Chief Leschi Schools:
Preparing students to walk successfully in “two worlds”
The team at Chief Leschi Schools (CLS), a state/tribal compact school located between Tacoma and Puyallup, prides itself on preparing students to walk successfully in “two worlds.” They teach their students – nearly all indigenous learners – to embrace native culture and aim for their highest good. Maybe it was this mentality of embracing two realities that allowed staff, students, and families at CLS to work together to keep kids safe and engaged even during the toughest days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Marc Brouillet, Superintendent, and Jeannine Medvedich, Chief Academic Officer, led a multifaceted pandemic response that incorporated a marketing campaign for testing, specialized communications to different members of the school community, and athletics testing even after the mandate ended.
CLS serves 670 students and their families from 4 counties in Washington State. 60% of students are from the Puyallup Tribe, while 39% are from 60 other recognized tribes with a presence in the Puget Sound region.
Multi-generational, multi-family households are common in Indigenous communities, creating more opportunities for COVID to spread in the home. By providing access to COVID-19 testing to the entire school community and their families, CLS allows students to stay in school and keeps families safe.
“Because many students live in multigenerational households and families, we want to be more precautious and protective and try to be cognizant of how we identify cases early and offer testing across as broad of a scope of the population as we can. And the practice was well received by the community.”
– Marc Brouillet
At Chief Leschi all grades (Pre-K to 12) are located on the same campus, so an outbreak in elementary school can easily spread to secondary school. They now utilize daily testing to allow siblings of students with a positive test to attend school after testing negative each morning, which keeps absenteeism at lower levels.
But it isn’t enough to simply offer testing; Brouillet and Medvedich have to market it. They worked hard to create a marketing campaign that focused on positive promotion, representing access to testing as an opportunity rather than a requirement. They also tailored their communications to different audiences so that school leaders, students and parents got the information they needed. But as Brouillet notes, “Just when you think you have the answers, things change.”
For example, testing is no longer a requirement for student athletes in Washington state. However, it remains an integral part of CLS’s mitigation plan. Because student athletes travel to communities up to two hours away, often in areas with low vaccination rates, the staff decided to maintain testing even after it was no longer required. Athletes are tested at the first and last practice of each week, allowing coaches, teachers and athletes to prevent outbreaks before they happen.
Market the opportunity, not the disaster
The pandemic was a disaster, but Brouillet and Medvedich built a marketing campaign around positive promotion, highlighting opportunities to mitigate COVID-19. Access to testing was a “get-to” rather than a “have-to,” and a chance to interact with favorite school staff members.
Take a layered approach to testing
CLS ensures that testing is accessible for the whole community since many students live in multigenerational households. Anyone who needs a test can contact the school and get tested safely in the parking lot.
Tailor communications to different target audiences
CLS distributed a magazine tailored to different audiences. Teachers/school leaders get detailed technical information, while parents/students get the easily digestible information they need. In their communications, CLS simplifies complicated topics, avoiding hypotheticals and uncertainty to give parents confidence.
Set clear expectations
Brouillet and Medvedich set clear expectations for students and families when CLS reopened for in-person learning. As the pandemic evolved, they continued communicating clear expectations and based decision-making on common-sense.
Train and compensate staff
CLSs trained a number of staff in each department to administer tests, record results, and track positive cases. This substantially increased the workload of office staff, coaches, and trainers. But CLS was intentional about allocating resources and compensating staff for the extra value they provide.
Put in the time
At the onset of remote learning, CLS implemented a 3-year technology plan in 3-weeks, getting technology in the hands of all students who needed it. They set up hotspots, sent Student Success teams house-to-house to check on students and help them log in, and distributed tests and masks – all across 4 counties. That time, effort and care built trust and demonstrated that the CLS team was committed to keeping students safe.
