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!

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.

A Summer of Service in Uganda for Athenian French Teacher

For most Athenian teachers, the good work they do through the school year doesn’t stop when summer rolls around.  Some teach at Athenian’s Devil Mountain Summer Camp, others go to leadership conferences, and many work on independent creative endeavors.

But one Athenian teacher chose to spend her summer on the other side of the world (for the second summer in a row) caring for AIDS orphans in Uganda.  Mary Eid, Athenian’s Middle School French teacher, is a living example of what we hope all Athenian’s can master: a life of purpose and personal fulfillment.  Mary and her husband will be in Uganda for a month.  Mary’s work in Uganda is in support of Children of Grace, an organization closely connected to the Athenian community.  Founded by Mary Ann McCoy and directed by her husband Mike McCoy, an Athenian trustee, Children of Grace offers “hope to Ugandan AIDS orphans through education, healthcare, and empowerment programs to enable a better future.” Mary was inspired by the organization and its mission and chose to dedicate the only free time she has during the year to serving those in need.

As often happens within the Athenian community, when one person invests their time in an issue, others quickly join in supporting their efforts.  Mary Ann and Mike McCoy adopted a young Ugandan orphan in 2002, Zahara Nakibuule-McCoy.  Zahara attended Athenian’s high school and graduated in 2009.  Zahara’s community service project while at Athenian involved coordinating an Interim trip to Uganda and teaching women about charcoal conservation.  Zahara also took several of her Athenian classmates to Uganda to share her roots with them.  Another young woman adopted by a family local to Athenian will be attending Athenian in the fall.  Additionally, Eleanor Dase, former Head of School at Athenian, is a board member for Children of Grace.  With Mary’s recent trips to Uganda, and the presence of Ugandan students in Athenian’s student body, the ties between our communities continues to grow stronger.

Mary shares the following about her experience so far in Uganda:

I am volunteering in Uganda for 2 weeks with Children of Grace, an organization founded by Mary Ann and Mike McCoy (Athenian Trustee) in 2001 to provide support for orphans in Uganda. Through child sponsorships, Children of Grace funds the education, health and social welfare needs of over 750 Ugandan orphans. This is my second trip here and the friends I made last summer have welcomed me back with open arms.  This summer I am part of a team from Danville and Santa Barbara teaching in two primary schools and running a weekend volleyball clinic for high school students. Yesterday, we volunteered at an infant orphanage in Jinja called the Amani Baby Cottage and we worked on the construction site of their new location.  This was my first visit to the Amani Baby Cottage and it was a touching experience.

If you are interested in supporting Children of Grace, please visit their Getting Involved page.

To learn more about Zahara’s story, read an article from SFGate about her road to success.

 

Food for Thought: The Athenian School Community Cookbook

The Athenian Parent Association is selling Food For Thought, Athenian Community Cookbook 2012.  Get one before they sell out!  This amazing premier edition cookbook is a compilation of favorite recipes from parents, students, alumni, teachers and staff and it has truly captured the Athenian flavor!

The books were constructed using recycled paper products, are $25 apiece, and can be ordered by sending an email to atheniancookbook@gmail.com. The book is a great keepsake and makes a wonderful gift!

From the Introduction: “Food for Thought began as an Athenian Parent Association Fundraiser suggestion in the fall of 2011.  The idea was to create a collection of recipes, culinary adventures and kitchen lore from Athenian families and campus events–a cookbook to reflect the Athenian community around the world.  We hopes that Athenians would not only embrace Food for Thought, but also pass along their recipes and stories to create this special cookbook…It is our sincere wish that you enjoy exploring and sharing Food for Thought with friends and family.”

Learn more about the APA here.

Athenian Interim

Every year, The Athenian School community takes a brief break from the packed schedules of academic classes, sports, and performing arts to explore areas of interest outside of the classroom.  In the days leading up to Spring Break, students have the opportunity to travel both nationally and internationally, explore the Bay Area, or learn a new discipline on campus.

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This year, Athenian’s interims included:

International trips: Galapagos Islands, El Salvador, France (MS and US)

National trips: New York City, Ashland Theatre, Disneyland, White Privilege Conference, Monterey Bay Surfing (MS and US), Pinnacles Nat’l Monument (6th grade), Washington, DC (8th grade), and 26 days of AWE (11th grade).

Bay Area: Sites of San Francisco, San Francisco counterculture, Welding, Scuba certification

On-Campus Exploration: Digital SLR workshop, Zen, Sewing, Chinese martial arts, Games, Lyricism, Filmmaking, Basketball camp, Iron Chef Athenian, Earth care and Permaculture

Service and Adventure Trip to the Galapagos Islands

 Learn more about Athenian Interim here.