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Mandela/Zollicoffer School opens to students from pre-K to grade 8

Students enter the new Mandela/Zollicoffer School

It was a rainy reopening day for grades 4 through 8 in schools across the Mount Vernon City School District on Monday, November 30th, but for one school – the Nelson Mandela/Dr. Hosea Zollicoffer School – the day was extra special.

The school had originally been scheduled to reopen to pre-K to grade 3 students on November 16th but a COVID-19 quarantine kept the school closed until last Monday, November 23rd. On November 30th they were joined by the older students to fill all floors of the building.

The building – formerly the district’s alternative high school – was closed all of last year as it was reinvented into a building fit for pre-K to grade 8 students as one of the district’s 20/20 Vision and bond reconstruction projects. Students who had wondered for months what the school and their classroom would look like, finally got the opportunity to sit and learn in the completely renovated environment – everything from new walls to flooring to furniture. And, students finally got to meet their teacher in person.

“It’s great to have students meet their teachers in-person,” said Superintendent Dr. Kenneth R. Hamilton. “It is important that students and parents have the opportunity to develop relationships with teachers through in-person learning. Obviously, we may have to close buildings at some point because of the unfortunate trend of infection numbers. But, today we are celebrating our scholars in grades 4 to 8 throughout the district who are having the opportunity to learn in person. And, we are also celebrating the 20/20 Vision as students enter the new Mandela/Zollicoffer School.”

Students who entered the building were greeted by staff, had their temperature checked and slathered sanitizer on their hands. Once inside the classrooms, students – sitting at work stations at least 6 feet apart – began deeper introductions with their teachers and started the day of learning with their classmates, who joined them virtually on smartboards.

“It’s very exciting for me. I was born and raised in Mount Vernon. In fact, just a few blocks from here, so it was an amazing experience to welcome these students,” Principal Michael Vicario said. “It reminded me of myself when I was a young scholar standing in the doorway of a new school (Hamilton Elementary). And, it’s an honor to be part of the birth of a new school and the history of Mount Vernon and to be able to say I was able to give back.”

Early in the morning, Tim Thorpe was dropping off his two daughters – Tamira, fourth-grade, and Venus, third grade. Venus started in-person learning last Monday but for Tamira, it was her first day back.

He said remote learning was going well but they prefer the classroom. “They miss school. They’d rather be in the classroom with their teacher,” Thorpe said. “Remote learning was OK. It was the safest thing to do at the time, but they’d rather be in school around their teachers and classmates.”

Tamira is looking forward to math, her favorite subject. “It’s just good. I don’t know why.”

“I am very excited,” said seventh- and eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher Christal Terry, who was ushering in the older students. “We started this school year with remote learning. That’s how I was introduced to my students. Relationships and bonds formed. But now, to see them actually in person, and really see their personalities blossom is really exciting.”

To staff the new school, the district brought together teachers from the other elementary schools, but it wasn’t easy navigating the challenges of the pandemic, the start with remote learning, the school construction and ultimately opening the building safely to students, Vicario said. He credits the closeness of his team for accomplishing the feat.

“The unique part about the Mandela/Zollicoffer School is – I was on-boarded August 1st and the teachers all came from different schools and we all had to build a community via Zoom (because of the pandemic),” Vicario said. “The first thing I said to them was we are going to navigate a very unique storm but we are going to navigate it together in a collaborative way with transparency and compassion in what we do. … It was that bond, that collaboration that really was the drive to move everybody forward. We knew that as long as we put our minds together as a team, we would get through this together and have a unified face of hope for our students.”

Terry, an eighth-grade ELA teacher at Benjamin Turner Middle School last year, has approximately 70 students in two seventh- and two eighth-grade classes. About 30 of her students came to the school to learn in-person. The rest will continue learning remotely.

 “As a new school community with teachers coming from different schools, we all bonded really nicely,” she said. “We are a good team here. Now, we are just adding our students, which is like a blossom on a plant here.”