has positively impacted his family. Both of his children began their journey here in sixth grade, and Athenian has become a second home for them. While drawn to the educational opportunities and experiences the school offers, what ultimately convinced Jon and his wife that this was the right place was the school’s commitment to nurturing all aspects of its students. At Athenian, Ryan and Natalie have developed a true sense of who they are, and how they can make the world a better place. He finds this truly inspirational, and wants to help Athenian continue on its mission.

Ginna Girzadas, parent of Athenian students Eve ‘21 and Allie ‘23, and alumni Grace ‘18 and Luke ‘20, has been an active member of the Athenian community for a decade, serving as head of the Athenian Parents Association until the spring of 2020. A Danville native, Ginna worked in product marketing for a technology company before starting her family, and later immersed herself in volunteer work. She now hopes to further Athenian’s impact as a member of the Board of Trustees.

Ginna loves Athenian’s combination of academic rigor with a focus on the education of the whole child. She feels that the school’s approach allows students to develop different aspects of themselves and prepares them for a meaningful life in which they can and want to make a difference in the world. She values the school’s wonderful faculty and the authentic relationships they create with students. 

Jeannine, Jonathan and Ginna, we are honored and delighted to welcome you to the Board of Trustees!

Leaving the Nest: Seven Faculty Members and Staffers Retiring in 2020

As three iconic faculty members and four trailblazing staffers leave the nest this year, their combined 172 years of service deserve a moment in the spotlight. They have taught and nurtured our students, helped build our community and culture, and their legacies will carry on.

Tina Nott, retiring Math teacher, was a founding member of the Middle School faculty, a co-founder of Middle School Focus Days, and the second woman to teach Math at Athenian. Joining Eleanor Dase, Munzer Afifi and Lester Henderson in a combined Middle School/Upper School Math department, she joined Athenian in 1982 and helped realize a vision to have more women teach STEM. 

Retiring French teacher Elisabeth Bertschi, who joined Athenian in 1986, brought with her “whole child” approaches to learning. Her rubrics for refreshing her curriculum were decades ahead of their time. Though she came to Athenian straight out of graduate school, she had a natural ability to connect with students. 

Retiring staffer Debbie Schafgans joined Athenian in 1987, initially in the Development (now Advancement) department. She was also a pioneer: the first staffer to use a personal computer for core elements of her role and one of the first to manage the digital integration of her department. 

As with Debbie Schafgans, retiring staffer Debra Ataman’s role evolved. She joined Athenian in 1997, working in Reception before becoming the Assistant to the Director of Special Programs in 2001. In the years following, Debra became heavily involved in community outreach and ultimately went on to be a key member of our Summer Programs, contributing to its significant growth over the years.

When asked about why Athenian staff and faculty are so well-equipped to play a variety of roles, former Head of School Eleanor Dase pointed to the many opportunities for faculty and staff to show leadership, such as chaperoning trips, organizing fundraisers, providing leadership in Round Square, Interim/March Term, and much more. If self-determination and grassroots organizing are part of Athenian’s DNA, it’s clear why retiring employees Lydia Guzman, Elise Jan and Barbara Carlino were so effective.

Lydia Guzman began her career at Athenian in 2000, serving for 20 years as the Attendance Officer. She also co-advised the Latino Club, raised more than $17,000 for the Monument Crisis Center over the years after co-founding the Tuesday Nacho Sale, organized the annual Athenian Pink Day to benefit breast cancer and served a run as Dean of Staff. Along with Debbie, she was an early regular attendee of the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference (POCC) and an early champion of equity and inclusion at Athenian.

Barbara Carlino, who joined in 2007 as Upper School Counselor, founded longstanding programs as well. She co-created ASAP (the Athenian Sexual Assault Prevention Program), started the school’s peer counseling program, and shaped curriculum and culture by carrying out Athenian’s health education program for many years.

Mandarin teacher Elise Jan, who came to Athenian in 2009, is yet another lauded language teacher. She developed an innovative method of instruction that helped students achieve a level of fluency that wasn’t obtainable through classic approaches. Along the lines of holistic participation, she also chaperoned several trips abroad. 

Beyond what these outgoing women contributed as trailblazers from a curriculum and culture perspective, they contributed greatly to our enjoyment of the school. They gave hugs. They played pranks (we’re looking at you, Tina). They performed in countless Staff and Faculty Talent Shows. They were treasured friends. We will miss them all. 

Reflections on a Difficult Week and Our Commitments for the Road Ahead

Dear Athenian Community Members:

Athenian began in 1965 as a school that was fully integrated and coeducational when parts of this country still had segregated schools. Though countless battles in service of equality have been fought and won, the prevalence of stories like those of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery remind us that brutality against Black Americans endures.

