“It Feels Good to Be Heard.” How Three Principals are Caring for Vulnerable Students and their Families

Three New Leaders alumni and school leaders speak to how they are protecting the learning of their most vulnerable students and caring for the well-being of families during this crisis.
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Administrators, teachers, cafeteria staff, and janitors at DC Bilingual Public Charter School call the families of all 450 students every week to check in on students and offer support to parents. Each staff member has been carefully matched with a group of  families to ensure consistent communication amid the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we find is that the calls feel good to everyone,” explains Daniela Anello, principal and NewLeaders alum. “It feels good to be heard. It feels good to laugh. It feels good to have somebody listen to you.”

Some families identify immediate needs like diapers, food, and pencils which the school delivers to them as best they can. Some share fears about their legal status which staff work to allay, educating parents on their rights. More often than not, according to Anello, when her staff ask how the school can be of support, families say, “This call is all I need right now.”

Anello joined two fellow alumni and school principals, Alicia Arenas and Jessica Nauiokas, for a virtual panel hosted by New Leaders. All three talked about how they protect the learning of their most vulnerable students and care for the well-being of their families during this crisis.

Listen as each leader describes what makes them proud and what drives them to find solutions for their school communities. Anello developed a comprehensive tracking system to make sure families are safe. Arenas and her faculty created Google Classrooms for students with mild, moderate and severe disabilities. Nauiokas secured professional resources and support for teachers as they counsel students who have lost loved ones due to the coronavirus.

Like educators and leaders across the country, all three principals are finding solutions for problems they never imagined. They recommend the following innovations:

  • Playing games virtually with individual high-need students who need opportunities to find joy while building problem-solving skills with a trusted adult
  • Hosting virtual coffee chats for families to see and connect with other families in the absence of the morning drop-off camaraderie
  • Communicating with undocumented families to steer them to resources and remind them of their rights
  • Recreating celebrations and rituals virtually – lunch groups, merit auctions, spirit weeks – to help students stay connected and motivated
  • Organizing a toy drive or sending gift baskets to keep students engaged at home

All three leaders are also looking out toward the summer and the next school year. “This time has really given us an opportunity to redefine and strengthen the home-school connection,” Arenas observes. Nauiokas adds, “We need to think about what we should be doing differently so when we open our doors again public education for marginalized communities looks drastically different… It’s going to be a missed opportunity if we go back to the same old schedule…with the same assignments and the same assessments.”

For Anello, navigating this crisis has exposed hidden strengths and vulnerabilities within her school community. “Every family needs something,” she reminds her staff. “Every family can use support.”

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Daniela Anello

Daniela Anello

Daniela Anello is the Head of School at DC Bilingual Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. Her school offers a dual language program in which instruction is provided in English and Spanish regardless of students’ home language.

Daniela Anello

Alicia Arenas

Alicia Arenas is the principal of Garfield Elementary in Oakland, California. Her students and families speak 18 languages. Close to 20 percent of the student body receive special education services.

Daniela Anello

Jessica Nauiokas

Jessica Nauiokas is the Head of School and Founder for Mott Haven Academy Charter School in the South Bronx. Her school specializes in supporting children who travel the welfare system. Approximately 30 percent of her students are also experiencing homelessness.

Daniela Anello

Daniela Anello


From New Leaders, this is our Leadership Changes Everything series. We’re elevating leader voices from across the country on a range of relevant topics to support educators and leaders as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic together. Today we will discuss how to protect learning for our most vulnerable students during and after the pandemic. During the panel, we will hear from Daniela Anello, cohort 12, principal at DC Bilingual Public Charter School; Alicia Arenas, cohort 15, principal at Garfield Elementary and she will discuss how she supports her special education population during these times; and, Jessica Nauiokas, cohort 3, Mott Haven Academy where she serves as principal of a school that focused on children receiving substantial social service assistance.


One of the things that I'm really proud of is how we've been able to mobilize the entire staff very quickly around all of the support systems that need to be happening. We’re ensuring that everybody has clear roles, knows exactly their responsibilities, and is held accountable. We also have mobilized about 61 non-teaching staff and each of our staff are matched with about seven to nine families that they have to call every week.

Sometimes we have a set script of what we need to make sure to mention about certain support services that we're offering to families. But sometimes it is a much more relaxed conversation of how's it going? What do you need from us? Can we support you in any way or do you just want to talk and laugh for a little bit? We find that, typically just connecting to families and talking for a little bit feels really good to everyone. It feels good to be heard. It feels good to laugh. It feels good to have somebody listen to you.

Sometimes they tell us a lot of things that are worrying them. And we asked, how can we support you and they say, just this call is all I need right now. If I come up with things that I may need I'll let you know. On the other side of this, we have folks who are taking the notes from the conversations and following up with a support system. So if we hear that a family needs diapers at home or more food at home or a lot of families have said they need writing materials or pencils. We make sure to mail those to them immediately.

One of the things that's keeping me up at night is being able to continue to do this. Obviously we don't know how long all of this is going to last. We need to stay positive. We need to stay energized. We need to keep going. This has been really challenging because each of us are afraid, as we should be. None of us know the route that this is going and how long our schools will have to be closed, but yet we have to stay focused and positive. We have to become these motivational people who are going to tell the community that we're going to get through this and that it's going to be all right and that we can get there. But I think it's challenging to me to know that there are so many things I don't know the answers to.


A couple of the successes that we've had – our special education teachers are participating in a weekly professional learning community (PLC) where they're sharing best practices as well as any challenges that may come up. I think another success also is that we've been able to set up most of our classes on Google Classroom for our mild, moderate and our mod-severe classes. I think something that is keeping me up at night is wondering, how can we continue to try and reach the families that don't have access to technology?


We already had kids on 1:1 technology in the middle school. They were already used to Google Docs, Google Classroom. They had already been generating assignments and posting assignments that way with teachers. So we've had to differentiate the training and support we do for our staff because the middle school was ready for this. The elementary schools were like you want me to do what? And how do you? What do you think I should try with my Instagram page? And what do you think I can do? How am I going to do my morning meeting every day? But I've been super proud at how everyone's been able to step up to make sure that at all ages and grade levels, we're offering meaningful flexible assignments.

What keeps me up at night question: I've got two parts. I never expected to have to teach my teachers how to be grief counselors. I did expect that my social workers in my leadership team should know how to do that and do know how to do that. We have a protocol for doing it just because of the nature of who our students are and the chaotic backgrounds that they come from. I didn't expect to have to do that with classroom teachers in the way we are.

At this point, we, you know, and I'm not talking about grandparents passing away, I'm talking about actual parents and community members. I know you all are experiencing this as well. But the first person that kids are calling are their teachers or classmates. I am helping to make sure the team feels connected to both their resources and how to take that responsibility and do it well. But then we also have the wraparound support that we can offer each other and to offer the child and the family when those instances come. That's keeping me up for sure.

And then lastly, this is a period of time in our history. I am sending every spare moment I have  considering what can and should we be doing differently when we open our doors to students so that public education, urban education of marginalized communities looks drastically different and has drastically better outcomes than what we have right now for kids and families. It's going to be a missed opportunity if we go back to just the same old schedule of an eight to four or an eight to three school day. With the same assignments and the same assessments.

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