Leadership Stories

Boettcher Scholar Dante Disharoon and Boettcher Investigator Dr. Keith Neeves have worked together since 2014. Dr. Neeves, a professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Pediatrics at the CU Anschutz Medical Campus has served as an advisor and mentor to Disharoon, who recently received his PhD from the Colorado School of Mines. Given their long history (for a student and professor) we thought it would be fun to find out how well they know each other, so we posed a series of rapid-fire questions. Here are their responses:   Who would play Dr. Neeves in a movie? Disharoon: Jake Gyllenhaal Who would play Dante in a movie: Dr. Neeves: Keanu Reeves: What are three words you would use to describe the other person: Dr. Neeves: Kind, intelligent and hard working Disharoon:  Erudite, sarcastic and diligent What do you most admire about the other person? Disharoon: “I most admire that while he is doing very intense work he always keeps a sense of humor about it, and he never gets caught up in frustration that can develop.” Dr. Neeves: “I am most impressed with Dante’s work ethic. I would put him at top of list of people I have had work for me. When someone is working this hard, you respect it, you just have a lot of reverence for it.” What do you think the other person would cite as their greatest accomplishment? Disharoon – “I think Dr. Neeves would say that his greatest accomplishment is graduating so many trainees who have gone to be very successful.” Dr. Neeves –“ I’m sure his greatest accomplishment is in the future, but even the growth I’ve seen in the last five or six years has been remarkable.” What do you think the other person would pick if they could choose one superpower? Dr. Neeves: “The ability to manipulate or slow down time.” Disharoon – “I think Dr. Neeves would want the lack of need to sleep. Basically, endless energy.” What is one key lesson you learned from the other person: Disharoon: “Well, I think Dr. Neeves prides himself on being able to ask the right questions and in research, learning how to ask good questions is better than learning how to provide good answers. So, I think I always do my best to think about what kinds of questions Dr. Neeves would ask about a certain data set. And hopefully I've gotten a little bit better at it over the last few years.” Dr. Neeves: “That it really is very much a partnership. When we meet every week and we sort of discuss what's going on, I feel like everyone is pitching in and challenging each other and you know, the product gets better that way.”...

By Erika Gonzalez After more than a decade of running research laboratories at the Colorado School of Mines and University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, Dr. Keith Neeves can easily spot the students well-suited for life in the lab. Those with tenacity and a good attitude tend to cope better with the failures researchers frequently experience. “Doing research is an enterprise for people who don’t mind failing. It’s for people who have a lot of curiosity, and their curiosity is able to get them past the stumbling blocks and a lot of repeated failure,” explains Neeves, a 2010 Boettcher Investigator and professor in the Departments of Bioengineering and Pediatrics at Anschutz. Boettcher Scholar Dante Disharoon proved he fit the profile on his very first day on the job. At the time, Disharoon was an undergraduate at Mines, majoring in chemical and biological engineering and minoring in computer science. Disharoon’s first task in Dr. Neeves’ lab was to address an expensive technical issue. The software for the lab’s high-powered Olympus microscopes had become outdated and upgrading to a new license was going to cost Dr. Neeves a small fortune. Dr. Neeves charged Disharoon with installing an open source-solution in hopes of saving money. Although other students in the lab had been unable to get the microscopes to connect to the free software, Disharoon thought it was worth another try. The result? “I think he (Dr. Neeves) ended up still shelling out money for a new software subscription,” says Disharoon, laughing a bit at his somewhat inauspicious start. Luckily, the software mishap was a small bump in the road to academic success for Disharoon. Seven years after landing in Dr. Neeves’ lab, Disharoon has earned a master’s degree and PhD in chemical and biological engineering, racking up awards and substantial grant funding along the way. In September, he will embark on a postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western University. While hard work and dedication contributed to these achievements, Disharoon has also been blessed with strong mentors and the opportunity to work on a cutting-edge research project that has guided his post-graduate studies. His work has laid the foundation for a groundbreaking new drug delivery system to fight blood clots. With Dr. Neeves and Dr. Dave Marr, a professor at Mines, Disharoon has published scientific papers on the innovative treatment, which involves