REGIONAL – Two years ago, Jonnie Lyn Evans was promoted by the board of River Valley Charter School to be the school’s executive director. Before her first year was over, her school was shut down and the students and teachers were forced into remote learning.
This year, things could have gone the same way. But Evans assembled a team of teachers and administrators who worked through the summer setting priorities. She was determined to find a way to get students back in the classrooms.
As one of the most difficult years comes to an end, River Valley has managed to conduct in-person classes daily for all grade K-6 students since August.
That accomplishment has not gone unnoticed. The Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce named Evans its Educator of the Year and recognized her accomplishments this year at its annual meeting. Educator of the Year was one of eight awards the chamber making this year, including the Community Hero, Frank Giacalone, director of Newburyport Public Health.
State Sen. Diana DiZoglio and Newburyport Mayor Donna Holladay attended the chamber’s annual meeting. Television broadcaster Mike Lynch at WCVB was the master of ceremonies.
River Valley is a regional public charter school serving students from Amesbury, Groveland, Merrimac, Newbury, Newburyport, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury.
The school opened in September 1999 with 160 students enrolled in grades 1 through 5. It reached full capacity of 256 students in grades 1 through 8 in 2002. Now with two kindergarten classes, its total student enrollment is 288. Students within the four school districts are selected through a public lottery with the only preference given to siblings of currently attending students.
Evans was selected Educator of the Year by the chamber, because of the school’s innovative program, particularly its outdoor learning program, implemented for the upper grades this year.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, the River Valley Charter School implemented a unique Outdoor Classroom program to keep students involved in hands-on-learning. Every day, rain or shine (or even snow!), students go to various outdoor locations such as Spencer Pierce Little Farm, Maple Crest Farm or the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, to learn in an interactive, safe environment. This type of learning gets students away from the computer, and allows them to engage in in-person learning with classmates in a dynamic environment,” the chamber stated.
A “stunned” Evans told The Town Common. “It sounds trite to say it, but the truth is our success is directly attributable to our staff members. The teachers have been amazing.”
In a message to school staff and parents, River Valley’s assistant director Dan Bouchard wrote: “In such a difficult year, it is a testament to Jonnie Lyn’s leadership and skills, but also to all of you for your flexibility, versatility, commitment, and dedication to the students and families of our school community. This award is for all of you too!”
One of the school’s smartest decisions, she said, was to have the students come to class every day. This was accomplished by reducing class sizes to half and having students attend school daily for half days, either in a morning or afternoon session. That way they were not isolated at home for four or five days each week, which experts have said is causing students mental health issues.
Most students were also assigned to classes with teachers they knew. “With so much uncertainty, giving students familiar teachers was one of the best things we did,” she said.
Evans recognized that River Valley is able to be nimble due to its size, with less than 300 students, but teachers have been extraordinarily flexible, allowing the school to innovate to cope with the Pandemic. In addition to hiring an onsite cleaning porter, improving the air filtration system, opening windows, universal masking at all levels, redesigning classroom spaces, and ensuring small cohorts of students, she created the outdoor program, where science and environment were the core curriculum.
Every other week, the students in the upper grades attend a full-day outdoor program. “It looks like a field trip to an outdoor learning center every day,” Evans said. The students visit one of three farms or the national wildlife refuge where they learn about weather, mapping, water systems, and farming.
No matter what Mother Nature throws at the students and staff, they come to learn in her words, “wearing muck boots and all-weather gear, ready to explore and learn outdoors.”
“Math and literacy lessons are integrated into the outdoor day and punctuated with nature journaling, measuring and geometry lessons in giant fields, mapping, water testing, model building and other hands-on activities,” Evans said.
She has enjoyed watching some students for whom the outdoor program has provided a different approach to learning. They have demonstrated more confidence in themselves while learning outdoors and are showcasing leadership skills that might not have been apparent in the more traditional classroom setting.
Evans also credited the support of parents and caregivers for the school’s success this year. “Parents really stepped up,” she said. “They believed in us. It was a big ask.”