Joel Bradley walks the East Las Vegas neighborhood that is home to Mack Middle School students, and the longtime educator’s work wardrobe is memorable: a mask, face shield and gloves.
Two thirds of Mack’s families live in apartments and trailers in a high-density, low-income setting — the sort of environment where COVID-19, unfortunately, can quickly spread. Many reside in large households with extended family members.
Bradley, a former science and math teacher, is Mack’s student success advocate. He has visited small trailers that house parents and multiple children, and recently stopped at one home where several children were asleep on the living-room floor.
It was 9 a.m. and the students hadn’t participated for days in the Clark County School District’s distance-learning program that was adopted in response to the pandemic-driven closure of schools. They have been given laptop computers and internet access, courtesy of the School District, but not every Mack student was logging-in to their computers.
So, the 49-year-old Bradley is knocking on their door.
“If they’re not getting into class, we’re at their doors. If their grades have dropped, we are at their doors,” he said.
His first home visit has a friendly tone. “Hi, how are you? We’re just showing love. The next conversation isn’t as nice,” Bradley said of his technique for persuading students to attend online classes.
One of the homes he regularly visits has 11 children. He has been to the house four consecutive days, trying to get the students to log on and tackle their daily lessons. “Everything I try is not helping,” he says.
Another family on his daily route was evicted last week for a second time from their housing unit. Bradley hadn’t been able to find them as of Friday afternoon, but the Mack student he’s searching for has a Clark County School District Chromebook, and Bradley expects to spot him through the device’s locational information.
Also among his responsibilities is delivering 200 breakfasts and lunches every school day during the pandemic shutdown, knocking on as many as 150 doors.
The goals are multifold: ensure that each student is safe, secure and properly fed, and also attends online school.
“We make a point to get eyes on certain families: Are the (kids) happy, bruised on any part of their bodies; are they doing what they need to be doing? I could withdraw them (from Mack), but if I withdraw them they’re lost to the system,” he said.
“We don’t want to do it that way,” he continued. “It’s not the right thing to do for kids. I want to find them, give them whatever support they need.”
Bradley and eight other staff members — two teachers split time between the classroom and visiting student homes, plus support staff members — walk the neighborhood five days a week and had performed 728 visits through Nov. 16.
Each school in CCSD embraces a somewhat different model, having the flexibility through strategic budgets to use the student success advocate program — which Mack employs — or a student success coordinator, which is a licensed administrative position rather than a project facilitator, who typically possesses a teaching license.
“You could interview all of (the Mack staff members), and they would all be at the same level of commitment. They talk about doing God’s work,” Mack Principal Roxanne James said.
“We say, ‘It is too dangerous. I’m not willing to sacrifice you and have to face your spouse or your children and tell them you’re sick.’ But they ignore me. They basically say: ‘We’re doing God’s work’ and ‘Get out of the way.’ ”
For Bradley, that meant contracting the illness. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 23. His wife, Shauna, also contracted the virus. Her case was more severe and required hospitalization.
Still, during his recovery, Joel worked from home, calling students to ensure that they returned to virtual school.
“We are putting ourselves in harm’s way because we’re doing it for the greater good, making sure that our kids get an education in the middle of a pandemic,” Bradley said. “Now, we’re showing our love in a different way. They’re not getting their hug, but we’re at their door every day.”
Clark County School Board Trustee Linda Cavazos said the digital divide, the socioeconomic label that signifies the gap between families that can and can’t afford digital technology, is on full display in the midst of the pandemic. The gap in the access to digital technology is considered a cause and effect of poverty, and Cavazos says it’s noticeable in the experiences of Mack families.
“We have to be innovators,” she said. “This is unprecedented. If we keep looking at what’s facing us and using the same solutions, well, our children, parents, teachers and employees have never been through something like this.”
But, as the educators at Mack have shown during their daily neighborhood check-ins, there’s plenty of people advocating for children in need.
“We’re not the saviors. We’re not the end all,” James said. “We want their kids to be educated and understand that education will steer them out of this. The daily challenges are tough. Are they going to eat today? My teachers and staff are the education heroes, and the guys meet the basic needs.”