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How Snail Mail Connected This San Gabriel Valley School District To Its Youngest Students

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5-year-old Leah Diaz opening a kindergarten care package sent by the Rowland Unified School District. (Courtesy of Chanel Martinez)
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In a video recorded by his mom Maria Fonseca, 5-year-old Noah tears open a manila envelope to discover -- and immediately begin to read aloud -- the book, "My Papi Has A Motorcycle."

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"Do you love it?" Maria asks.

"Vroom!" Noah roars like an engine. "Yeah!"

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5-year-old Noah Fonseca is seconds away from discovering his new book in this screenshot from a video recorded by his mom, Maria Fonseca.

During this year of virtual classes, the Rowland Unified School District is turning to an old school communications method to supplement learning: It's sending out a care package of books, supplies and a little surprise to about 900 San Gabriel Valley kindergarten students every two weeks.

"It's really an opportunity for us as kindergarten teachers to help kids feel seen, and from the start, tell kids that they belong in school, this is your community," said Noah's teacher, Ashley McGrath.

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Across the country, kindergarten enrollment has dropped during the pandemic. Rowland Unified, which serves almost 13,000 students students from Rowland Heights, West Covina, La Puente and Walnut, is no exception. District Superintendent Julie Mitchell said parents told staff they couldn't imagine distance learning with kids that young. When teachers came up with the care package idea, her response was, "don't hesitate, sprint forward," she said.

"Who doesn't like to get mail?" Mitchell said. "Everybody likes to get mail, and when you're 5 mail is amazing."

'WE HAD TO INVENT THE PROCESS AS WE WENT ALONG'

There are also opportunities to pick up materials from the schools. The teachers hope the care packages will help bridge the gap between the virtual classroom and the students' homes. (The district has provided each kindergartener with an iPad for online lessons.)

"We wanted to make sure that kids knew that we were really thinking about them all the time," McGrath said.

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The teachers talked to each family one-on-one at the start of the year and asked about their needs. McGrath also considered her own childhood as she and her colleagues decided what to send to the students.

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Rowland Elementary School kindergarten teacher Ashley McGrath conducts class over Zoom from her garage. (Mariana Dale/LAist)

Her family emigrated from Vietnam and her grandmother often took care of her. McGrath remembered getting detention in third grade after completing her homework in pen.

"Every day, I would bring this one pencil that I had to and from school, and I forgot it at school that one day," McGrath said. "I didn't have things like that in my home."

At Rowland Elementary where she teaches, most kids come from low-income families and some are unhoused. Overall, the district's students are 64% Latino, 20% Asian, 8% Filipino, 4% white, 2% African American. Another 2% identify as another group.

The twice-monthly packages include basic supplies like paper and pens in addition to books (there's a list of them here) and other little surprises.

McGrath has each item and the quantity required catalogued on spreadsheets, including 912 stuffed elephants to stand in as reading partners, 902 slinkies to remind students to "stretch" out words and 902 pairs of foam dice for math lessons.

"We had to invent the process as we went along," said district purchasing director Rosana McLeod, "because we've never really done this in such a large quantity."

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Mario D. Flores and Daniel Meneses both work in the Rowland Unified warehouse and help prepare the packages sent to the students. (Mariana Dale/LAist )

Federal funds to mitigate learning loss during the pandemic helped pay for the materials and shipping. The effort to buy, sort and package each item includes just about every department in Rowland Unified.

Stock delivery worker Mario D. Flores has worked in the district's warehouse since 1985 and runs the gray countertop machine that prints the postage for each package.

"We've been here since day 1. We've never left," Flores said. His grandson is learning from home at a nearby school district and misses his friends. Flores imagines how the students here must feel the same.

"To us it's a blessing, knowing we're doing something for the kids," Flores said.

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Kindergartener Noah Fonseca reads one of the books he received in the mail to his baby brother. (Courtesy of Maria Fonseca )

A SOCIAL BUTTERFLY AND A FIRECRACKER

At the beginning of the year, moms Maria Fonseca and Chanel Martinez, whose daughter Leah Diaz is also in McGrath's class, worried their kids would fall behind in online kindergarten.

Martinez said her daughter is an outgoing social butterfly who loved going to preschool, but now cries some mornings when it's time to log onto Zoom for class.

"Sometimes I don't know what to do," Martinez said. "There's only so much you can say or do."

Fonseca, a nursing student and also mom to a 9-year-old daughter and 4-month-old son, said Noah is a firecracker who's easily bored.

"I wanted him to be challenged and I know sometimes that is a little bit hard when it's not in the classroom," Fonseca said.

Martinez and Fonseca said constantly communicating with McGrath has helped put them at ease.

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Ashley McGrath said the Rowland Unified School District kindergarten teachers chose books featuring diverse characters to send the students. "We wanted kids to be able to see themselves in their books." (Mariana Dale/LAist )

"I love the fact that the school has worked with us, getting them the tools that they need," Fonseca said.

WHAT A SLINKY CAN TEACH KIDS ABOUT READING

Every item in the care packages connects to the kindergarten curriculum. Take what Ashley McGrath described as the "super super special stretching out" slinkies sent in mid-October.

On a Thursday that month, McGrath sounded out the word "books" from her garage-turned-Zoom-classroom as the students watched from their iPads -- at least one student was in a car and another tuned in from a doctor's office waiting room.

"B-b-b-boooooks, b-b-booooks."

As she spoke, McGrath stretched a safety cone orange slinky horizontally. The kids mimicked her motions.

The most effective lessons engage different senses, said Wendy Ostroff, who teaches educators about cognitive development and neuroscience at Sonoma State University and wrote the book, "Understanding How Young Children Learn."

"The next time when you have to think about stretching out a word, if you have a visceral experience of using your body and using the slinky to do that, then you can think of it as just activation of more parts of the brain," Ostroff said.

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Ashley McGrath helps her students label the objects in a drawing created by one of their peers. (Mariana Dale/LAist)

The packages can also help students feel more connected, even if they're miles away from teachers and their classmates, according to Amanda Moreno, associate professor and director of the child development program at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.

"If they're getting physical materials in the mail, that helps children to understand that there is a real person, this is not just a cartoon, this is not just a fake thing that I'm seeing on the screen, like I would watching TV, right?" Moreno said. Once kids have the technology that allows them to access their classes online, she said, getting them to sign on and engage with the lesson can be another challenge.

"It's emotions and attachment that allow for that sense of motivation and belonging, from which all of the learning can then take place," Moreno said.

McGrath doesn't limit herself to teaching from the garage. She carries the iPad through the house, stepping over her daughters' toys to label doors and appliances with sticky notes and inviting students to do the same -- the Oct. 27 package included three packs of regular and mini sticky notes for each student.

"My house is a disaster. And that's OK, but we learn a lot about our families," McGrath said.

She ends each Zoom lesson the same way she would end the day in the classroom.

"I love you, I love you, I love you. I love you, Lexi. I love you, Julian," making sure to say each student's name as they disconnect.

"If every kindergartener could come out of our kindergarten program this year knowing that they see themselves in school, that they are loved, and that they are safe ... then I would be really happy," McGrath said.