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Diane Cancino: A parent’s perspective

Diane Cancino
Guest Columnist

Let’s face it. No one prepared families for the COVID-19 pandemic. Stay at home, hunker down, wear masks, and navigate distance learning. There was no manual for this new normal, and we are all trying to get through it — the best we can. Equally, so are the schools.

My family started 2020 in an urban and affluent community in Southern California. My daughter, then in the 8th grade, struggled to keep up in a demanding and competitive academic environment that powered through California’s content standards. When the Cs and Ds accumulated, her desire to learn dampened. Then the pandemic hit. By May, she became more irritable and withdrawn as the effects of isolation and chaotic online learning wore on.

Fast-forward to 2021. Now in high school, my daughter is happy, confident, and getting straight As. What changed? We moved to Nevada County where we found a supportive learning environment at her new school, Bitney Prep Charter High School.


An Innovative Philosophy

One student at a time. This philosophy is ideal for kids like mine, who languish in a rigorous, competitive classroom atmosphere. As a Big Picture Learning school, Bitney touts an alternative teaching approach that frames lessons around students’ interests and needs, while still meeting the State’s academic requirements. It’s a small school, and students have a chance to receive more individual attention from teachers than in a large public school.

On occasion, I am in the same room as my daughter during class. I can hear the teachers struggle with distance learning. Teenagers prefer to turn off their camera and they can be shy to express themselves. For many who are home alone, it’s a challenge just to get to class on time. Nonetheless, I notice an emphasis on positivity and gratitude in the Bitney community. At the daily advisory sessions, veteran teachers Amy Pugel and Daniel Elkin engage 9th and 10th graders for a full 50 minutes in topics ranging from school information to social-emotional learning topics or frankly, whatever is on the kids’ minds. These educators appear to be personally invested in every student’s academic and emotional success.

“It’s not whether or not you are good at Science,” Pugel told students during a conversation about the new semester class offerings. “My job is to help you enjoy learning Science.”


Self-directed learning

After four months into this style of learning, I see first hand the positive effects of this encouraging learning environment. Whether the interest is interior design, entrepreneurship, or writing a short story, the Bitney teachers respond with positive reinforcement and support. They may even help the student go a step further and set up an internship or enroll in a corresponding class at Sierra Community College.

While we have yet to realize the long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, I feel confident that my daughter and her classmates at Bitney Prep are in good hands.

Diane Cancino is the parent of a student at Bitney Prep High School.

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