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How One Family Leaned On Their Middle School For Academic and Emotional Support

Richard Vargas and Rosemarie Bray are SA parents. They have two sons – Thomas, who recently finished eighth grade at SA Hudson Yards Middle School and starts at Bard High School this fall, and Daniel, a fourth grader at SA Cobble Hill. Their older son Thomas began struggling academically and emotionally after the shift to remote learning in March 2020. Empowered by a previous experience where SA supported the family, Richard and Rosemarie reached out to Thomas’ school leaders to help keep their son on track. 

At SA, partnering with parents is a top priority — we know we can’t help a child fulfill their highest potential without close collaboration with parents, our scholars’ first teachers and most devoted cheerleaders. When a child is struggling, SA educators are ready to step in and work closely with parents to ensure that they receive everything they need to get back on track. This year, after a prolonged period of crisis that has been particularly devastating for our young people, this close partnership will be more important than ever. We hope parents take Rosemarie’s story as an inspiration to proactively reach out to your scholars’ teachers, your principal, and your school’s psychologist or social-emotional specialist when you need help!

How would you describe your son, academically and socially? 

Thomas was always self-motivated when it came to academics. We never had to ask him to do homework, we never had to have meetings about his conduct — he always was just pleasantly going about his way in elementary and middle school. He’s shy and cerebral about things, and he’s very intent on making observations and understanding people. He’s introverted, but he’s a team player, a good listener, and gets along with everyone.

How did the remote environment affect Thomas? 

He was in the seventh grade and doing fine in the 2019-20 school year. His grades and assessments were good, he was involved in lots of sports like swimming and flag football, and he was commuting on his own every day.

When we were all sent home in March, he froze. It was like he couldn’t move. He lost his social grounding and his team affiliations, and he had trouble being stuck at home. All he could do was sit and stare at his computer, he was so freaked out. His grades started falling through the floor, he wasn’t going to class, he wasn’t even going to chess – his chosen elective. Mr. Johnson, his chess teacher, called me and told me that he wasn’t attending anymore. Over time, he lost interest in everything.

When did it become clear how much Thomas was struggling?

Once, he was supposed to make a presentation for social studies, and that’s his favorite subject. He wrote a decent essay and had included a lot of information and bullet points in a Google slideshow, but he scored a 50 because he wouldn’t present it. The teacher offered Thomas to present it to just her instead of the whole class at a separate time. He was shaking, I had to hold his hand while he presented. The teacher asked a couple of clarifying questions and his eyes filled with tears as he responded. This was not Thomas.

What did you do? 

We reached out to the school and set up a meeting with his principal and assistant principal toward the end of the school year. The meeting lasted around an hour, and while we were told Thomas would not have to repeat the seventh grade, there was work to be done to get him back on track. We got counseling from Sofia Potamopoulos, the school psychologist, and she was wonderful. The principal told her Thomas needed help, and she reached out to talk with us and set a time to meet Thomas.

Were you confident that the school could help Thomas?

Before the pandemic, we had a somewhat similar experience with our younger son, Daniel. After he struggled in first grade at SA, we moved him to PS 29. We were looking for less pressure, shorter days, lighter rules, but he had a bad year in public school. He did not like the lack of structure, he fell behind academically, and he didn’t find any support from adults there. Richard and I had both volunteered there, and it was chaotic. We re-entered the SA lottery after one year, and they recommended Daniel re-take second grade – he said he’d rather do that than go back to PS 29, where he wouldn’t have had to repeat, so we re-enrolled at SA and his teachers gave him tons of support. They started the IEP process, talked to Daniel about the assessments, and were always calling and checking in. We got so much support from SA when Daniel needed it, that I was sure they would do the same for Thomas.

What steps did the school take to help Thomas? 

Ms. Potamopoulos started meeting with him during lunch and really helped. She explained how all sorts of people were experiencing issues during the pandemic and made Thomas feel like he could and would overcome his struggles. She also recommended he get a planner to break things down and stay organized.

What happened next?

Thomas’ grades started rebounding – from the 30s to the 70s – and he started reengaging with his teachers and attending their office hours. In all his meetings with teachers, they reassured him that he was not alone, and they were feeling the effects of the pandemic and remote environment too. While his teachers talked to him about his work, they also asked how he was feeling and had really cool conversations. During one meeting I overheard an English teacher telling Thomas about how he fell in love with books, and I could see Thomas was so engaged. I followed up with a few of his teachers personally to let them know the impact they had on Thomas, and they made us as parents feel so comfortable even though we had never met them in person. 

How has Thomas fared since the end of the 19-20 school year? 

Last year he did better academically, but it was still a bummer he couldn’t be in person. He got along great with his advisor, Mia DeGironimo, who checked in with him weekly to see how he was doing outside of school in addition to regular academic check-ins. It really made a difference for Thomas that so many of his teachers went above and beyond. 

Rosemarie, Richard, and their two sons.

Rosemarie, Richard, and their two sons.

Do you have any advice for parents whose kids are struggling, academically or emotionally?

Ask for help. Reach out to your school leadership team and start a detailed conversation about your child. That’s what we did with both our sons, and both times we were told “OK, we love both your boys, and we’re going to help,” and they came up with a plan. If you tell them what your kid needs, they’ll bend over backward to make it possible. 

What would you say to the staff that helped Thomas? 

There are so many people at SA Hudson Yards that helped my son – Ms. Vandlik, Mr. Johnson, Ms. Werno, Ms. DeGironimo, and more. I’ve thanked them over and over again, but there is no amount of thanking that could be enough. We are beyond grateful for the support and guidance they gave to our son. 

I want to send a huge shoutout to all the eighth-grade teachers at Hudson Yards. They truly turned everything around for Thomas and he was able to graduate with honors. They all actually sent a personal message at the end of the year and said they would be here and available if Thomas ever needed guidance.

Written by Success Academy August 17, 2021

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