Quanshanda Nicholson

Principal Quanshanda Nicholson helping a first-grade student at Avant Elementary School on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Avant Elementary School is the 2021 Bayer School of Excellence and will be recognized at the Salute to Excellence in Education in a virtual event on Friday, Nov. 5. 

Word in Black / Chan  Zuckerberg Initiative

James Avant Elementary School will receive the Bayer School of Excellence Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education virtual gala on Nov. 5. As elementary schools across the region struggled through the pandemic for the past 18 months, James Avant Elementary has stepped up to the plate. 

Through a framework of collaborative, public teaching and learning, with a focus on socio-emotional development, the school has consistently improved student test scores over the past several years without sacrificing student well-being. 

Quanshanda Nicholson and Assistant Principal Tryphena Cason

Principal Quanshanda Nicholson and Assistant Principal Tryphena Cason in the main hall at Avant Elementary School on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. Avant Elementary School is the 2021 Bayer School of Excellence and will be recognized at the Salute to Excellence in Education in a virtual event on Friday, Nov. 5. 

In addition to the award, Bayer will provide Avant with eight new laptops and a $2,500 education grant. This year, the foundation and its partners will distribute over $2.9 million in scholarships and grants for area youth and educators.

James Avant Elementary School Principal Quanshanda Nicholson credits the student body’s improved test data along with the staff’s practice of “addressing the whole child looking at social, emotional piece with the student as well as the academic, and being trauma-informed.”

Quanshanda Nicholson

Principal Quanshanda Nicholson, of Avant Elementary School

That staff’s training was put to the test like never before as the school coped with COVID-19. School social workers were deployed to students’ homes when they didn’t show up on Zoom, communicating with parents in English and Spanish to ensure everything was alright. School lunches became take-home breakfast, lunch, and weekend boxes. 

The focus on social and emotional learning wasn’t just for the students. Nicholson explained as teachers coped with the pandemic, they were given weekly check-ins, online bonding events, and as much emotional and functional support as the school could muster. 

“We would kind of do a … restorative circle just to check in to see where everyone is because we have a lot of teachers that were dealing with a family member that had COVID, [or] even lost parents due to COVID,” she said. 

Students began coming back to the building last February. This academic year, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, all students are back at James Avant Elementary full-time. Nicholson said this has been a transition for many students.

“The students were excited to come back,” she said. “We were excited to see the students back in the learning environment. We’ve had students that have come from other districts, so we’re just making those adjustments as we go, but we’re focusing on the [social and emotional learning] because that’s a major piece … We knew we had to focus on that first before learning began to take place.” 

COVID rates at the school remain extremely low. Only one case was recorded last week, and the learning continues to grow, as teachers meet weekly to discuss the students’ performance data and figure out how to improve the learning environment. Some strategies they’ve used include “departmentalizing” the first through fifth grades, meaning a team of two teachers teaches each grade: one for math and science and another for language arts and social studies so that each teacher can play to their strengths. 

The school has also implemented a culture of what Nicholson calls “public practice,” where teachers exchange ideas, visit each other’s classrooms, and discuss curriculum ideas across the school rather than being “siloed” in their classrooms. 

College banners

College banners hang in the halls of Avant Elementary School as students head back to their classroom on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021. 

“We look at the data. We discuss it,” she said. “We create action plans, and we find the areas that we need to target, but beyond all the data and all the innovation, we're here for our students. That's our number one focus.”

The 34th Annual Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Virtual Gala will be celebrated online as a free virtual event on Friday, Nov. 5, on stlamerican.com.

The St. Louis American’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. For additional details on how to participate, please visit givebutter.com/2021EducationSalute.

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