Sisters tackle learning inequality

courtesy photo Michelle (left) and Melissa Stencil

Twin sisters Melissa and Michelle Stencil both teach kindergarten at W.D. Hall Elementary School, one of 16 sites in Cajon Valley Union School District that is considered a Title I school.

Title I schools have high numbers of children from low-income families; they are allocated some financial assistance based on census poverty estimates and the cost of education in each state.

“A lot of our students don’t have paper and pencils at home,” said Michelle Stencil.

Both educators began as preschool teachers and came to the school after getting involved with Teach for America, an organization dedicated to eradicating educational inequity by having teachers serve for two years in low-income communities.

Since they closed their classroom doors on March 13 due to COVID concerns, the sisters have checked out laptop computers so all their students have the same tool to continue their education from home, prepared online lesson plans and been on site to hand out lunches provided by the district so no child goes hungry.

However, Melissa Stencil says many of her students are navigating schooling from home at a disadvantage.

“Distance learning has highlighted the inequity some of our students face. Do they have a family member present at home to help with activities? Many of those parents are essential workers and students are home with older siblings trying to help. The district has said and we all know this is not a long-term solution. In the classroom we can provide a more equitable situation.”

“Language has also been a barrier for some. We have seen some of the English language decline in some of our students since they’ve been at home,” she added. “A lot of our students are new to the United States so they don’t have a lot of resources or family here to help with resources. They trust that you’re their teacher and you’re going to provide, not out of entitlement but out of respect. When parents realize what their students should have at home they do everything they can to provide for their students,” Michelle Stencil said.

The teachers have been passing out bagged school lunches to go, available on a drive-through basis at the school.

“Forty-seven percent of the students in Cajon Valley are considered newcomers to the U.S. and 69% live in low-income households. A lot of our families are immigrants from the Middle East and it is so great that we can provide for them at home,” Michelle Stencil said.

Melissa Stencil said she is looking forward to handing out counting cubes for students to use at home with math lessons because in kindergarten, she says, much of the learning is through manipulatives, hand over hand practice that is harder to achieve online with young children who are just learning how to read.

“Our district was in the process of piloting iReady (an online learning application) when this started and what we thought was going to be supplemental has become the primary.  We’re sending out e-learning playlists that have about five activities on them every day. We’re definitely not trying to replicate school in person but we are trying to maintain a connection online,” Michelle Stencil said.

Melissa Stencil said some of her students are shyer online than in person, some are more emotional.

“Academically, they’ll be able to catch up with a bit of intervention but they need to feel safe and secure first and that will take a bit longer. If you had a well-managed class in person, if they loved each other, that mostly transferred over online. Things like ‘put your finger on your nose,’ or ‘catch a bubble’ all carried over but if we had to start a classroom this way, it would be much harder,” Melissa Stencil said.

Michelle Stencil says in a firm tone that Cajon Valley has done a great job and she’s extremely proud of the district.

“We try to tell people to have patience. This situation is new for everybody. We’re all in it together,” Melissa Stencil said.