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Building The Foundation: K-4 Design Lead Jake Thompson Shares Reflections and Lessons

Jake Thompson, K-4 Design Lead, works with school and network leadership to oversee the expansion of Alpha’s K-4 programs.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what brought you to Alpha?

I grew up in Athens, Georgia (Go Dawgs!). My first degree is in public health which led me to working in a children’s hospital. I was fortunate to begin my career doing community programming and injury prevention. This was my first “toe dip” into schools with bringing bike and car safety programming into the local communities. Through several other endeavors that moved me away from the hospital/school setting and into a fundraising role, I quickly found out that I didn’t like calling people and asking for money. I have always been interested in working with children. I grew up with a single mom and am thankful for the moves that she made to ensure that I went to a really great public school. I met some great friends along the way and realized that I wanted to make an impact on education by lifting voices that aren’t heard. I was particularly interested in foundational learning practices and how children learn best. So, I enrolled in graduate school and focused on Early Childhood Education with an emphasis on Early Literacy/Reading Recovery. I taught kindergarten for 11 years in 3 different schools – each had different resources, teaching philosophies, communities of people, and it really came down to whether or not you were resourced or under resourced. I then moved to a school that really challenged me with taking on curriculum development.This led me into an instructional coaching position that allowed for me to put all of the puzzle pieces together (curriculum, teaching best practices, and working with students). I coached foundational teachers from preschool to second grade when starting there, and then made the bridge to middle school by the time I finished. My husband and I made the big move to San Jose in 2017 and I started to look for schools that really reflected the community around them. I was blessed to find Alpha: Cornerstone. After meeting students, families, and staff, on my interview day, I knew this was where I wanted to be. 

Why do you continue to choose Alpha?

It’s the community. Not just the community of staff who are amazing and wonderful, but also the students and families. I began as an Instructional coach and then moved into the K-4 Design Lead to build out our elementary program. We have an amazing student population surrounded by educators who are constantly learning how to reach and to meet the needs of our students. 

What are some of the work that you’re doing as a Design Lead? What lessons have you learned along the way?

Sometimes it’s hard to see beyond the trees when you’re in the work. Luckily I have amazing collaborators to help me see the spots that are hard to see, while also being on the ground to observe all that’s happening – from a TK room filled with laughter and joy, to figuring out how to support students not adjusting well who are coming to school for the first time. All of those are lessons learned. Looking at the two years of launching grade levels, Alpha has done a good job of going slow to go fast – starting with a grade level each year, moving up, growing and aging with the students along the way. It feels like the right cadence to build out a really robust program. One of the things that we want to be hyper focused on is early intervention. The earlier that we get our students, the more we can influence their academic lives. We want to make sure they’re learning through the methods that we have researched. If we see students who need extra support or help, we’re able to do that early in their educational career. Everything being new to a teacher is overwhelming. It is that partnership as their manager, as their coach, to help them through. No matter if it’s new strategies for phonics or tackling our new curriculum for language arts, it’s important to establish trust and remind them that it’s okay and that we’ll make it work. 

What are some of the challenges that your teachers are facing throughout the pandemic?

I first just want to acknowledge the amazing work that they are doing – the quick adjustments and the overall excitement of starting small groups with students. I want to commend everything they are doing because it is hard work. I’ve never had to teach virtually. It’s hard enough to hold a meeting virtually with adults so keeping 30 little ones engaged is a challenge. Not only do teachers have to plan for the day and track down students, now there’s a whole host of other factors that are impeding students attending school. A lot of it is out of our control. We want the best for our students and it’s hard to provide that when they’re not physically there. Teachers are struggling with that mentally but they’ve pulled out all the stops and are being extra creative. I’m also reminding teachers to take time for themselves and attempt to mentally walk away from things so that they can show up as their best selves each day. 

How are we working with our families so that students can make sense of the world happening around them?

We’re in a lot of homes right now when students log in. There are different opportunities throughout the day to connect with parents such as staying a few extra minutes after a live zoom session or sharing with them a few different ways to support their children at home (make flashcards, let me show you what this looks like when we teach it at school, multiple phone calls with families to navigate tech issues or material issues). Awareness of school being virtual has heightened engagement. Families are reaching out to teachers for support. Schools are coordinating regular meetings so that parents can get as much information as possible. We’re keeping the lines of communication open. Communication is the key to success, especially during these times.

How is your team doing? What are you doing to stay motivated and engaged?

Taking lessons learned from closure in the spring – because of the unknown, we stayed online all the time. It was very depleting in a way. There are times that we forgot about ourselves in those moments. What I’ve done personally is to set aside time to work out and to be away from screens and to be outside when I can just breathe. For the team, it’s about those true check-ins. We used to start every meeting with a fun check-in question and that’s shifted now to, “How are you doing? What do you want to share today? How is impacting you outside of school?” If I hear that a teacher has a workload that’s overwhelming or daunting, then I try to work through that with them by taking things off their plate. Everybody’s acknowledging their health and safety. Feeling isolated is a big theme. To combat this, I am trying to bring everyone together in different ways. Collaboration meetings for the TK/kinder team and first-grade teams to share ideas. One-on-One check-ins to see how each staff member is doing and to share space. Virtual game night or virtual trivia has even been tossed around! 

How have teachers had to shift their approach in order to keep our youngest scholars engaged?

Teachers started the year with a focus on what school would look like – reading books about what school is like. For our TK and Kinders who’ve never been to school before, it was particularly important to start in a manner that’s joyful and just celebratory of school. If you were to pop into one of our Zoom classes, you will hear children singing and rhyming and talking with each other in small sessions. They love to see and interact with each other. We’re setting up a positive classroom culture and helping them build community. It’s also important to think through the technology needs. We have to show them how to use the various functions and what is developmentally appropriate for each age group.

What are you most looking forward to with founding second grade?

Watching our students who started in the 2019-2020 school year as Kindergarteners and seeing their reading skills develop, being able to blend words and recognizing words has been so rewarding. I’ve always enjoyed hiring teachers and look forward to putting together a new team. I love learning about their background and experiences and trying to measure personalities amongst the team members to place people where they will best interact and collaborate. I’m also looking forward to helping teachers set up their classrooms and helping them embrace their personal vision and to move it forward. 

Jake’s team is growing! To be a part of the Founding Second Grade Team, apply today!