Challenge Accepted

By Kristen Page

The Auxiliary Programs team stares down the intricacies and wonders of logistics, takes childcare and the campus to the next level —and comes out on top.

Things were looking good for enrollment for 2020’s Sidwell Summer, the School’s seasonal programming. “We launch enrollment in December, and by March 15, we were on record to have a banner year,” says Karen McCann McClelland, the director of Auxiliary Programs at Sidwell Friends. “Then we got stopped in our tracks.”

The pandemic didn’t just affect summer activities. Suddenly, everything the Auxiliary Programs department handles went up in the air: early morning care, aftercare, the Special Programs After Regular Classes (SPARC) enrichment program, the Fox Den. Everything had to be reinvented for a virtual world. “I took that as a challenge,” McClelland says. “Our team looked at the situation and said, ‘Okay, what are the challenges for the Lower, Middle, and Upper School?’”

The first challenge was adapting expected programming for the end of the 2019/20 academic year. All of the SPARC enrichment programs went online, as did aftercare. But this new world required new ideas. First, the team created the Lunch Bunch, which offered Lower Schoolers a chance to get in some much- needed casual socialization and conversation over the course of the spring. But for the Auxiliary team, summer still loomed, a great unknown chasm hurtling toward them: The School was going to need a lot more activities—activities that would work well online. That meant brainstorming, developing programs, finding counselors, and making it all happen fast. Help came from a somewhat surprising section of the Sidwell Friends community—one that also needed some help.

“There were Upper School kids who couldn’t do their service learn- ing, and the summer is when a lot of them get that done,” McClelland says. “So we allowed them to do service learning by mento- ring and working with Lower and Middle School students.” They also asked the Upper Schoolers to tap into their own interests and create dynamic sessions for Lower and Middle Schoolers. Eventually, there were dozens of programs and options; to say they were varied is an understatement. “We did yoga. We did mindfulness. We did soccer,” McClelland says. “We did virtual field trips to zoos, and they’d talk about the animals. We did book clubs, art activities, scavenger hunts. The Environmental Club did a whole environmental week.” As a result, younger students were entertained and engaged, and the Upper School students collectively earned more than 850 hours of service learning.

In addition to summer initiatives designed specifically for Sidwell Friends students, the Auxiliary Programs department also sold more than 1,200 sessions of Sidwell Summer camps, providing virtual programs for over 720 campers throughout the Capital region, across the country, and even around the world.

But the challenge was far from over; the next looming blank slate was on the horizon: the opening of School. Over the summer, it had become clear that many faculty and staff members faced the same problem as millions of other parents across the country: balancing working from home with caring for children or helping them attend virtual classes. How could Sidwell Friends employees teach or work online while still supporting their children’s distance learning? “We did a lot of town halls with employees who have kids, and what they needed was childcare, and in particular, school-aged childcare,” McClelland says. “We were tasked with making that happen.” It was a tremendous effort. The team had to expand the daycare center to include a classroom for 3- and 4-year-olds in addition to the babies and toddlers, and they had to create a learning space for employees’ children, who attend different schools across the area. “We got the Early Childhood Learn- ing Center opened up in mid-August. The school-aged childcare opened up right after Labor Day.” With their kids in supervised, safe learning sessions four days a week in small, socially distanced cohorts, Sidwell Friends faculty and staff could work without as many distractions. And it wasn’t all work for the children: They participated in enrichment activities, like playing soccer or painting pumpkins at Halloween, too.

Meanwhile, with all of those balls in the air, the School as a whole was deep in preparations to move into hybrid learning. And so, the Auxiliary Programs department was back on the ground, handling pickups and dropoffs, subbing in for faculty, proctoring, pitching in during COVID testing, and delivering lunches. They were essentially helping to run two schools—the learning space and daycare for the children of employees, and the Sidwell Friends School proper.

For all the amazing Sidwell Summer programs, like the new Summer Equity and Justice Institute, check out

The team also continued to develop programs to support students’ emotional and social well-being. After the success of the summer programming that paired Upper Schoolers with young campers, the Auxiliary Programs team launched Friends Across SFS. Lower School students were matched with either Middle or Upper Schoolers. And Upper Schoolers were matched with either Middle or Lower Schoolers (7th and 8th graders had the option of buddying with younger or older students). The buddies meet mostly one on one (there are some small groups) once a week for an hour just to hang out and talk.

“Is there a way to meet both the needs of our younger students, who need some more meaningful connection time, and then also to meet the needs of our Upper School students, who need to do some service and can benefit from being trained as mentors?” wondered Alex McCoy ’04, the associate director of Auxiliary Programs. There was a way: “We filled both those needs.” Auxiliary Programs reached out to 60 Upper School students before expanding to the current number of 94 older students, all of whom receive training in online safety, how to build a rapport with their buddy, and strategies for talking to different age groups. Then the team sent out a call to find the younger kids.

