This spring I heard a great idea for end of the year teacher gifts. Instead of gifting a coffee gift card or candle, write a letter to the Superintendent and/or principal detailing your gratitude for the teacher. I thought this was just beautiful, but as I brainstormed what I would say about our teachers, I realized that it wasn’t a letter about a single teacher that I had to write, but really a story about them all.
We started Niwot Elementary School (NES) in January of this year and to say we were exhausted would be an understatement. Months earlier we had received Beau’s relapse diagnosis. We had been homeschooling after understanding that our previous school, and community, fell very short of supporting us after the dust had settled. In addition, like everyone, we had been surviving the global pandemic. Long story, tolerable: we had been rode hard and put away wet, as they say. NES was a soft place to land, and a peaceful place to survive this spring. What a gift it has been to us. Below is the email that I send to the St.Vrain Valley School District and Board of Education.
If you have a thankful thing to say to someone, say it! Better yet, say it to someone that it would matter to. I considered the same thing with out recent nanny. As she departed, we lavished, well deserved, words of adoration on her. Later on I thought to myself, I should have told her to tell her parents. ‘Tell your parents what we said Katy. Tell them how much we adore you. How honest and kind you are. How well you’ve tended to our family in our hard season. Tell them that all the hard-work they put in to rearing you is coming to fruition!’ I mean, what a gift to hear, as a parent, that your child is a blessing to others.
Anyway, say the words, you guys, say the words.
Greetings Mr. Haddad et al,
As we finish up this school year I wanted to reach out to you and let you in on some things that have been happening over at Niwot Elementary this spring.
A quick back story: My son Beaudin (age 9) was diagnosed with Leukemia in January 2019. At the time, we attended Rocky Mountain Christian Academy. As you would imagine, it was a very hard season for our family and before long it became clear that the best way to ensure Beaudin’s education, in and out of hospital visits, would be to homeschool him. We began homeschooling him and his younger brother, Jude (age 7), in the fall of 2019.
Soon enough COVID was upon us, and as you can remember, in the early days of the pandemic no one really knew the risks to immune compromised students, specifically those with pediatric cancer. Because of those unknowns, we continued homeschooling into the fall of 2020, despite Beaudin doing very, very well and staying healthy through treatment. In November of 2020, we received the crushing news that Beaudin had relapsed. It’s possible to say that the relapse was harder news to receive than the diagnosis. Two years in to intense treatment, we were back to square one and our survival odds had been slashed. We ended 2020 bruised and weakened.
Over the Christmas break holiday, in consultation with our doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Colorado, we decided that it was safe for Beaudin to begin attending classes in a public venue. Pediatric cancer kids have escaped this pandemic similar to immune-normal kids, which is to say, at very low-risk. Additionally, I was under a great deal of stress, not to mention a full-time job, understanding and navigating how we would approach Beaudin’s treatment going forward. We decided that we would enroll our kids at Niwot Elementary School (NES) so that, at the very least, I could take their education off my plate.
As soon as I reached out to Nancy Pitz, Principal, I was met with a generous spirit. It turns out Niwot was not our home school like I had thought, but regardless, she helped me understand the Open Enrollment process. Rebecca Rowley, Office Staff, held my hand through it, making sure that my application was complete and all other ducks were in a row. Within days, days!, my son’s were enrolled and ready for school. The day we enrolled, I received a call from Marianne Martinez, School Nurse, to talk through any medical requirements Beaudin had. She was tender and caring with me from the outset and worked quickly with our team at Children’s Hospital to ensure that Beaudin was safe and supported in school actives like dodgeball during P.E.
The afternoon of enrollment, I received a text from a teacher asking if I could bring the boys to meet them on the playground for an introduction. What a gift, as I thought we’d be sending them off Monday morning without any relational connection to NES. We went over to the school and had the pleasure of meeting our sons’ future teachers, Lise Murphy (3rd Grade) and Jessica Easley (1st Grade). Because of COVID restrictions I was not allowed in the school, but the teachers escorted my boys in for a “Grand Tour!” and suggested they use my iPhone to take a video to show me and their dad later (a video we reviewed many times before school began on Monday!) Afterwards we all went to the playground and the boys explored the equipment while I connected with Lise and Jessica. With much more to detail in this letter, I will spare writing verbatim the conversation, but let me just say that that afternoon put my worry to rest as I knew we were among the gold standard.
Our boys started in their classrooms and with the help of their teachers integrated seamlessly. Despite running their classroom for the first, extended, time in-person all year, these teachers took my boys under their wings and invited them in to community as though they were the only ones new to the party.
Soon after starting school in January, we learned that Beaudin would have to travel to Philadelphia for 6-weeks for treatment. I was nervous of how that would work with schooling, and the level of inconvenience it would introduce. From the moment I mentioned this to Ms. Murphy, she was only supportive. In the next couple weeks, we worked together to navigate what it would look like to make this work. Quickly, we had an entire team helping us navigate a 504/IEP plan. I remember getting off our first conference call and thinking that the resources that a public school provides are incredible.
