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Independence teacher plays positive role for students facing uncertainty amid the pandemic

Independence kindergarten teacher
Posted at 5:43 PM, Aug 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-06 19:17:45-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Families across the Kansas City area are still facing instability at home because of the pandemic.

As a result, things like job loss and eviction can impact a student's education.

Simone Dennis is one of those parents. She has a 4-year-old son and is 6 months pregnant.

"This year will be a lot different just because I don't know if we will have a stable home by the time he starts school in a couple weeks," Dennis said. "I don't know what the future holds at all."

Dennis says the insecurity causes her a lot of stress. She's facing eviction after losing her job at the beginning of 2021 and as a result, got a few months behind on rent. She's lived in her duplex for about a year.

She wants her young son to stay in the same school district and get a consistent education without having to worry about where he'll sleep.

"You don't want your children to have to go through that," Dennis said. "As a parent, you just want them to be safe and comfortable."

This is where teachers like Mercedes Mendoza can be a beacon of light. She teaches kindergarten at Cassell Park Elementary in Independence.

Although her students are only five years-old, she says they understand so much about the world around them, including COVID.

"I always tell them, you've got to be open, share your feelings, this is your home," Mendoza said. "You've got to be able to help kids because as an adult, sometimes we don't realize they also have fears but their fears might be different than our fears."

According to Mendoza, some students told her their parents had lost their job, while others had to move in with relatives.

Others left her class and the school because their family had to move.

And, kids fell behind academically.

Despite these disruptions, Mendoza approached it with positivity and says her students picked up on it too.

"They wanted me to make promises, they're always like that," Mendoza said. "And I say, I can't. I want to but there's a lot of things I can't control, neither you, none of us. But one thing I can tell you is we're going to do it day-by-day and we're going to have a great time."

Mendoza said her students had plenty of concerns. Would they be able to stay in school? Would they be able to see their classmates?

Mendoza said parents had concerns as well. Would their child advance to first grade? They're falling behind in virtual learning, what do we do? Will we have to move?

Building a strong relationship with the families was key, Mendoza said.

She sent families books and hands-on activities to do at home. When kids came back in person, she tutored after school. She paired up students with strong skills to help their classmates who were struggling.

Kids came for summer school, even those who had stayed virtual the previous year. Mendoza said she could sense that families were feeling better about the school year.

She's remembering the successes from last year and approaching this school year with the same attitude.

"When we were able to let them be themselves and feel safe, then everything else came like a puzzle, they were able to find their way," Mendoza said. "And every single one of them reached their goal."

An Independence School District spokesperson said students still have the ability to be virtual for the upcoming year, but the majority of families chose in-person.

The Independence School District provided meals for students throughout the 2020-2021 school year and summer school.

Meals will still be provided for students who choose to do virtual learning in the 2021-2022 school year.

Family liaisons helped families with food support, utility assistance and essential household supplies.