Helms Middle School redefining what it means to be a community school

Helms Middle School redefining what it means to be a community school
Photo courtesy of GO Public Schools West Contra Costa.

This story was originally published by GO Public Schools West Contra Costa.


Back in Mexico she was called Zucy — by her family, her friends, and her teachers. But when she arrived for her first day of school in the United States as a 7th grader at Helms Middle School in 1994, she was surprised to learn she’d be known as Erika. 

“Who was Erika? I had no idea!” laughs Erika Ruiz-Rodriguez, now a mother of two living in Richmond. “I had always been called Zucy in Mexico, and then suddenly I not only had a country change and a language change, but also an identity change. I was lost in this big transition.” 

Ruiz-Rodgriuez eventually settled into the American public school system, in large part because of the support she received from services at Helms Middle School. It was through these programs that she made the connections that ultimately led her back to the Helms community this year — this time to help support the families of the newly-established Helms Internationals Academy.

Keeping students at the center of the conversation

HIA, as it’s known affectionately by the Helms community, is a designated program for Helms Middle School’s newcomers — students who have been in the United States for three years or less. HIA helps students navigate their new home and learning environments by providing academic support, as well as access to wraparound services like mentoring and counseling. 

The HIA student body is made up of nearly 100 students largely from countries in Central and South America, as well as parts of Southeast Asia. HIA students take classes on a block schedule to allow for more time to build language structures, and as a cohort to give teachers the opportunity to work closely with them and offer focused support. 

HIA teachers are given a daily collaboration period where they come together to discuss student progress and share ideas on how to improve programming. “What happens is that teachers are talking about kids all the time,” explained HIA’s Lead, Priya Sembi. “Even if we’re talking about our program, we’re talking about our program in terms of how to best meet the needs of our students. Ultimately we end up talking about kids everyday all the time.”  

The HIA team’s conversations center around more than academics. Teachers and support staff often use this dedicated time to make phone calls, hold interventions, or make referrals for additional services.  

Helms Middle School has adopted this model more broadly, and while the rest of the student population is not cohorted like HIA, the hope is that creating smaller in-school communities held by core teacher teams will help to make sure students don’t feel lost and left behind, said Sembi.

A simple check-in goes a long way

When the decision was made to open HIA, Helms Middle School Principal Jessica Petrilli and the HIA team were intentional about building a community that both offered a safe space for newcomers to learn and take risks, and that would be fully integrated with the rest of the student body and the staff. 

“We asked ourselves, ‘how do we make sure this doesn’t become a school within a school?’ It’s still one school,” shared Principal Petrilli. 

Now, with one year behind them, it’s clear that HIA’s programming has done more than help newcomers — it has shown evidence of best practices for the entire Helms Middle School staff to consider, starting with the inclusion of a school-wide advisory period. 

Sembi said the HIA team latched onto the idea of a “homeroom” when they were first building out the program, and explained that it is now an essential point of connection for teachers to tap into the socio-emotional needs of their students. Joyce Synnott, the Beacon Director for Helms Middle School, agreed, saying that the HIA team has offered a lot of support in-house to students during advisory. 

“Previously, newcomers were scattered throughout, and there was a sense of not fitting in,” said Synnott. “But kids really feel connected and seen in HIA. [They’ve] found a home.” 

Principal Petrilli credited the HIA team’s recommendations for playing a big role in the staff’s move to incorporate an advisory period in the master schedule for the next school year for all Helms students. The staff is also considering the adoption of a block schedule — like HIA — to allow for more student engagement and instructional support.

Community relationships matter during times of rapid response

As a full-service community school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD), Helms Middle School has long been known by local families as a reliable conduit to essential services. So when WCCUSD closed schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Helms staff didn’t skip a beat in finding ways to be of service to the community.  

“Because we had this team so steady before the pandemic, it was just about delegation and saying, ‘okay, who’s doing what?’” said Principal Petrilli. “We leveraged our strengths and we got to work.” 

The HIA team developed and distributed a survey to find out the needs of their families. After a round of follow up calls, Wilson Ordonez, HIA’s sole Graduate Tutor, approached the principal with an ask to look into raising funds for direct relief. The team sprang into action and set up a GoFundMe, with the initial goal of supporting at least 20 families to meet urgent financial needs. Ordonez subsequently partnered with Ruiz-Rodriguez to help HIA families access additional financial assistance. 

The responses from HIA families prompted the Helms staff to survey the entire school to better understand who else needed emergency relief. Recognizing the depth of their community’s need, the Helms staff doubled down on their fundraising efforts, and to date has raised more than $15,000 for families. 

Principal Petrilli, eager to be out in the community, then volunteered to deliver $500 in cash relief to the Helms families who indicated financial distress; as did Caleb Maldonado, a mentor with Peacemakers Inc. at Helms Middle School, and other members of the Emergency Relief Team including Synnott, Adrian Reyes Antonio, and Jacquelyn Meinen. 

Maldonado praised the Helms staff’s quick adaptation to the new norm, calling it “key” for students. He also commended his colleagues and service providers for being visible in the community during this pandemic, and for their ability to anticipate need before it’s voiced. 

“Helms has been able to have some good folks who just see it… and know the need,” shared Maldonado. “We know what we got at Helms.”

Synnott reiterated that the team has done really well throughout the pandemic, and credited this to the investment they have made in building relationships over time, both with the community and with one another as teammates. Trust, she mentioned, is a key component. “We’re seeing the benefits of that trust,” she said. 

As the Helms staff gets ready for a much-needed summer break, several questions still remain unanswered about what the upcoming school year will look like. The path forward, however, will undoubtedly be planned out with the same care, trust, dedication, attention, and whole-community approach that is core to the Helms identity and vision. 

“If there have been any doubters of the effectiveness of a full-service community school I hope they [now] understand what it is,” shared Principal Petrilli. “It’s hard to quantify the work we do… but you can hear it through our voice and our passion, that a community school effort is how you keep a school whole.” 

Helms Middle School is still raising funds to support families in need. If you would like to make a donation, please visit their GoFundMe page.