Editor's Note: A previous version of this story misidentified how often the staff meetings occur. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
Amid the tumult and the uncertainty of COVID-19, Pueblo Elementary School has found a way to anchor its staff and community all thanks to a unique approach to daily meetings.
Like all schools across Arizona, Pueblo, which is a candidate for the A+ School of Excellence Award, closed its doors in mid-March in response to the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19. This forced many in the community to adapt to online learning and teaching.
Enter principal Shelley Hummon.
When the district decided to close its schools following spring break, Ms. Hummon knew her staff would need help in adjusting to the technology required to do online teaching so she started hosting optional meetings via Zoom to help staff to adjust.
Ms. Hummon invited all her staff, not just teachers, to attend and she noticed attendance grew. She also used meetings as a chance to get to know staff better and designated themes for meetings such as favorite Netflix character.
When Gov. Doug Ducey announced schools were closing for the remainder of the school year, Ms. Hummon told her staff they didn’t need to keep meeting.
The Pueblo staff wouldn’t hear of it.
“It was very apparent to me that this was something that the staff was really craving, to have that kind of interaction with each other,” Ms. Hummon said.
“I had many people say ‘this something I look forward to during the day.’ We were able to connect and I would tell you that I think most people would agree that we got to know more about each other even social distancing. I would’ve never known some of the things I learned about some of the staff members and each other.”
Alicia Majercin, a gifted and instructional lead teacher at Pueblo, said she was a fan of the meetings because of the stronger relationships she made with her fellow staff members. She thinks this sets the school up for further success in the fall.
“Education, I think, is all about building relationships,” she said. “Normally, I think that phrase means more building relationships with students and students’ families but there’s such an importance of having relationships on a campus. When you have those strong relationships, you go to each other for help. You support each other. It just makes it all the better.”
When staff return for a new school year, they will host visitors from the Arizona Educational Foundation to see if it is worthy of A+ status. This is a far cry from where Pueblo was when Ms. Hummon became principal in 2017.
She said there was high turnover at Pueblo and there was a lot of distrust from the community and some teachers. Fast forward to 2020 and Ms. Hummon said her school has a lower turnover rate and was set for an A+ visit in March but the shutdowns happened.
Thanks to Ms. Hummon’s meetings, many staff at Pueblo say the school is better positioned to earn the badge of honor.
“I think we’re in such a good place to have this A+ visit because we all know each other very well, we support each other,” Ms. Hummon said. “We literally met everyday for two solid months. It was a pretty interesting and fun adventure.”
Julie Gildersleeve has been at Pueblo for 10 years, five in her current position of instructional resource assistant in the library. She’s seen many different administrators, saying Ms. Hummon has been the longest one at two and a half years.
She said because of the shifting leaders at the school, there was a natural divide among teachers. When Ms. Hummon came in, the school was seeing the effects of the public’s distrust of former Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell, who the district dismissed after conflict of interest allegations.
Ms. Gildersleeve also pointed to the Red for Ed movement in 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as other challenges the school had to endure.
“We’ve really risen above it as a community and built together a sense of we’re in this together and we’re going to support each other,” she said.
“Everyone’s different ... but our goal is the same which is to service our community and to do our very best for the students at our school. I’ve seen that, that has changed dramatically over the years. It’s been phenomenal to watch the teachers just rise up to a whole other level that they didn’t even know they had.”
Pueblo is a dual-language immersion school that teaches its curriculum in both English and Spanish. To accomplish this, Ms. Hummon said it is ideal to have a pair of teachers --- one for English and one for Spanish --- teach students by switching halfway through the day.
Initially, there wasn’t enough staff to function the program at its optimal level but that changed when then-interim Superintendent Dr. Amy Fuller helped staff the school to better utilize the dual-language program.
Not only did the school start to see better staffing for a dual-language facility, but it was starting to see teachers wanting to stay as Ms. Hummon said turnover has dropped significantly over her time with the school.
As the 2019-20 school got closer, Ms. Hummon decided to have the school apply for A+ status. She organized a committee, which included parents and school staff, to help fill out the application and review the school.
Ms. Majercin, who has been with the school for the entirety of Ms. Hummon’s tenure there, said she was proud to see the community and staff come together to help with the application, which marks a new chapter, which she is proud of, for Pueblo.
“When we get the visit in the fall, we are a stronger staff,” she said. “Even going through the A+ writing process, I think we are stronger and more close-knit.”
When COVID-19 derailed Pueblo’s plans for an A+ visit and threatened its continuing momentum, Ms. Hummon did what she could to help her staff.
Knowing many did not have quite the expertise to comfortably teach online, she organized the daily meetings.
As the meetings evolved, Ms. Majercin said she quickly saw the benefits.
Normally, she wouldn’t see some of the staff but the Zoom meetings allowed staff to interact who might not of otherwise.
“I was surprised that it was really a happy time because we would all be silly together,” she said. “We would talk some business but I found that we looked forward to seeing each other at 3 o’clock.”
But teachers weren’t the only ones who participated. Ms. Gildersleeve, who is a classified employee, said she enjoyed seeing the staff because it allowed her to feel part of the community as she went through the technological challenges with her colleagues.
The challenges for the staff didn’t stop with technology. Ms. Gildersleeve said it helped having the virtual interactions because so many of staff would have a hard time being lonely.
“Banding together and supporting each other on our good and bad days I think really brought the humility in all of us out,” she said.
Like Ms. Majercin, Ms. Gildersleeve said under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t get to know some of the teachers as well. These calls allowed for those barriers to crumble and staff learned about each other, their families and their interests.
What Ms. Gildersleeve said she enjoyed the most was the support from the staff. She came to know that they were there to support her and they also appreciated her efforts.
During the shutdown, Ms. Gildersleeve would host virtual storytimes on YouTube. At these daily meetings, she would hear staff express their appreciation for those efforts.
“It was nice being valued,” she said. “Sometimes as a classified employee, you’re not very sure because you’re not being held to the same expectations as the teachers are.”
She continued to say she loved being included in the staff discussions because she enjoyed being part of the school solutions.
While some on staff expressed their appreciation for the light-hearted approach, they also appreciated Ms. Hummon’s focus on updating the staff on the ever-evolving coronavirus situation at the district.
As the school year ended, so did the meetings. Summer vacation means the teachers will go their separate ways but some on staff will still miss the daily meetings they had during the coronavirus shutdown.
From a principal’s perspective, Ms. Hummon said she couldn’t be more proud of her staff because of the way they took the shutdowns in stride and adapt to the new environment.
For the staff, that feeling is reciprocated.
“No one could’ve called this,” Ms. Gildersleeve said. “I just saw us as a community really step up and support our kids in a way that no one could have comprehended.”