This is the first story in a series titled “Pandemic on the Mind” where we explore the experiences of our staff during the coronavirus pandemic through a professional and personal lens.
Role: Director of School Incubation
Joined The Mind Trust: April, 2016
Having just returned from maternity leave in February 2020, Sonja Peters was ready to get back to working with The Mind Trust’s School Fellows in advance of one of our single biggest school launch years in our organization’s history. Then March came, the pandemic slowly taking over all aspects of life, resulting in school and business closures, a shift to working from home, and a host of new challenges to tackle.“When we first went remote, I thought it might only be a month or so. By the end of April, we realized nothing about this year would be business as usual.” Sonja and our School Incubation team had to fully rethink their programming. Gone were the usual ways of preparing a school for launch, with numerous in-person recruitment events, canvassing, and school open houses. It required reimagining how schools would launch.
“At one point, we questioned if we should even try to launch any schools this fall. Was it really a good idea with a pandemic raging to try to launch brand new schools?” But equity, one of The Mind Trust’s core values that Sonja holds especially close, prevailed. “We realized we could not pause this work since high-quality schools are more needed now than ever. Particularly, if you look at who has been most affected by the pandemic, if we care about pursuing equity for students, doing nothing this year was not a viable option.”
Sonja worked with the schools that were preparing to launch in fall 2020 to ensure all had virtual options to offer students and families alongside ensuring schools had access to necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). She helped schools navigate accessing state and federal aid, rewrote budgets to accommodate PPE and one-to-one technology needs, and adjusted Fellow trainings to include additional resources for social-emotional learning and supporting students in a virtual environment.
Despite shifting guidelines and uncertainties concerning everything from school start dates to transportation, her commitment to these schools and The Mind Trust’s larger mission never wavered. “The pandemic has amplified my passion for our work. Every day, I see our teachers and leaders able to respond to what is best for kids in the moment because they aren’t dealing with bureaucracy.” Back in March, The Mind Trust planned to support school leaders in launching at least five schools in fall 2020. Instead, we supported the launch of nine, a testament to the passion and perseverance of our School Incubation team.
“We have seen more than ever that equality is not enough. We need equity. The students we serve have been the most affected by this pandemic and we know that we can make a difference. We need to double down on that.” Despite 2020’s difficulties, a major highlight for Sonja has been the chance to work closely with and support the launch of two high schools: BELIEVE | Circle City, launched by Innovation School Fellow Kimberly Neal; and Rooted School Indianapolis, launched by School Fellow Ma’at Lands.
Sonja sees each of these incredible leaders and their schools not just working for kids in these unpredictable times, but already excelling. “The communities that Kim and Ma’at are building within these schools are really inspiring. Students are not only challenged and held to the highest expectations, but they’re part of a school culture centered around belongingness and autonomy. My entire educational experience as a refugee in this country emphasized assimilation and following directions, and I am determined to ensure our students have a more inclusive environment that celebrates their differences and embraces their whole self.”
In response to how this year has challenged her, she repeatedly came back to the word patience. “Juggling a newborn and full-time job during the pandemic has been the biggest challenge of my career. The Mind Trust has empowered me to always do what is best for my family, and that inspires me to do my best work for our students. It might be at odd hours, but when you care, you get things done.”
Pictured above: Photo 1 – School Fellow Ma’at Lands; Photo 2 – Innovation School Fellow Kimberly Neal; Photo 3 – Sonja with her husband, Rick, and daughter, Natalia