injecting a patient with “microbots.” Shaped like tiny wheels, the microbots are coated with clot-busting agents and driven by magnetic fields toward the clot to dissolve it. The project has been awarded a patent and the trio have shared their research at conferences across the United States and Europe. The project was in its early stages when Disharoon joined the effort in 2014. Dr. Marr, a Gaylord & Phyllis Weaver Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Mines, had recruited Disharoon to work in his lab and Dr. Neeves’ lab, as he had proven to be creative and proficient at hands-on lab work. They also needed someone who would be unafraid to tackle something a little more unconventional. “We were looking to do something really different. There’s certainly a higher risk and also a higher reward involved in that at some level,” says Dr. Marr, who noted that students at the university are more often drawn to research in the petro-chemical field because the pipeline to jobs is more obvious. But Disharoon’s natural interest in biochemical engineering and his background in computer science made him a perfect fit -- the group needed someone to develop software to direct the microwheels as well as a process to analyze the data. “This was basically a new invention, so it was a steep learning curve for all of us,” acknowledges Dr. Neeves. “It was much different than the classroom environment where you have knowledge, and you are trying to imbue it on students.” Disharoon had initially worked in the lab as an undergraduate research fellow. After he earned his degree, he transitioned into a job as a systems analyst with a local music store. Within six months, Dr. Marr reached out again to see if Disharoon would be willing to collect more data to show the medical community that their research had potential. By 2017, the group had published its first paper on the use of microwheels to dissolve dangerous blood clots, which also became the basis for Disahroon’s master thesis. A year later, the research earned a $3.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which helped fund Disharoon’s further work in the lab. Meanwhile, Disharoon expanded and built on the group’s work. He won an American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship for a proposal to improve the efficacy of the microbot treatment by using the microwheels to simultaneously deliver multiple clot-dissolving drugs. “One of the things I really admire about Dante is that he has a fearlessness about the problems he tackles. I don’t know if it’s my personality or my age, but sometimes you get more conservative about the things you are willing to take on and Dante really pushed us into a new direction,” Dr. Neeves says. “I don’t think I can say that about every student I’ve had. He really carved his own niche.” The group’s work was certainly not without its challenges. Disharoon says he has struggled with skepticism from others in the field about the impact of the data since the treatment hasn’t been tested on animals or humans yet. Those studies were supposed to begin last year at Anschutz, but were significantly delayed because of the pandemic. Dr. Neeves’ lab was closed for about six months. Because access to the lab at Mines was also limited, Disharoon was forced to switch gears, working on computational models that could be programmed from home. COVID-19 also caused Disharoon to earn his PhD a semester late, though it was time he didn’t mind losing. He was committed to seeing some of the elements of the project through to completion. The ball is now in Dr. Neeves’ court, as he will oversee the translational studies of the treatment in animals. If that process proves successful, the project could move to a clinical trial with humans. The goal is to use the treatment to improve current therapy for ischemic stroke, which is commonly caused by blood clots and is treated by inserting a catheter into an artery to remove the clot or by injecting clot-dissolving drugs. Unfortunately, the drugs must be given within three hours of when a patient exhibits stroke symptoms to be effective, while the catheter treatment typically works best in clots involving larger arteries. In fact, 25% of strokes are lacunar strokes, which are located in small arteries of the brain inaccessible to catheters. Disharoon, who will soon study new diagnostic tools for bleeding disorders, says he plans to follow the project’s progress. “I hope that it works. I really hope it doesn’t stall out. The team of people working on it is very dedicated so I look forward to reading the papers that emerge, so I can keep track of the project as it’s developed,” Disharoon says. Dr. Marr says the project has already made a big impact in scientific circles and helped officials at Mines recognize the need for a bioengineering program. “The idea of using microbots to cure disease will be very important as we move forward and you need people who will move those ideas to the forefront and challenge what is possible,” Dr. Marr said....

