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Reimaging a Better School Year

Principal says COVID-19, racial equity push an opportunity

Teachers and staff at Prescott Elementary in Parkrose gather for a “Meet the Principal” parade earlier this summer where Principal Nichole Watson (center) and her co-workers rode in cars to introduce themselves to students and parents outside their homes in the Parkrose neighborhood, maintaining social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. PHOTO BY SHAWNTE SIMS OF SIMSHOT

As students go back to distance learning and online instruction this fall there is a great deal of anxiety in school communities as they adjust to the public health restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on racial equity.

Photo by Shawnte Sims of Simshot Prescott Elementary Principal Nichole Watson rides in the back of an open pickup truck to wave and distribute candy to children and other families from her new school community in the Parkrose neighborhood of northeast Portland on July 31. The Meet the Principal parade was held under public health social distancing requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Photo by Shawnte Sims of Simshot New Prescott Elementary Principal Nichole Watson (center) and four of the school’s new teachers, (from left) Catherine Bayer, Miranda Lickey, Ruchi Shah and Jasmine Lowe, gather during a “Meet the Principal” community parade on July 31. By adding teachers of bi-racial and Indian South Asian heritage to the school staff, including two Latina women (not pictured) as secretaries and family engagement liaisons in the principal’s office, Watson is already bringing much needed diversity to a school in which nearly half of the students identify as either Latinx, Black/African American or Pacific Islander. The Prescott staff had previously been almost exclusively white.

For Nichole Watson, the adjustments being made are an opportunity to provide a better education to all students now and in the future and to reimage a better normal for students under difficult circumstances, especially for disadvantaged and minority kids.

Watson, 39, is the new principal at Prescott Elementary in the Parkrose School District, the first African-American educator to lead the northeast Portland school, and an authority on equity who recently took a year off from teaching at Rosa Parks Elementary in north Portland to focus on racial equity work for the Portland Association of Teachers.

She said the impacts from the coronavirus have exposed more of the inequities that too many families with children in school face. When distance learning was imposed in Oregon last March, for example, with stay at home orders by the governor closing classrooms, almost a third of Prescott’s kids did not have access to a computer or Internet for at home learning.

The district was able to adjust to this inequity by providing one laptop to a family, based on need. But this fall, Prescott will go further. The district will provide each student with all of their school supplies for distancing learning and there will be a major effort to ensure sufficient amount of Chromebooks to distribute to every student in a family, based on need, along with free Wifi hotspots for Internet connections, she said.

Watson is trying to be available to answer questions and share information with parents on all the changes coming for the new school year.

“Change brings discomfort,” she said. “But we are resilient. We always figure it out and we’ll do that again,” she said.

Watson held a back-to-school online session on Zoom with 60 parents last week to inform them about the plans for re-opening.

It was the second major introduction to her new school community, having been the honored guest for a “Meet the Principal” parade earlier this summer where she and Prescott staff members rode cars to meet Prescott students outside their homes in the Parkrose neighborhood, maintaining social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At first, the district planned to teach children this year with a hybrid model of distance learning and classroom instruction. It meant that Watson and her team had to prepare the school building for safety by taking actions that would lower the risk of transmission of the coronavirus.

But the plans for teaching in school were scrapped when rising cases of the disease, in Multnomah County and across the state, led public health authorities and Gov. Kate Brown to impose new restrictions.

“It’s been intense, a whirlwind,” Watson said about all the changing preparations.

The racial reckoning brought on by protests over police shootings of unarmed African Americans and injustices in the criminal justice system have a silver lining, Watson said, in that it is causing educators to become more compassionate with children who are experiencing trauma and giving them better opportunities to heal.

“We get to be more human, meet people where they are and become more equitable in ways never before,” she said.

Parents and other family supports have already been vital in connecting children to distance learning content and resources, Watson said. Some parents, for example, have organized study pods, where small groups of young learners get help from an alternating group of mentors.

“It’s all hands on,” for aunts, uncles, other parents and community members,” she said.

This is Watson’s second career. She was born in Portland and attended Boise-Elliot, Beaumount Middle School and Benson High School before her employment in the commercial real estate business. In 2008, she decided to go back to school to get a degree in education by enrolling in the Portland Teachers Program at Portland Community College, a program geared to bring more teachers of color into Portland schools.

Watson earned her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in education at Portland State University and is currently working on a dissertation for a doctorate in education. She lives just five minutes from Prescott, calling her new principal assignment a calling.

“I was drawn to to it,” she said. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

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