Virtual town hall

The Cross-Border Connecting Town Hall series is virtual this year as it discusses how the Arizona-Mexico community has worked through the lasting effects of the pandemic.

“Education Persevering the Pandemic” was the latest topic Thursday in the Cross-Border Connecting series from Arizona Town Hall, the nonprofit organization dedicated to enabling a wide and diverse range of discussions on critical policy issues.

The 2021 Cross-Border Connecting virtual town hall series has been focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic’s lasting effects and the Arizona-Mexico community’s efforts to work through them.

In this particular town hall sponsored by the Nelson Family Charitable Fund and Jennings Strouss Law Firm, speakers discussed their findings and approaches to issues in education that the pandemic brought to light.

Erin Eccleston, Senior Director of Community Impact, spoke of her work at Education Forward Arizona where she had the opportunity to hold English and Spanish language parent forums in many communities throughout Arizona.

Hearing from parents and caregivers, Eccleston identified three common threads of issues: the impact of the pandemic on students and families, mental health and the need for more support, especially for students with special needs.

Eccleston noted the many struggles families have faced in the pandemic: from the losses of jobs and family members to the challenge of supporting their children’s learning. Mental health particularly came up in every conversation.

“It had a resonance amongst the families as they were reflecting on their experience that mental health is a big concern of theirs and how we as a state, as communities and as school systems are working to support and address the mental health needs of our students,” she said.

Eccleston also shed light on leading concerns and positives. The pandemic has brought up challenges of disengagement, technology accessibility, delayed enrollment and students rethinking their postsecondary plans among other issues. She shared the instance of one family that decided to keep their child in high school an extra year and delay his graduation.

Eccleston stated that Yuma County parents were especially concerned over disparities in access to resources, the burden of advocating for their students’ needs and addressing mental health needs.

Lisa Anderson, Associate Superintendent for the Yuma Union High School District, was able to discuss the district’s experiences with the pandemic and with addressing these issues.

Anderson shared several important approaches: in student nutrition, YUHSD’s high schools offer 100% free breakfast and lunch; in technology, YUHSD ensured that students had access to tech and offered transportation to the campuses where students with spotty internet access or special needs could work safely; in communication, the district took a multimedia and bilingual approach; in social and emotional needs, the district made consistent check-ins with teachers and counselors a part of the weekly routine.

Anderson highlighted the effects of these approaches, noting that the district’s dropout rate for the 2019–2020 school year was 1.35% compared to the state average of 3.33%. YUSHD’s graduation rate for that year was also 91.28% compared to the Arizona average of 78.06%. And finally, 66% of YUHSD students continued their education after graduation compared to Arizona’s 55.6%.

Shelley Jones Mellon, owner and broker of RL Jones Insurance Services Inc., tied the forum together by discussing her various experiences as a parent and business owner.

“My son went to a high school that didn’t see as much personal family loss as other schools in our community and I was very open with him about discussing the challenges and the traumatic loss of families in San Luis and other parts of our community,” she said. “Perhaps these challenging times allowed us to talk to our children about the different experiences and viewpoints and encouraged them to be compassionate for those that may see things differently or have experienced greater loss and have deep fears of returning to school and activities.”

Discussing her business experience, Jones Mellon expressed that her business’s culture of family and communication has helped them to adapt to the pandemic.

Jones Mellon also expressed pride in Yuma’s students. Referencing the positive rates shared by Anderson, she said: “That doesn’t happen by chance. This is accomplished through the collaboration of all of our districts in Yuma County and our community coming together to strengthen the P20 mindset and P20 is the early-learning all the way through post-attainment to college and making sure that they are college and career and community ready. And understanding that and helping our employers and our community understand that as well.”

As Eccleston had earlier shared some of the positives gained from the pandemic experience, noting the increased relationships between families and educators, Jones Mellon concluded that education in the Yuma County and Mexico region has persevered thanks to community and collaboration.

“Yuma County collaborates and we find creative ways to advocate what’s best for our students and community, but I also must share that I’m also extremely grateful to live in a robust bi-national region where we beautifully demonstrate to the world the vital importance of our friendships and our families,” she said

To learn more about the Cross-Border Connecting series and Arizona Town Hall, visit https://aztownhall.org/crossborderconnecting.

Sisko J. Stargazer can be reached at 928-539-6849 or sstargazer@yumasun.com.

Sisko J. Stargazer can be reached at 928-539-6849 or sstargazer@yumasun.com.

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