Share a little bit about your personal and educational background and career goals. One of the reasons I was inspired to help create the Summer Research Training Programs (SRTP) at CU Anschutz is due to having participated in summer programs like this one and realizing the impact they had on me in making the decision to pursue an MD/PhD. No one in my family is a physician or a researcher, and during my undergraduate years at Amherst College I often felt that many of my classmates already had a leg up because they already knew how to navigate the landscape of applying to graduate or medical schools. Participating in summer programs like SRTP, such as the Summer Internship Program at NIH and their postbaccalaureate training program, were crucial to my being able to successfully navigate applying and entering a Medical Scientist (MD/PhD) Training Program. Currently, I am currently a 6th year student in the program and am studying human taste as well as taste signal transmission in Dr. Thomas Finger’s lab. I would ultimately like to be a pediatric neurologist, and I also have a strong interest in education particularly in promoting participation of students who have been historically underrepresented in science. Usually, I am the only person of color in a room, and one of my goals is to help change that experience for those who are coming up along the undergraduate to graduate school pipeline.   Students of color, low-income, and first-generation college students are underrepresented in the biomedical sciences. What does the research say with regard to why? Systemic inequality affects students across all the spectra of underrepresented groups, including those of color, low-income, first generation, and rural students. These students are more likely to lack access to the resources and opportunities needed for them to successfully navigate a career in the biomedical sciences or even know that this exists as a possibility. At Anschutz, the composition of the graduate programs mirrors that of many graduate programs in the United States which do not reflect equitable representation within the university (AMC Graduate School Diversity Report, 6/30/2020). As a means of addressing inclusivity at the graduate student level, the overarching goal for the SRTP is to fulfill the needs of students historically underrepresented in biomedical sciences throughout their progression along the undergraduate-to-graduate school pipeline. This includes providing high-quality research experiences in the labs at CU Anschutz, professional development opportunities, and longitudinal mentorship. Our program’s focus on local recruitment allows us to offer longitudinal opportunities and training, both of which are critical to meaningfully address underrepresentation in biomedical fields.   As you know, getting quality research experience in a lab often correlates with a competitive medical school or post graduate health sciences program application. Talk about the lab experiences your students are receiving as part of the Summer Scholars Program and the difference and impact that experience can have for students early in their undergraduate careers. Each of our students is paired with a principal investigator who serves as their primary mentor for the summer, and they have additional graduate student or postdoctoral fellow as mentors as well. With their mentors, the students work on summer research projects as a means of cultivating their critical thinking and technical skills. Mentors are also encouraged to work with their mentees to incorporate their unique perspective into their projects. For example, we have a Native American student who, as part of a project on music therapy in Parkinson's patients, inspired her mentor to expand on a Neurologic Music Therapy study to incorporate traditional indigenous music as part of the technique. This example highlights one of our core beliefs that increased diversity on the Anschutz campus can only enhance the breadth of research that is performed.   This is your first year operating the Summer Scholars Program. Tell me about the program structure, activities, and the experiential components that the students are engaging with? Our approach to administering these programs mimics the operational style of the NIH’s Intramural Research Training Awards: applicants complete one application routed to specific institutes, which have unique administrations for their trainees. Similarly, SRTP applicants complete one application and are considered for training slots across participating graduate school programs, called “research tracks”. This simplifies the process for these students to explore their interest in biomedical research and pursue longitudinal experiences. This year, we launched two tracks - one in Neuroscience and another for students interested in Physician-Scientist (MD/PhD, MSTP) careers. Being able to start with two tracks was only possible due to the efforts of the ten MD/PhD and graduate students working together across two teams as well as our partnership with Erin Golden, the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Activities at CU Denver. The hope is to add more tracks each year that span the range of biomedical research fields. As a whole, the SRTP is designed to address the various components needed for a successful application to graduate and professional schools. The primary activity is research experience in which students help design and complete research experiments, learn scientific technical skills, and build relationships with graduate-level scientists in the lab. In addition to the lab component, we have weekly seminars in which students learn career development skills, including science communication, networking, and building resiliency. Their experience culminates in a poster session in which they present their summer research project and is attended by faculty, staff, and students at CU Anschutz. We also have hosted career panels for the students so that they are educated about the breadth of biomedical career opportunities. One of our most important endeavors has been to create opportunities for peer-to-peer interaction and mentorship, as it is crucial for students - particularly those from underrepresented groups - to form lasting relationships and a community of like-minded scholars.   