Athenian was a safe haven during those early years of extreme uncertainty and national violence, but it must be more than a safe haven now. It must rise to the challenge of training us to be leaders of the equity and justice we champion within our school.

Our COVID-19 response served as solid evidence of our ability to pivot quickly in the face of urgency. We recognize that the anti-racism work we have intended to do within our own community is overdue. To this end, we as a school will recommit to DEIC (diversity, equity, inclusion, cultural competence) with the urgency these issues deserve. The following steps will be our start:

  1. All faculty and staff will read White Fragility as professional development this summer.
  2. Key members of faculty and staff will participate in and support both student-facing and staff/faculty-facing affinity and DEIC work.
  3. We will create virtual affinity spaces to be held outside of the school year, beginning this summer.
  4. The administrative team will do professional development with consultants who specialize in issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competence. They will work to improve our systems.
  5. The school will mindfully plan and gear more events toward affinity groups throughout the year, while also framing the DEIC events calendar at Athenian to begin with an acknowledgment of our diversity in the fall, build towards inclusion week in both divisions in January, and culminate in a cultural competency seminar at the end of the school term.

I want to assure you all that Athenian stands with you in solidarity with justice and peace. 

With great respect,

Eric F. Niles

Head of School

The Athenian School

Three Class of ’11 Alumni Talk About Returning to Athenian as Faculty/Staff

The start of the 2020-21 school year will mark a happy event: three alumni from the same class, together as staff or faculty on campus. Lauren Dominguez ‘11, former Assistant Dorm Head and continuing Assistant Coach for the swimming and freshman/sophomore basketball teams, and Donald Sherwood ‘11, Swim Coach, will be joined by former classmate, Samantha Bishop ‘11, in the coming year. 

In sitting down to chat with them, the questions were obvious: why did they choose to come back to work at Athenian? And, what is behind the special relationship between the Class of 2011 and the School?

Samantha, who returned to Athenian as a Summer English Language Program (SELP) teacher in 2019, will teach Pre-Algebra in the Middle School in the coming year. “There are so many opportunities Athenian creates to build relationships with students,” she said. “I’ve taught in public schools, where the opportunities just aren’t the same. I’m really looking forward to Focus Days and field trips. This is why I teach. I love the relationships I form.”

A chance to make meaningful connections also tied to Lauren’s decision to come back. “Everything in my life, I can trace back to something I learned or something I did at Athenian. The idea of being part of that experience for a current student is so appealing…Living in the dorms is fun, because I get to know students outside of their academic environment. The multicultural aspect of the dorms was perfect for me.”

Love for Athenian culture also factored into what made Donald a great candidate. Associate Director of Athletics, Josie Chapman, talked about what impressed she and Athletics Director, Darek Cliff, during the hiring process. “Darek and I were immediately impressed by his approach to “being Athenian.” We knew that he would embody that as a coach.”

Though not an Athenian teacher, Aaron Wiener ‘11, also works in education and is a longtime moderator of the Class of 2011 Facebook Group and an organizer of numerous online events. Aaron shared sentiments about the cohesiveness of the class of ‘11 when we talked to him in late April. “Overall, people are excited to be in contact and are liking the events; internationally-based people want in on the action and we’re working around time zone logistics.” 

Other reflections centered on the exhilaration of bridging past and present. “I have loved watching the physical changes of Athenian,” Lauren said. “I also love that so many teachers from my time are still here,” Samantha remarked. “When I saw this during the application process, I figured it was a good sign.”

Finding the Silver Lining

Three of Stephanie McGraw’s Women’s Studies students created this
video to raise funds for women impacted by the pandemic.

By Stephanie McGraw

Like many people, I cycled through the stages of grief repeatedly as I adjusted to sheltering in place; sometimes I experienced denial, shock, anger, and sadness all in one day. I felt overwhelmed as I began navigating teaching my students remotely. How would I keep my students engaged via zoom lessons? Would students come to my virtual office hours? How would I help students who were struggling?

In true Athenian fashion, my students helped me answer these questions as we traversed through our new reality of distance learning. Through honest conversations (and many exit-ticket reflections), I slowly learned how to teach remotely. As the weeks progressed, I realized that the way I taught in the classroom, which favors extroverted students who process verbally, isn’t the best way to reach all students. With the asynchronous modules my students worked on outside of class, I suddenly saw my introverted students in a new light; while they might not necessarily participate in an in-person class, they were the stars of our online discussions. And since more of my student work was conducted in writing than in the past, I realized that these quieter students were engaging with my class on a much deeper level than I had realized. With distance learning, I was able to truly *see* these students in ways I hadn’t before, which has made me re-imagine how I’ll teach once we’re back in the classroom.

