Virtual Town Hall Takeaways: A Conversation with Dr. DiPaula

By Uma Ribeiro

Editor-in-Chief

Image Source: Hammond SGA

The Bear Press sat down with Hammond Principal Dr. John DiPaula through a virtual call to discuss the town hall meetings held for students on Tuesday, December 15, Thursday, December 17, and Friday, December 18 at 10:50 am. A separate town hall was held for seniors and freshmen while a joint one was held for juniors and sophomores in which students were free to ask Dr. DiPaula, administrators, and student leaders questions regarding online learning, mental health, and anything in between. About 30 seniors, 30 juniors and sophomores in total, and 3 freshmen attended the town halls.

Dr. DiPaula explained how the town hall meetings were organized. Hammond Student Government Association (SGA) President Shivani Modi opened up most town hall meetings, with SGA Treasurer Ama Stott opening one of them as well.

“Shivani [and] Ama….spoke about SGA first, and then we had our class presidents speak at each meeting. Then they turned it over to me and I shared a little bit of bullet points like when we’re coming back to school, who is making that decision, what the renovations look like…I told them they could ask me anything and I also mentioned about when athletics were going to start and pushing for other activities to happen. I told them when athletics start, I would like to have some of the other clubs and activities to be able to come together because people want fine arts and music and drama and dance and clubs and activities and robotics and government because not everyone’s an athlete, but that’s what you keep hearing about from the board, and that’s fine, but I told [students] that these are the things that are important to me and I want to make sure that happens for you guys.” 

The Bear Press discussed the questions and concerns that were most common among the students who attended the town hall meetings with Dr. DiPaula.

“Now, their questions and concerns ranged from ‘can we not have any work that’s put out mid-week?’ I heard that a couple times. Some students love the idea that teachers are putting everything out at the beginning of the week, they can organize it, they can make it happen and then one or two said, ‘well, sometimes we get assignments mid-week and that’s kind of overwhelming when we’re planning for what we already have.’ Seniors wanted to know about senior activities. We talked a little bit about potentially having outdoor prom [and] about graduation…We’re going to try to graduate on the football field if we can’t do Merriweather.”

Students are also eager to see the teachers they miss and also want more synchronous support time.

“One of the things I heard multiple times, especially from eleventh and tenth graders, was that they wanted the opportunity to see the adults, the teachers, that they don’t have this year. Seniors want synchronous support time in between 11 [am] and 1 [pm]. It’s a little more complicated because teachers have negotiated agreements, they have other responsibilities in addition to planning and grading, so it’s not so easy… I can’t just say ‘we’re all going to do this,’ but I do respect the fact that we all want to get together, [and] we want to see former students.”

The town hall meetings allowed for some plans to be set in motion to address students’ requests to see teachers and mentors that they have not been able to so far this year. 

“I went back to our leadership team which is Mrs. Osborne and Mr. L and Ms. Sibrian and Ms. Isch and Ms. Hart and everybody… and said these are the things that students are bringing up at the town hall [meetings]… Mr. Osborne suggested we do something called ‘Coffee Break’ on the first Monday of every month during Bear Time, and we’ll put out a link for every teacher that is available and students can go on, and on the first Monday of every month they can see whatever teacher they want to see from last year or the year before or people they know who might be their mentor or their coach or their sponsor, and we can make connections that way, and so I think we’re going to give that a shot starting January when we come back [from winter break]. Another thing is, my intention was when we come back to school February 1st, I wanted to create some time that week for students to be able to meet their teachers from semester one in person, just to have a conversation with each other. That’s important stuff and we’re going to make some of that happen.”

While many ideas and plans came out of the town hall meetings, representation of the entire student body was lacking. 

“[The town hall] was not a good representation of our overall population [of students] with regards to the coursework that students are taking. So, I think, a lot of the students who came had pretty good grades and are taking pretty rigorous courses, and they’re engaged and want to know what is going on with school and everything. However, I have one student who came who is a good student too, but who said that for ‘those of us who have IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) or who have a learning disability, it is a little more challenging to get the support that we need in the virtual environment’ because they’re used to having more individualized support, more one on one help at times, or small groups.”

Dr. DiPaula continued, commenting on how these concerns have been addressed this school year.

“There are students who sometimes will get pulled out of a class, for example, to go somewhere separate to take an exam where they have less distractions, and so… that was a concern. We’re trying to [address these by] having virtual support sessions and virtual pullouts, but it’s not the same thing…I explain to students that it’s also harder for teachers because, [for example], in a classroom, your math teacher could walk up and down the aisle and give everybody one problem and can see where are you, who has it, who doesn’t, who needs more support, or if most people do not get it and if they should teach it in a different way.”

Dr. DiPaula then commented on what he took away from the town hall meetings. 

“One takeaway [from the town hall] is I think that we should encourage grade level teachers, so for example, for the 12th grade town hall, encourage English teachers and people who have mostly juniors and seniors to say, ‘this is a reminder that this starts today at 10:50 so I’m going to put a link in the chat box so you guys can hop over,’ so something like that could get to more people because I’d like to have a greater turnout.”

Dr. DiPaula also mentioned the unique challenges freshmen are facing this year, having not yet been in the building, and how those are being addressed.

“For ninth graders, I think we are going to start [the town hall] at the end of class to [increase freshmen turnout]… SGA is working on a digital game where you have an icon or an avatar and you can bump into other people and have discussions with them and they’re going to try to do some things to support ninth grade.”

More town hall meetings will be held when students and staff get back from winter break in January. 

Dr. DiPaula concluded, “I want to have the opportunity to really lift up student voice, and as I tell students all the time, it’s your school, right? Sure, I’m running it with teachers and administrators, but it’s your school and I want to give you the best possible experience, and so we need to know what’s on your mind, how you’re feeling, and how things are going, so I really want to spend more time listening to students…in this [virtual] environment. We’re here for students and that’s why we do what we do, and I think that’s important.”

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