Mountain Elementary School Principal Dr. Brian Grass gives a thumbs up to the Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation for providing the defibrillator to his right for the school. Photo Courtesy LAPS Foundation
Do you ever wonder what a school day is actually like in Los Alamos this year? The following is the second of three articles describing the school experience from different perspectives, brought to you by Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation.
Meet Dr. Brian Grass, the principal at Mountain Elementary in Los Alamos. Dr. Grass moved to New Mexico this summer from California where he was a principal at Yorkdale Elementary in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. An avid runner, he is enjoying the beauty of New Mexico, the great climate and kind people. We asked Brian to reflect on school life in the time of Covid as a principal.
Describe a typical school day.
In education thankfully, there is no such thing as a typical day. The reason I love this job is because each day is so different and comes with so many challenges and little victories that it is impossible to predict how each day will go. I find that if you are proactive, you never have to rush to react to emergencies, everything will have been thought through. Also, repeating our mission to get our kids successful, a million times a day is crucial.
Under normal circumstances when there are students at school, my day goes like this: I usually get up very early, go through work emails and settle my calendar for the day. I either run or ride the bike, depending on how cold it is. Then I get to school around 7am. I check in with the custodial staff and make sure the school is fully ready to run for the day. By first bell, I am out in front of the school, no matter what. I always want to greet every student and parent each day. This is important to me. I then try to walk rooms to see kids in action as they settle into their day. I try to observe instruction at least once or twice each day. After all is said and done, this is the essence of the job, and the place I can be of most use. Recess supervision allows me to deal with whatever issues arise or unforeseen problems that need my attention while interacting with kids and teachers on the playground. This is an important time for me. I can solve many problems before they arise and check in with kids and adults to maintain or deepen relationships. Eating regularly and staying hydrated is super important in staying fit and healthy, and sane, throughout the day. I like to walk the neighborhood for a quick breather or spend a few minutes reading for pleasure or catching up with phone calls in the afternoon after student lunch. If important meetings need to be scheduled, or I need to talk to parents, this time in the afternoon, right before dismissal is ideal. Early afternoon is also a great time to check in on classrooms and see the students’ afternoon routines and how well they are transitioning in from lunch. I am always outside during dismissal. This is the bookend of my day. It is crucial that I see all the kids as they leave and say hi to the parents as they pick up their children. Again, I can solve problems during this time or work to deepen relationships by simply being present. After dismissal I may take this time to either have meetings with staff or go home to get a bite and refresh. I often will make phone calls and look at emails until around 5 or 6. By 6 pm, I try to have a hard stop to my day. That way I can prioritize my family and my downtime. This is important to me. I usually get to bed fairly early and try to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep. I need to be fresh and ready for the next day.
What about now, with elementary students back to online learning?
It’s really hard to get used to not having students in the building. We were so excited to have the students back at school during the weeks we were in the hybrid model. We had gotten into a pattern quickly which was quite effective and functional. Right now we may have only about six people in the building on a school day. Some staff do come in to do their online teaching from the school, especially if there are internet issues at their home. We have a very small number of students coming to the school right now for individualized learning.
What has surprised you about this year?
The resiliency of the students and community has been refreshing. I assumed families would have a more negative outlook but that hasn’t been the case. Los Alamos is a very tight community and I feel fortunate to be at Mountain and in a high functioning school district. Everyone on the staff is here for the kids. There isn’t the drama that is typical at most schools. Another small thing that doesn’t exist elsewhere is LAPS’s email system. You can easily communicate with anyone in the system, even the students which is amazing. Los Alamos feels like a family whereas in most school districts you feel alone.
What challenges have you faced in managing an elementary school during online learning?
So many! The schedules and the challenge of keeping staff morale up and keeping kids engaged is all consuming. Juggling so many online classrooms is a bear. And dealing with so many struggling families during this time takes a great deal of energy and staff resources. I would be lost, if it weren’t for our amazing teachers and IA’s, who have their eyes peeled for any and all social emotional needs of the kids and families. They are the frontline of so much of what our school is able to do to help keep kids successful during this time. Morale is a struggle but we try to add fun activities during online staff meetings and share about positive moments with students.
What challenges have you faced in managing an elementary school during hybrid?
So many! Constantly changing schedules. Trying to continually accommodate changing numbers of kids and the schedules that they must adhere to, while they are both in the building and learning at home, all while trying to foster a “normal” school experience. Thank goodness the staff is so amazing at jumping in to help where needed because the schedules change daily and flexibility is the name of the game.
Are there positives about this year?
Learning to be flexible, thriving under uniquely challenging circumstances, bringing the staff and community closer together having come through strife and crisis together. I believe we will be stronger for going through this.
What are you most looking forward to when in person learning returns and all students are at school?
I look forward to being able to more accurately assess kids and provide them with the intervention and enrichment that they need. Interacting with kids and adults in a more personal and natural way, without the limitations of the screen will help in developing relationships. Communicating online isn’t the same as in person.
What are your greatest hopes for students at Mountain this year?
I hope they don’t lose any learning, or love of learning. I hope that they gain valuable perspective and come to better appreciate the sacrifice of their families. And finally, my hope is that the kids are reminded of how magical a place school can be, when we are working under normal circumstances.
We’re fortunate to have Dr. Grass as the new principal of Mountain and we welcome him to our community.
One way LAPS Foundation determines how to support needs within our schools is by meeting with principals across the district, like Brian Grass, and talking about specific resources that will help teachers. This fall LAPS Foundation helped fund Flocabulary at Mountain through a Great Ideas grant. Flocabulary is an online platform that uses engaging music and videos to teach vocabulary across all subject areas. It will allow all the staff at Mountain to have an easy, effective way to teach new content and academic vocabulary in both the remote and hybrid models. LAPS Foundation is working hard to find ways to support all the schools as they shift to new ways of teaching this year.
Our generous donors make it possible for LAPS Foundation to fulfill our mission to serve as the connection between our community and school district, evaluating needs and investing resources to improve the quality of public education in our community.
About LAPS Foundation
The Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization that helpsthe local community provide an extraordinary education for Los Alamos students. Los Alamos has given over $1.5 million to fund opportunities students and teachers would not have otherwise. To learn more about LAPS Foundation and how to get involved and/or make a donation, visit lapsfoundation.com or call 505.500.6501. Donations to LAPS Foundation, a 501(C)(3) organization, are tax-deductible.