In the weeks leading up to our departure, Bethany Zerkanski, Counselor, met with Beaudin to offer him additional support. Though Beaudin has “handled this (cancer) well,” I would be remiss to say we have given full care and attention to his emotional wellness. We have always kept a pulse on it, but between two other children and a LOT of doctors appointments, here, there, and everywhere, it has not be top priority. To have Ms. Zerkanski offer to check-in with Beaudin was a welcome support.
As we prepared for leaving for Philadelphia, Ms. Murphy and I worked closely to get Beaudin a bunch of curriculum items for him to take along. She collected books, worksheets, texts, teacher guides, etc. to ensure Beaudin (and I!) had everything he needed. One afternoon she said to me, “Betsy, even if Beaudin doesn’t learn a single additional thing in Philly, he will be ok! We want to ensure he feels connection and loved by our class, that he feels like he is missed, and most importantly, that he feels like we are eager for him to come back.” I suppose some may say there could have been more of a focus on the curriculum, but that was never my concern. When your child relapses from cancer, sure you want them to stay somewhere near grade-level I suppose, but really, what you want is for them to survive. And in the duration of that survival, whether it be months of many, many, years, God willing, all you want is for them to be loved, well. Ms. Murphy had this priority alongside us.
Despite her priority on his emotional well-being, Ms. Murphy also ensured that he was included in all their class work while away. Thanks to WebEx, Beau was able to log-in often and sit through lessons with his classmates. Ms. Murphy would connect with me on when the best times for Beau to log-in were, and text me during the day if the schedule was shifting. On the days where Beau didn’t log-in for whatever reason, she would shoot me a text and make sure everything was ok. One day, mid-way through our visit, we were surprised to receive snail mail from NES. The package contained hand-written letter from each of Beaudin’s classmates. As we read them I asked Beau if he was shocked to receive such a thoughtful gift. His reply, “Not really, because Ms. Murphy always has us write kind things to each other. She has us practice being like this.”
Each week while we were in Philadelphia, Ms. Zerkanski, Counselor, would have a zoom call with Beaudin and chat with him about this and that. One day, she endured him explaining the sequential order of each Star Wars movie and how it compared to it’s release date. I was always thankful for his time with Ms.Z because there was no expectation. During Beaudin’s extensive experience with appointments, any adult he meets with has an agenda, while Ms.Z had none. I always felt gratitude as I heard him open-up to her with no reason at all.
It would be easy, and we often error, to focus on Beaudin’s plight while describing our family’s experience with pediatric cancer. However, our sweet Jude, has also had the full-experience of this life altering diagnosis. Immediately upon starting at NES, Jude grew attached to his teacher, Jessica Easley, 1st grade. I would say that she gave him set-apart TLC, but as I have gotten to know her, and spoken with other parents about her, I think her “set-apart TLC” is truly offered to each student! Ms.Easley, was so sweet to Jude, but also to me, as I navigated how to navigate break-up our family for 6-weeks. On days when Jude had a rough drop-off, Ms. E would email me with a picture of him enjoying his snack with his new friends, ensuring he was doing well. Though I was never able to take her up on it, she offered an open-invitation to FaceTime with Jude any day during lunch. Ms. Easley checked in on us via text often, letting me know how Jude was doing, and asking about Beaudin.
Also supporting Jude was Isabelle Goulder (Mrs. Izzy), Social and Emotional Interventionist. It’s hard to explain what a gift Mrs.Izzy was to Jude. Jude took Beaudin’s diagnosis very hard and spent a lot of time in 2019, in play-therapy as we navigated his emotional health and self-regulation while grieving what was happening to his brother. Additionally, Jude feels left out of everything. Despite adults understanding the trial of a cancer diagnosis, Jude observes that Beaudin gets more screen time, more attention, and less school. To be able to offer Jude “his own counselor, just like Beau,” went a long way. To support the family fully, not just the child with the diagnosis- this is what I saw time and time again at NES.
Luckily, because our teachers went above and beyond, I worked very little with Nancy Pitz during the year. However, every single time I saw her she asked about Beaudin, about our family. Even during a quick connection in the drop-off line at 9am, she made it clear that we were a part of the NES family and fully-supported.
Rebecca Rowley, Office Staff, was always available to me. Whether is was me apologizing for forgetting to let her know Beaudin was missing school for an appointment, helping me look (from Philadelphia) for a winter coat in the lost and found, and more. I never got a chance to meet her face-to-face, but she was always prompt, kind, and attentive in her email and phone communications with me.
Marianne Martinez, who I mentioned above, was always professional, but also loving in her interactions with me. She would address the nuts and bolts in any interaction, but then offer personal support and encouragement of how I was doing a great job as a mom. Marianne is a perfect balance of work-ethic and heart.
I do hope that this recognition of your staff is as enjoyable for you to read as it is for me to write. When thinking about how to thank the NES staff after such a long year (for them! And us.) a coffee gift card or candle just didn’t seem to suffice. Niwot Elementary has been a soft place to land for our family and our true gratitude is forever bound by the limits of the English language.
Please know that Niwot Elementary School is achieving, above and beyond, the SVVSD mission of inspiring and promoting high standards of learning and student well-being in partnership with parents. What a gift we have in NES.
Betsy and Joshua Larrabee
Beaudin (9), Jude (7) and Selah (3)