What have been some of your learnings and successes with the inaugural cohort of 17 students? This program has its roots as a shared vision between MD/PhD and graduate students at Anschutz in which undergraduate students from groups historically underrepresented in biomedical sciences are able to not only gain research experiences in the labs at Anschutz but to also build a community as they progress along the undergraduate to graduate school pipeline. Because this type of program was new to those of us creating it, we quickly had to learn to coordinate across multiple teams, delegate our responsibilities and engage across all the academic and administrative levels of the university - from principal investigators to the financial officers in the graduate school. This type of experiential learning has been incredibly helpful for us as it has allowed us to learn more about stepping into our future roles as leaders and mentors in academia. Our real success has been in the formation of an SRTP community among the undergraduates who have come to campus this summer as well as in all the groups - students and faculty alike - who have worked hard to get this program running. We’ve seen the SRTP students convening together on the quad and sharing their experiences with each other - one of our students even offered to be a student ambassador for SRTP at her institution now that she has completed the program! We are now adding this as a component for our alumni network. Community building is a crucial part of our mission because of how detrimental feelings of isolation can be among underrepresented populations, and we want to address this early on in the undergraduate to graduate school pipeline.   What are your goals for the program going forward as you think about impact and sustainability? The SRTP is designed to be a flagship program for undergraduate biomedical research at CU Anschutz that spans multiple departments and disciplines in an effort to improve accessibility for undergraduates interested in biomedical research careers. As part of this, we have created the SRTP Alumni program, which serves students who have already participated in SRTP, and manages our alumni who are continuing to work at Anschutz past the summer. We have several students this year who will continue to work part-time in their host labs throughout the school year because of their summer research experience. The alumni program also provides continuing education and programming as these students proceed along the undergraduate to graduate school pipeline. We believe that by providing our students with a complete mentorship experience - that is, one that includes research experience, professional opportunities, application assistance, etc. - they will be ideally positioned to succeed in biomedical careers. ...

DENVER, August 5, 2021 — The Boettcher Foundation is excited to announce the first cohort of Fellows to participate in its new Doers & Difference Makers Fellowship. The Fellowship, a component of the Foundation’s COLead Initiative, aims to bring together community champions from across Colorado in order to elevate them and grow their potential as contributors to our state’s leadership landscape. “Every one of these individuals has the ambition and drive to improve our state,” said Katie Kramer, president and CEO of the Boettcher Foundation. “They truly represent the promise of Colorado and potential of Coloradans. Our goal is to connect them with other Colorado leaders and ultimately augment their impact.” The nine-month Fellowship experience will launch later this month in Denver. The 2021 Fellows come from a variety of backgrounds, sectors, and geographic regions; though they are all unique, they have in common a determination to influence their communities through their service and courageous leadership. The Fellows are listed as follows: Brisa Chavez Lead Educator and Hispanic Engagement Coordinator, Garfield County Public Health Rifle Trisha Herman Executive Director, Phillips County Economic Development Holyoke Sherrell Lang Educator and Co-founder, Kwiyagat Community Academy (first charter school on Ute Mountain Reservation) Towaoc Azarel Madrigal-Chase Program Director, Southwest Community Fund Alamosa Mathew Mendisco Town Manager of Hayden Hayden Adrian Mendoza Assistant Director of Advisement, Denver Scholarship Foundation Denver The COLead Initiative is the Boettcher Foundation’s effort to build a connected, inclusive, and accessible leadership ecosystem in Colorado. The Foundation has a long history of supporting human capital through its scholarship program and other grantmaking. “This work is a continuation of our 84+ year history,” Kramer said. “COLead represents our strategic approach to elevate community champions, strengthen leadership networks, and convene stakeholders in a collaborative way.” About the Boettcher Foundation: At the Boettcher Foundation, we believe in the promise of Colorado and the potential of Coloradans. Every day we champion excellence across our state by investing in talented citizens and high-potential organizations, because supporting their hard work and leadership will enable them to give back for years to come. First row: Brisa Chavez, Trisha Herman, Sherrell Lang Second row: Azarel Madrigal-Chase, Mathew Mendisco, Adrian Mendoza ...