Evolve with intention
As Brouillet, Medvedich and their team created policies and procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID in their schools, they were also building a public health response infrastructure that was flexible and adaptive to meet the ever-evolving situation. They adapt policies and procedures based on data and by monitoring what works in real time to evolve with intention. CLS can quickly put more stringent pandemic response measures in place if needed because the infrastructure and institutional knowledge is well established.
“Even though no one else is testing at this point, we have made it the climate and the culture that we value and respect the health and safety of our athletes so much that they are policing themselves and each other now. It’s difficult – but it’s exciting that we’ve created a culture where people are evaluating and thinking: ‘Wait a minute. I’d love to have this kid on the field today because we could win, but are they enough days out after COVID?’ I love that we have gotten to the point that it’s an inside out change instead of a top down force.”
– Jeannine Medvedich
While other schools saw a decrease in attendance and graduation rates over the pandemic, Chief Leschi saw gains. Four to five years ago, the school had a 57% graduation rate, and in the year before COVID it was 75%. In 2021 and 2022, CLS had a 92% graduation rate.
When the pandemic began, Brouillet and Medvedich watched as their students’ entire lives started coming through a device in their homes. The CLS team adapted lesson plans to an online structure and broadcast into living rooms, while the CLS Student Success Team, Bus Drivers, and Para-Educators delivered instructional materials, meals and checked-in on students as needed. This approach allowed CLS staff to remain a part of students’ lives.
When students returned to school for in-person learning, it was a different world filled with masks, testing and mitigation measures. But Brouillet and Medvedich believe that it was the full package of pandemic support that built confidence. The work they put in and the time they spent supporting students and families sent a clear message that student health and safety was a priority. CLS also made sure that staff were compensated for their time and expertise. And the results are clear.
“People ask: What’s the one thing you’re doing to achieve this? There’s not one thing. It’s all different things that come together. Testing is one of the elements. Athletics is important so keeping athletics safe was important. We created a full environment that keeps kids safe and healthy. An environment where success is expected and can be accomplished.”
– Marc Brouillet
We were having learning gains at a time when people were having massive learning loss. It was a complete paradigm shift. We were having better attendance at a time where people were not attending. It was a sunny spot.
– Jeannine Medvedich
The team at CLS is realistic about COVID’s long-term impact – we have a new way of life. As a school community, they’re working to ensure all students and staff feel safe and protected even as many mitigation measures are relaxed. What that looks like, however, depends on funding.
Like many other schools, CLS worked hard to stretch COVID funding for as long as possible. Brouillet and Medvedich admit they are “holding on tight to be able to maintain [the] program even when funds run out.” Even as COVID numbers decline, there is still a need for masks, for cleaning fluid, for disinfectant sprayers, and for staff time.
“Every district will probably echo this. We all have had to use these COVID funds to make changes in our schools, and now we are coming to the end of that funding. Some schools are still utilizing funding this year and maybe next. But some of the things we still need to have in place require supplemental funding. That’s something we can’t disregard – we’re not just back to normal. With flu levels this year, we re-started classroom and office misting as a preventative measure.
We need to do this to keep students safe. There are practices we know are good practices. But funding that is provided to give us the ability to do those things isn’t long-term and isn’t being replaced.”
– Marc Brouillet
Despite the uncertainty around future funding, CLS is poised to respond to the public health needs of students and families. Their multifaceted, successful pandemic response kept families safe and improved learning outcomes for students, giving them space to focus on the core ethos of Chief Leschi Schools – walking successfully through the two worlds they occupy.
About Chief Leschi Schools
As a tribal school, Chief Leschi Schools has all of the same testing and graduation requirements as public schools, but includes a cultural aspect as well. Cultural teachers support students to learn more about their history through different subject matter, and students can receive culture-based credits towards their graduation requirements.
Chief Leschi Schools is no stranger to accolades, they’ve received the Beacon School Award from Imagine Learning, have been spotlighted by Verizon for getting smart hubs into homes that needed them most and have had their Culture circles televised throughout the state and presented Nationally for the BIE (Bureau of Indian Education) Schools on how to create a comprehensive plan for remote instruction.