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School beats odds, students thrive in midst of pandemic

ICY teachers and staff take care of themselves and de-stress with a much-deserved laughter wellness session.

For the past 23 years, Integrated Center for the Young, a preschool and grade school in Quezon City has always led a modest existence. As a progressive school, it maintains small class sizes, such that learning is personalized and tailored to the needs and interests of students. Teachers teach in teams in a community where all faculty members and school staff make a deliberate effort to know all the students personally.

Diversity is celebrated at ICY. “We have students with special needs who learn and grow together with their typical peers,” said Dr. Melanie S. Alejandro, ICY co-founder and directress. “These students may have learning difficulties, autism, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, Down Syndrome, developmental delays, communication disorders, etcetera. All children are welcome. Our students learn the values of compassion, service to others and inclusivity, among many others.”

Alejandro, a developmental and clinical psychologist who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of the Philippines, is also a licensed professional teacher who, in her own words, “seeks to make a difference in the lives of Filipino families through the education of young children, as well as the provision of guidance for parents and young adults.” With more than three decades of teaching, she’s best known simply as Teacher Melanie. 

Struggling, amid a pandemic

With the pandemic in full intensity in 2020, many businesses, including several schools, permanently closed down. ICY was also affected. I was at an all-time low,” said the school owner-teacher. “At that time, my family was also reeling from the recent loss of our sister, Aileen, and I was, personally, in no condition to take care of others’ needs. I entertained the idea that this might be the end of the line for the school. I was ready to surrender and declare defeat. How could a small school like ours be expected to weather this terrible storm?”

(Note: Dr. Alejandro’s sister, Dr. Aileen San Pablo-Baviera, was one of the first Filipinos to succumb to Covid in March 2020. She was the Philippines’ leading expert in Filipino-Chinese relations and was in Paris attending a conference, where she was infected. She was able to come home but her family didn’t get to see her nor care for her as she was in strict isolation in a hospital.)

The thought of leaving more than thirty teachers and personnel and over a hundred students and families without their second home and without their support system weighed heavily on Alejandro’s heart. Then, a wondrous phenomenon transpired.  “The teachers—bless their ginormous, unfaltering hearts—rallied to prop me up and infused me with courage, energy and hope so we could ride out the storm and overcome it together. With their optimism, drive, and sacrifices that put me to shame, my passion was rekindled and I immediately set to work,” said the educator.

Alejandro did research and consultations about how ICY’s management needed to evolve in response to the changed circumstances. From both an educator and a developmental psychologist’s perspectives, she devised a unique “Community Recovery Program” to address the needs of the entire ICY community of students, staff and their families. It was an ambitious plan entailing close to a total revamp—from curriculum content, to policies, learning platforms, teaching strategies, assessment, training, support programs for academic growth, mental health, livelihood, and much more. “Essentially, we were creating a new school! It was stressful, exhausting and uncertain, but it was what was needed if we were to support our community in the way they needed to be supported,” Alejandro said.

The school’s management took care of the student sub-community by keeping class sizes small (an average of 10 students per class); keeping the teacher-student ratio high (one teacher to eight students or less); systematizing team teaching (two to three teachers per class); developing highly interactive classes; simplifying curricula; building a play-based or fun-based teaching approach; counseling at-risk students, among many other innovations. 

Alejandro’s team took care of the sub-community of families by offering scholarships and tuition discounts; ensuring close collaboration and communication between parents and teachers; assigning developmentally-appropriate tasks to students (so they don’t need to seek their parents’ assistance); and conducting parenting webinars and support groups, among other strategies.

The sub-community of teachers and staff were provided training, technological support, flexible work schedules, lighter teaching loads (due to team teaching), access to psycho-social support, among a long list of new school policies designed to preserve the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of its people.

ICY students, families, staff and friends join forces to help support others through a community pantry effort.

Support from BNI

It was at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year when Alejandro was invited to join BNI, a support group comprised of business owners and managers committed to helping each other succeed.  “Being part of this support network taught me invaluable skills,” the school owner-teacher said. “From fellow business owners in different fields, I learned how to innovate, to expand services, to be better at marketing the school, and to look beyond my own struggles to support others who were also going through challenging times.”

After an entire school year of online classes, and against all odds, ICY’s students are thriving. Teachers are more productive than they’ve ever been and, for now, are content with virtual hugs from their students. Families are supported and give overwhelmingly positive feedback. Even the community was supported through a community pantry initiative by the school. “I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to make a big difference in people’s lives—at one of the worst times in contemporary history—when it truly mattered the most,” said Alejandro.

“Our bounceback is a huge accomplishment. The pandemic has pushed us to develop strengths and skills we didn’t even know were in us, simply because our students and their families deserve the best care and support,” added the school owner. 

“As a result,” she said, beaming, “our students can’t wait to log on to class! They actually feel bad when classes are suspended and they genuinely enjoyed the pandemic schoolyear!”

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