By Curtis L. Esquibel Today is going to be a good day in the eyes of Katrina Ruggles. The habitual optimist, this is the daily devotion she gives herself as she scans her overscheduled calendar. This day, in particular, has significance. Ruggles will teach in person to her middle and high school students in Center Consolidated School District 26JT for the first time in more than a calendar year. “We’re coming full circle,” she says, with joy radiating from her voice. “I think back to a year ago right before spring break and literally the day before we went into a training on trauma-informed care and responsiveness. And then COVID hits.” The timing on the training was prophetic and the year since certainly can be characterized as, at times, traumatic for students, families, and educators in the rural San Luis Valley District. But it has also been a year of so much more. A 21-year educator in the district whose multiple hats include counselor, teacher, and grantwriter, Ruggles says the past year has helped her rural district and community to rethink education with a perspective she has made her life’s work: focusing on the whole child. “We have placed a deeper emphasis on social emotional wellness,” said Ruggles, herself a mother of six with her kids ranging from early elementary to college age. “Keeping a spotlight on that has been my priority. Many teachers have been worried about lost learning, which is important, but my focus has been about lost connections.” Connecting is Ruggles’ superpower, and it always has been. A native of Sanford, a rural town located 45 miles southwest of Center, Ruggles has built her career on being a resource for her community. Her ability to mobilize people was never more evident than last spring and summer. First there was the rollout of a plan to call every one of the 400 families in the district multiple times to connect with them so that students could finish out the year successfully, in particular the 2020 graduating seniors. The other motivation of the phone calls – to ensure that every family could connect virtually to classrooms and each other. Not much to her surprise, Ruggles said nearly 60 percent of families didn’t have functional Internet at home. Upon seeing that data point, it was time to get to work. Ruggles’ team, called the Center Positive Youth Development, includes two parent liaisons and facilitators, a counselor, and a social worker. After three weeks of around the clock coordination with the Colorado Health Foundation, which provided funding support, and local providers Ciello and Go Jade, the families were online. This was a major feat for a district where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Then, in combination with social services and the nonprofit organization she founded, Center Viking Youth Club, Ruggles helped coordinate drives to give away food, hand sanitizer, masks, and toilet paper. More than 1,500 people showed up for the drive, many of whom logged significant drive times for the support. Relationships with families, often spread miles apart across the 650 student district, were already built on a strong foundation. This is because Ruggles is known for one of her primary outreach strategies – in-person home visits. Though they were no longer possible, she shifted her focus to training other educators on how to conduct virtual visits with students and families. “Family and school partnership is something that has come out of COVID as an impetus for community-building,” said Ruggles, who manages a district grant portfolio currently of $2.3 million. The foundation of school-to-family collaboration is also helped by a district-mandated advisory period where the emphasis is on teachers knowing their students personally. At times, she said, teachers have pushed back against advisory because it adds to their daily list of responsibilities, sometimes outside of their subject matter expertise. “Suddenly there was less push back,” said Ruggles, who is currently finishing her Ph.D. program in counselor education at Adams State University. “Everyone was saying we have to check on our kids to see how they are. What we started to see was social-emotional wellness elevated in a way it hasn’t been before. We are at a tipping point to see positive change.” That change, Ruggles says, hopefully will continue with offering more flexibility with how and where students learn. Some students, she said, have found they learn better online while others recognize they are stronger learners in school. Behavioral issues have dropped dramatically this year, an interesting data point Ruggles says she will continue to follow. Leadership, Ruggles says, is focused on continuous improvement and thinking about how to prevent the mistakes or misses from the past. Two things that still haunt her: the inability to locate a few students and families last year and the increase of students who failed courses last spring and during the fall 2020 semester. Data are an important part of Ruggles’s work as she follows her students long after they graduate. She points out that in 2004, only 20 percent of the district’s graduates were going on to postsecondary education. For the past four years, that number has increased averaged about 91 percent. In thinking about COVID’s long term effects in education, Ruggles says she has her own worries as a parent when it comes to learning loss. In the same breath, she is quick to point out that her family doesn’t struggle for basic needs in the way many valley families do. For all families, she contends, the solution to overcoming COVID challenges and impacts is the same one she has dedicated her career to – relationship-building with a focus at the system-level that involves teams of educators, including teachers, faculty, administrators, and community resources. “Though this has been the hardest of years, we’re really on the cusp of something regarding the future of education,” she said....

