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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mom Elizabeth Luevano became an instant teacher to fourth-grade twins Alexander and Ruby and first-grader Camila when schools closed down in March. She says it was a challenge.

“Trying to keep them on track, giving them a schedule because they’re so used to their school schedule,” Luevano said. “It’s difficult, especially with three under 10.”

Luevano’s children are students at Harmony Science Academy in Austin, where 96% of their campus is considered economically disadvantaged. But, their district has a unique way of meeting more than just a child’s academic needs.

  • Alexander Luevano reads on his bed (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Camila Luevano studies at her family's kitchen table (KXAN Photo)
  • Camila Luevano studies at the table in her home (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Alexander Luevano reads on his family's bed (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Twins Ruby and Alexander Luevano are fourth graders (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Ruby Luevano studies at home (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Ruby Luevano studies at home (Courtesy Luevano family)
  • Twins Alexander and Ruby Luevano each have a laptop to join their fourth-grade classes online (Courtesy Luevano family)

“We are absolutely relationship first and that’s what has kept our families with us and that’s what has lowered their affected filter coming back to school,” said Amy Chankin, Harmony Schools assistant superintendent.

Keeping in touch near and far

Harmony Public Schools, a popular Texas charter school franchise with campuses across the state, is home to 4,550 children on seven campuses in Austin. A large percentage of them are in economically disadvantaged areas. The school district prides itself on its personalized, relationship-building approach to education which it says sets it apart from traditional public schools. That approach has kept its students in school and thriving during this pandemic, Chankin says.

Ruby Luevano studies at home (Courtesy Luevano family)
Ruby Luevano studies at home (Courtesy Luevano family)

In-person home visits with each family are how teachers and administrators have traditionally stayed connected but as the pandemic closed campuses, it pushed the district into overdrive to continue that communication. All in-person visits went virtual but locating each student required strategic and quick thinking.

Administrators tracked students with an app called Class Dojo – a simple communication tool for teachers, parents and students. Some students were found in Mexico and at least one who couldn’t return to the U.S. because of travel restrictions was located in Brazil. Others not on the app got phone calls and emails and Luevano said those phone calls meant a lot.

“It just reassured me they were looking out for us,” Luevano said.

Getting students the resources they need

Once students were located, teachers acted fast to keep them learning from afar.

Sometimes, that meant delivering instructional paper packets, providing technology or offering a choice for how students could learn. At campuses like Austin’s Harmony School of Innovation where 77% of students are considered economically disadvantaged or at nearby Harmony School of Excellence where that number rises to 80% – families needed even more resources to keep kids engaged.

Twins Alexander and Ruby Luevano each have a laptop to join their fourth-grade classes online (Courtesy Luevano family)
Twins Alexander and Ruby Luevano each have a laptop to join their fourth-grade classes online (Courtesy Luevano family)

“Some of our other campuses, they didn’t want the packets. They wanted the hot spots and the technology, or both, or maybe they had their own technology, so we just continually adjusted and made sure that whatever needs were met at that time,” Chankin said.

Like many other school districts across the globe, teacher retention is and will be another challenge for Harmony. Many teachers are leaving the profession altogether, not returning to school for safety reasons or they’re being hired away from schools to teach in pods or tutoring positions.

But, the future is continuing to improve for Harmony. The U.S. Department of Education recently awarded the school district a $27.8 million Teacher and School Leader Incentive grant that will train, equip and retain top-level school leaders at its campuses across the state.

Virtual school and virtual fun

As students returned to campus this fall, teachers have leaned on a lesson learned during the pandemic, expanding on a program that was working well even before it began.

A classroom at Harmony Public Schools (KXAN Photo)
A classroom at Harmony Public Schools (KXAN Photo)

“COVID has really highlighted something like e-sports and the virtual way to connect is extremely important for students, and this year Harmony is rolling out e-sports across all of our campuses,” said English teacher and e-sports coach Albert Demarest.

The program is now expanding across 30 Harmony campuses and it’s adding 60 more coaches.

“I think it’s helped students really feel like they have a community,” Demarest said.

District organizers say it reinforces core STEM subjects and helps students grow in other areas, too.

“E-sports also really helps with social and emotional learning skills, so students can work on responsible decision making, consensus building, relationship building and social awareness in general and so that has really let them stay grounded and stay together,” Demarest said.

A classroom at Harmony Public Schools (KXAN Photo)
A classroom at Harmony Public Schools (KXAN Photo)

Administrators say the proof the methods are working will be in continued attendance, academic performance and emotional strength – areas all measured throughout the school year.

“My hope for our students is that on the other side of this, they will have lived and seen an excellent example of productive struggle and it’s going to allow them to be richer, deeper problem solvers and it’s going to remind them that if they can get through this, they can get through anything,” Chankin said.

Luevano said she’s confident her children will continue to thrive at Harmony because the administration and teachers have always had her children’s best interest as their first priority.

“The school wants the best for our kids,” she said. “And who wouldn’t want the best things for our kids? They’re our future.”

Update: Student esports enrollment

Since this article was first published, Harmony Public Schools in Texas shared new details on how many students are participating in its programs. It says 1,125 middle and high school students signed up for esports across 26 school campuses. 

In the Austin area, there are 70 students and 11 teacher sponsors. 

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

KXAN’s Catenya McHenry and Josh Hinkle speak with Amy Chankin of Harmony Public Schools in Austin about how the charter school chain has kept students engaged during the pandemic.