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Extraordinary Employees

  • Across the nation, urban school district employees have gone above and beyond the call of duty during the coronavirus pandemic, from passing out meals, to distributing laptops, to conducting lessons online and making house calls. This column will spotlight those employees who are working every day to make a difference in the lives of the nation’s 7.8 million urban schoolchildren.

    Paris Harrell, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools   

    When Windsor Park Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., closed for in-person instruction on March 14, second-grade teacher Paris Harrell started reaching out to her students and their families. "We needed to know if they had an internet connection or a device, but we really needed to know if they had food," said Harrell. "We had some parents that were scared. They didn't have food in their fridge."  Paris Harrell, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

    Harrell and other volunteers are delivering groceries to more than 100 families every Monday and Thursday. Using donations from the community, Harrell keeps track of requests and does massive grocery shopping to meet their needs. "We already had a food pantry at our school, but the difference here is that our families can get perishable foods," she said. "They are able to order what they want and get food that they know how to cook."

    In addition to deliveries, Harrell’s been visiting some of her students from a distance to read books with them or help them with Chromebooks. "It helps me remember why I became a teacher," she said. "The kids miss us and each other."

    Brian Meadows, School District of Philadelphia

    Brian Meadows is the principal of Thurgood Marshall Elementary in Philadelphia and was diagnosed with the coronavirus in April, yet managed to stay engaged virtually with his staff while he recovered. Brian Meadows, School District of Philadelphia

    "It got to the point I was so scared, I honestly started writing a living will,” said Meadows, describing his battle with the coronavirus in an interview with WPVI. “Two weeks before I had the flu, and my immune system was compromised, and I suffer from respiratory issues and I didn't know how the virus would hit me.”  

    During his recovery, Meadows never missed a conference call and developed the plan for staff to safely distribute Chromebooks to students so they could participate in digital learning. "We know a lot of our kids already come three to four grade levels behind so it's about equity,” said Meadows.

    William Polite, Wichita Public Schools

    William Polite is the director of equity and accountability for Wichita Public Schools and since schools closed has been tutoring student-athletes in math who are part of the district’s “Books Over Balls” program from his porch. William Polite, Wichita Public Schools

    In an interview with KWCH Polite says he's really proud of the young men who have come to his house to be tutored during these difficult times. "These guys are showing their dedication,” said Polite. “I'm glad to highlight these students and hopefully they inspire other young men to do the right thing.”

    Students say having a mentor like Polite helps them want to do their best. “He's been my mentor for a few years. A lot of my success in school is thanks to him," said one student. " I just want to do my best, try to make it."

    Jennifer Patronas, Anchorage School District

    Jennifer Patronas has only served a year as the director of the Anchorage School District Healthcare Services Department but she has made tremendous efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic to positively impact and support students, her team of 120 district school nurses, and the entire Anchorage community.  Jennifer Patronas, Anchorage School District

    As early as December 2019, she informed district leaders of the developing situation in Wuhan, China and rapidly initiated anticipatory planning and coordination with the State of Alaska and municipal epidemiologists and other medical experts. Once COVID-19 occurred in Alaska, Patronas organized her team of nurses and offered comprehensive, registered nursing support to the Anchorage Health Department to deal with the virus. She also provided sustained nursing support to district staff and students.

    Eugenia Fernandez, Dallas Independent School District

    Eugenia Fernandez, a bilingual Pre-K teacher at Leonides González Cigarroa Elementary School in Dallas, recruited her husband, son, and a puppet called Miss Fanny Frog to help create instructional videos that engage her students. She says that the idea behind this effort is to virtually recreate a classroom in which, through dance, singing, breathing exercises, and other topics of interest, she can connect with her students. Eugenia Fernandez, Dallas Independent School District

    Although her videos were originally geared towards her 19 pre-K students, they now have been viewed by people in Mexico, Washington, D.C., California, and Arizona. Fernandez said it has been a big surprise to her that this initiative has expanded and reached more children that do not have access to the tools needed to learn Spanish.