Some parts of my curriculum, however, seemed impossible to adapt to online learning. Three students in my Women’s Literature course, for example, were supposed to do a service-learning project with the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP) in SF for their honors project. But HPP closed due to the shelter in place order, so this project was no longer an option. Talking to my students, I tentatively suggested that they just read a book and write an additional paper for their honors project. What else could they do? Not surprisingly, my students rejected this option (though they also wanted to read the extra book—we’re now in a book club together, reading Chanel Miller’s Know My Name). Instead, they decided to still do community service (two volunteered at Monument Crisis Center, and one is going to lead writing workshops for children), and they wanted to raise awareness about the ways in which the Covid pandemic is disproportionately impacting women.  

These three students taught me that they can still do amazing work remotely: they collaborated together online to conduct research and plan their project; they collectively created an educational video about Covid’s impact on women; and they partnered with the Berkeley Food and Housing Project’s women’s shelter so they could raise money to help women in need. Watching these students engage in this project, and learning, daily, from all of my students about how to best teach them remotely, has been the Covid silver lining I’ve been searching for.

To learn more about how Covid-19 has impacted women please Alekhya Maram, Catherine Knierim and Amanda Kang’s campaign page.

Four Athenian Alumni Donate 10,000 Masks to Our Local Community

Pictured from left to right: Jim Lin ’07, father Ting-Fung Lin, Shannon Lin ’09

In an act of tremendous global philanthropy, four Athenian alumni joined forces to donate and coordinate the delivery of 10,000 surgical masks to our local community. The alumni, former boarding students from Taiwan, gave Athenian discretion around their distribution. Jim Lin ‘07 and Shannon Lin ‘09 were the original organizers. When friends Jamie Chang ‘08 and Wesley Yang ‘12 heard about the brothers’ idea, they quickly joined the effort.

“I checked in with Jim and Shannon when the pandemic hit,” said Michelle Park, Athenian’s International Student Coordinator, ESL teacher and longtime faculty member with the School. “I wanted to say hello and see if their family was well. They asked if we at Athenian needed anything in regards to supplies, as the U.S. was just entering the COVID-19 crisis. They wanted to make a donation and wanted Athenian to decide who should receive the masks.”

Pictured: Michelle Park and Eric Niles with Maeshah Shaw and Jelani Moses of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers

After a long and complicated shipping process, Athenian received its first delivery last week and has now received the remainder of the masks. Donations have already been made to the SEIU United Healthcare Worker’s Union, John Muir Hospital in Walnut Creek, the Springhill Medical Group, and The Gubbio Project, a non-profit serving the homeless community in San Francisco.

On Video: Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente

SEIU United Healthcare Workers West members Jelani Moses of Kaiser Permanente and Maeshah Shaw of San Ramon Regional Medical Center visited campus today to receive their donation of 4,200 surgical masks. In the video below, Jelani expresses his thanks.

Apart from sending a huge thanks to Jim, Shannon, Jamie and Wesley for their extraordinary kindness, we also appreciate those who worked to coordinate efforts on the Athenian side: Michelle Park and Vivian Liao.

Athenian Alumni Teach in Virtual Classrooms as Part of Distance Learning

Athenian faculty found silver linings as they adjusted to distance learning, tapping our global network of alumni to lend live classroom expertise. Andrew Gerst ‘09, Lizzie Miskovetz ‘10, and Julian Binder ‘11 joined David Otten’s Applied Science and Engineering course last Wednesday as guest lecturers. Karen Hinh ‘19 and Baxter Eldridge ‘13 joined on Thursday and Friday, respectively, all by Zoom videoconference.

“It was so great to see how our fledgling engineers from a decade ago are making huge design waves at Tesla, Microsoft, and Virgin Galactic,” David said, speaking of his Wednesday guests. “They had wonderful advice for our current batch of students…most importantly, to stop caring so much about your GPA, and instead focus on doing what you love and making the world a better place.”

David wasn’t the only teacher to integrate community expertise into student curriculum last week: former board chair and alumni parent, Dave Welsh, joined Head of School, Eric Niles Constitutional Law class to present the stock market through the lens of current events. Scaling up to accommodate wider community participation is part of a longer-term plan:

“I look at this opportunity to have alumni visiting as an unexpected gift of COVID-19 and distance learning,” said Head of Upper School, Amy Wintermeyer. “We were supposed to have a career day on March 11th and it was disappointing for both students and alumni to miss out. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to find ways to still connect alumni with many of our students and I’m hoping we can continue to do this in the weeks following spring break!”

If you are an alumnus or another member of our community with expertise you think might be great for our classroom, send us an email and let us know!