By Kat Falacienski, 2020 Boettcher Scholar and Boettcher Foundation Intern “We need to take this virus seriously,” I insisted. It was early March 2020. “There are already fourteen cases in Washington, and I just saw a news report that estimated that the virus had been circulating there for six weeks!” My classmates stared at me dubiously. “And studies are already showing that the novel coronavirus is both more contagious and more deadly than the flu.” They shrugged it off, some telling me that I was being silly. A part of me began to hope that there was a massive pandemic just so I wouldn’t turn out to be wrong. Two weeks later, though, I was proven right. On March 13, I walked the halls of my high school one last time before boarding the bus home, to my new life of social distancing. By May, I had applied for a gap year from college. My father has several pre-existing conditions that put him at heightened risk for severe COVID (he refers to himself as Corona Bait™), so I didn’t want to risk in-person schooling. Remote learning, despite my teachers’ best efforts, had been haphazard. Typically I’m a perfectionist, but now I struggled just to keep up. I didn’t want my first college courses to be like this. I have been social distancing for over a year now. Fortunately, my mother can work from home and make enough money to support us, so I don’t have to risk my life in essential work. I can leave the house to walk the dog, ride my bike, and little else. After a few months of unemployment, I found remote work for a math tutoring company before taking a communications job at Boettcher. Through my now-electronic social interactions, I began to notice something interesting. I’m autistic, and while my autism isn’t all of who I am, it affects every facet of my life. As a result, I was social distancing long before the rest of the world was. I’m used to isolation, having been an outsider for most of my life. I’m used to feeling worn out from ordinary conversation (which is why I find the phrase “Zoom fatigue” incredibly amusing). I’m used to living in uncertainty, having only a blurry idea of what the future would hold. During remote learning, my classmates began to complain of the very things that I’d taken for granted, and I realized that, suddenly, they were living my life. Half the country was living my life. I had long suspected that most people would have difficulty handling an experience like mine, but I had always felt a sort of pride in that. I was tough, hardened by the world in a way that these people could not possibly grasp. But when I heard my classmates lamenting the time they should’ve been spending with their friends, time that was now spent staring at dusty corners and grubby computer screens, or the torrent of anxiety stirred by being alive in the current moment, or even just the lingering notion that something was off — I felt that. And I could no longer pretend that I was tougher or more capable, because I wasn’t. I had been inadvertently prepared, yes, but autism doesn’t come with a secret superpower that unveils itself only when there’s a deadly virus on the loose. Like many autistic people, I rely heavily on routine, most of which I lost overnight. Like my peers, I felt crushed by the world; reading the news was physically painful. There was even a point when I wished I could have a conversation with someone other than my parents — what a feeling! Just like my friends were getting a taste of what it was like to be autistic, I was getting a taste of what it was like to be neurotypical (non-autistic). Lockdown, for me, is almost over. My parents are getting vaccinated, and I will be eligible for the vaccine in a matter of days. Herd immunity will be achieved in the United States. But while I’m excited to get out of my parents’ house and into college, I’m not pining for a “return to normal.” The concept of “normal” is variable, depending on who you are, where you live, the opportunities that you have or don’t. I hope that we as a society remember that as we advance beyond COVID. I hope that we not only prepare ourselves for the next pandemic (because, yes, there will be another one), but create a better, more accessible normal than the one we left....

By Curtis L. Esquibel The first day of school jitters these were not. In two-plus decades of teaching, Tonya Saenz typically would greet the annual launch of another school year with the same nervous excitement of anticipation – a feeling of optimism blended with possibility. But August 27, 2020 felt different. Fear, uncertainty, even a tinge of self-doubt. These were Saenz’s emotions as the eager eyes of 29 second graders greeted her through her home computer monitor. The weight of obligation felt heavy for Saenz. A self-described “mama bear” in her classroom, her role on this day, in this time, felt different and expanded. Her responsibilities to lead, perform, and engage were more heightened than ever. You wouldn’t know it by observing her. On display were her typical expressions of positivity and patience. The pit in her stomach felt just the opposite because the virtual environment was so out of her control. “I remember calling Kari Wagner (fellow teacher and longtime friend) at the end of that first day, and we both just cried,” said Saenz, who has taught at Prairie Hills Elementary in Thornton since the school opened in 2003. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this?’ So much happens on that first day. How can we be able to teach if we can’t hug them when they’re sad or need encouragement?” ____ That same morning about 10 blocks from Mrs. Saenz’s home, my 7-year-old needed definitive encouragement to get out of bed. Never a morning person, Adilene was more spry than normal yet remained tempered about the idea of remote learning. “I can’t wait to actually go to school,” she told me, her head buried under the covers. “I don’t want school to be at home and looking at a computer.” I empathized with that statement. Adilene had a front row seat to my life working from home and sitting through hundreds of hours of Zoom meetings and calls over the past six months. Though, like any parent would, I tried to spin the situation toward optimism. I referenced a new year with a teacher, Mrs. Saenz, whom she had looked forward to being a student of (my son, now 13, also had Saenz in second grade, and she remains one of his favorite teachers). I was also quick to remind her of her new desk at home and school-issued Chromebook. “It’s not the same as going to school, Dad,” Adilene said. “And you know it.” My daughter is one of those kids who idolizes her teachers and runs an imaginary classroom in her free time. Our living room is stocked full of piles of homework packets, calendars, and booklets she makes for her students as she teaches them. It’s a serious operation with a consistent theme: Adilene only teaches her imaginary students in person. Virtual learning, in particular for an introvert who doesn’t like a lot of eyes on her, was something she had been dreading. At 8 a.m., Adilene logged on to her first official Zoom class and the journey began. “Good morning, friends, welcome to second grade,” Saenz greeted her students. For the next six weeks, Saenz, like thousands of teachers across the country, would build relationships in the vast social experiment of virtual learning. About three weeks in, she found herself in somewhat of a rhythm. “It was amazing how we were able to build those connections virtually,“ she said. “I was surprised how well I got to know them over Zoom.” During the first few weeks, Adilene and I worked next to each other at the kitchen table in case she needed technical guidance or learning support. It felt like a typical school day, lots of participation, silliness, reading, and arithmetic, along with the typical virtual challenges of classroom management around microphone and camera use. There was a surplus of humorous moments, too. Early in the year, one of Adilene’s classmates wasn’t able to locate his homework packet. Saenz instructed him to ask his parents if they might know of its whereabouts. She recalled aloud that she had distributed the packet at back-to-school night. “I would ask my dad, but he’s asleep on the couch,” the boy said, matter-of-factly. Adilene and I looked at each other and erupted in laughter. Soon enough, she asked to transition to her bedroom because, in her words, she didn’t “need me anymore and wanted more privacy.” Saenz, like most educators, encouraged independence in her students. Steadily, Adilene began to express her personality to her classmates. I would secretly stand outside of her room, listening to her engage in small group activities. I would hear her laughing, being herself, and it gave me comfort – and peace of mind – that more hopeful days were ahead. On Sept. 28, Adilene and her classmates returned to school for in-person learning. It felt like the first day of school all over again, except better. Saenz said she had never been so happy because she knew her students would experience each other in a different way. Some students, like Adilene, had an instant boost of confidence from learning in person. The feeling lasted seven weeks. On Friday, Nov. 13, Adilene and her schoolmates left Prairie Hills knowing they were going remote for an extended period of time as a COVID-19 precaution. “When I had to break the news, I had two kids start to cry and about half of them just dropped their heads,” Saenz said. “They were heartbroken, and I got that anxiety again.” The anxiety would subside, because Saenz and her students, now 16 of them (a number chose to stay fully remote for the year while others opted for home school) adapted yet again. They pushed through the finish line of the fall semester knowing that a return to in-person learning in January was the plan. One of the highlights of our holiday break was Saenz dropping by for an impromptu visit and special delivery. She did this for every one of her students. By mid-January, Adilene had metamorphosed into a miniature professional. She was writing notes on Post-Its, organizing downloaded files on her computer, and uploading homework assignments without supervision. One January day, we were finishing a lunch-time basketball game of horse in the driveway when she glanced at her watch. “Hurry up and shoot because I have to be back on Zoom in three minutes,” she said. On some days I barely saw her as she focused on her learning tasks and looked forward to a class reunion of sorts. When the mid-year assessment season came, Saenz was admittedly nervous. Upon viewing the scores of her class, the students generally were performing right where she had hoped. She was shocked at the growth in their scores. “These kids amaze me with how resilient and strong they are,” she said. “They’ve almost matured a little more than they needed to at 7- or 8-years-old. I think they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished.” And they should be, as should Saenz. As a parent, I attribute my daughter’s socio-emotional and academic growth to Saenz and the other educators in her life. As an educator, Saenz has acquired new skills for teaching that will endure for future lesson planning and delivery. Her fellow teachers collaborate more around innovative teaching and curriculum ideas than ever before in her career. She is part of a group chat of teachers who message each other around everything from teaching techniques to moral support and encouragement, especially on Mondays. “All of these years I just thought of myself and my fellow teachers as doing our jobs,” Saenz said. “I never thought of us as leaders, but I guess we are.” No guessing in this case. This is an absolute truth – on the first day of school, the last day, and every day in between....