“I was immediately excited by it, because I love the idea of the kids connecting with each other—especially during this time when we’re so isolated, but even in normal times,” says Heather Tatton-Harris (P ’29 P ’27), mom to Aidan ’29, one of the “littles.” “Lower School kids and Upper School kids connected together during the pandemic just seemed like a beautiful idea.” At first, Aidan did not necessarily agree. “I felt little bit scared,” says Aidan. “I’m only a 4th grader and he’s an 11th grader—so that’s seven grades away. He would be like a giant to me.” Aidan wasn’t the only one with a few cyber-butterflies in his stomach. “I was very anxious,” says Thor Burkhardt ’22, Aidan’s big buddy. “I was excited, but I was worried. I wanted to make a good impression, because I really cared.”

At first, Aidan wasn’t sure if he wanted to have the first conversation all by himself and considered keeping his mom close. “Before the first meeting, he pushed me out of the room like, ‘I’ll do this by myself,’” Tatton-Harris says. “So I left and then I just listened in to see how it was going—and the chatter was nonstop. There was not a lull in the conversation.” Aiden was pleasantly surprised, too. “He asked a lot of questions, so I liked that,” Aidan says. “He started at Sidwell in 9th grade, so he doesn’t know any- thing about the Lower School, so he asked a lot about what’s happening in the Lower School. And then for the last 30 minutes, I was telling him about this video game I like to play called Marvel Contest of Champions.” Burkhardt remembers it well: “He told me all the dos and don’ts of which characters I have to buy, which characters I don’t have to buy—he got very into it. My little buddy really likes Marvel, and he got a kick out of my name being Thor. The thought that went into the selection of the buddies—I’m impressed by that.”

He should be. Matching buddies was a process the department took very seriously, and the amount of information they had to work with varied wildly. “Some people were very detailed, especially some of our Upper School students,” McCoy says. “Some people wrote, ‘Both of my parents are immigrants,’ or, ‘I come from a two-religion household.’ For some of our younger students, it was as simple as, ‘My child is an African American boy and would love to be paired with an African American older student.’” Then there were the Minecraft fans, the kids who like to play soccer, and the kids who like to bake. “So, it was a lot of keyword searching,” McCoy says, “to pair kids off.”

The Friends Across SFS program has also been a way to connect the DC and Bethesda campuses in a way that simply wasn’t possible before the pandemic. “It’s a shame that we have a preK–12 School, and we can’t have Upper Schoolers who want to work with kids at the Lower School during aftercare,” McCoy says. “We don’t have collaboration among clubs or other opportunities like this because of our campus issue” (i.e., the challenge of being on two campuses). But when COVID hit, it seemed like a moment to capitalize on a student body untethered from their campuses. “I don’t like creating anything that isn’t sustainable, so there’s been deliberate thinking about where this program belongs in the future,” McCoy says. “Even if we’re all back in person, full time next year, there’s no reason not to continue a program like this.” Burkhardt agrees. “I’m there as another resource, another outlet, and just another touch point,” he says. That won’t change just because the kids will return to School. “The primary goal is just to be another friend and another person to talk to,” Burkhardt says. “I hope I’m bringing that.”

Auxiliary Programs also had to reinvent the Fox Den. The shift began before the School moved into distance learning. “Starting in January 2020, we started off sanitizing all the areas in the Fox Den,” Imani Tillman, the Fox Den’s barista, says. “We were just constantly sanitizing because we didn’t know what other procedures should be enforced—and then in March, we shut down completely.” By the fall of 2020, the Facilities team had installed plexiglass throughout the café, creating individual plastic cubbies, and ever since students have been able to once again grab some coffee or a muffin when they’re on campus—even if it isn’t quite the hangout spot it once was. “A year ago you’d come in, it would be packed to the brim: You’d just order, get your drink, and either hang around or leave,” Tillman says. “Now we have plexiglass and stickers on the floor that are six feet apart. There can only be five people in there at a time. But it’s actually really nice to have every- one come back in and get their normal drinks and at least kind of do their normal thing.”

But what to do with all of the Fox Den’s Sidwell Friends swag? When the Fox Den closed, the store didn’t even have an online shop. So, the Auxiliary team created one, and Tillman managed the orders, which included both shipping and no-contact orders. In addition, the department started to stage pop-up shops during students’ supply pickups or during days when the School is COVID testing on campus. “We did pop-ups where people could sign up for a shopping slot,” McClelland says. “Families want that; they want to feel the connection with the School. It makes them feel a little bit normal to be able to buy a sweatshirt.”

Check out all the foxy fashion and cool swag at the Fox Den! the-fox-den

With every change, new program, and new responsibility, the School adapted. Sidwell Friends returned to hybrid learning in January, and depending on circumstances, the School will stay in hybrid through spring break, buffered by a week of distance learning, and then return to campus for in-person learning five days a week. With the expanded in-person learning schedule, the Auxiliary Programs crew is busy preparing for extra aftercare and SPARC programs. Uncertainties no longer faze McClelland and her team, who are ready to roll with whatever COVID throws at them. “Hopefully all the divisions know that we’re here to help support the School,” McClelland says. “We’ve got an entrepreneurial staff who’s willing to think outside of the box.”

Now, with vaccines more and more available, hopes are up for a Sidwell Summer 2021 that looks more like 2019 than 2020. Whatever happens, Auxiliary Programs will educate, enrich, and, especially, play. “The magic of camp is not always the content,” McClelland says. “Parents are often looking for that next specialty camp, but some simple programs and just letting campers play and be outside are so important." After a year like 2020, just being together will indeed be special.

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