When Communities are Struck by Disaster, Habits of Mind are More Important than Ever

Dr. Nick Bruski

Principal

Montecito Union School

Ignited in December of 2017,  the largest wildfire in California history ravaged nearly 300,000 acres of hillsides and homes, leaving a charred and barren landscape.  This damage, combined with incredibly intense rainfalls in the early morning hours of January 9th, caused a massive debris flow in the village of Montecito, destroying homes and taking lives, as mud, boulders, branches, and sometimes whole homes slid down the mountain.

Montecito Union Schools’ physical structures were spared, sitting at a slightly higher elevation between the two creek beds where most of the destruction happened.  However, the community we serve was devastated, facing the loss of friends and family, destroyed, damaged and unlivable homes, a closed highway cutting the town off on the southbound end, weeks of evacuations, and the uncertainty of if and when it would be safe to return to their homes.

In the midst of the chaos and the ensuing weeks, our work with the Habits of Mind served as a rock-solid foundation through the immediate trauma of the events, as well as the rebuilding and healing that continues to happen months afterward.

Striving for Accuracy and Precision 

When I awoke on the morning of Tuesday, January 9th and turned on the news, I could not believe the images and videos being displayed; unoccupied foundations where homes used to stand, rivers of mud, and families on rooftops waiting to be rescued.  By happenstance, one of our students was at our home with us on a sleepover with my stepson, and images of his living room knee-deep in mud were repeatedly shown, causing us to quickly turn off the news whenever he entered the room.

In communicating with our administrative team, we struggled to know where to even begin and how we could support our community at this time.  We set out to account for all of our families by creating a shared Google Doc listing each of our students.  We created a system to account for our families and their whereabouts and circumstances.  We shared the document with all of our staff and asked them to note any information they had regarding our students and families.  We scoured social media and sent messages and emails to check in.  Though many were trapped in homes without phones or Internet, we made phone calls and were able to check in with neighbors and friends so that the dozens of staff members striving for accuracy and precision could get the best possible information.  Though we were so saddened to learn of the passing of recent alumni and members of legacy families, we were able to announce in short time that all of our current families escaped the loss of life.

Thinking Flexibly

In the days immediately following the event, there were hundreds of question marks and unknowns that we could not answer.  With bridges and critical infrastructure damaged and destroyed, some were predicting it could be weeks or maybe even months before roads opened and families would be able to return to their homes.  We didn’t know if the next rain would cause a similar event and how safe we would be.  We also knew that our students needed the normalcy and safety of school, but we could not get to our campus.  We wondered if we could realistically expect families to come to “school” while staying in hotel rooms with just the clothes on their back, and if they would want to? We had to think flexibly!

For the first two days, we wanted to give our parents some breathing room as well as a chance to be together in community and share their stories.  We organized two school-wide “playdates” at local parks where parents could drop their children off so that they could accomplish any critical tasks they needed, talking with insurance companies, renting a car, or just buying a toothbrush.  Our staff brought games and organized activities, and also set up a “necessities drive” where families could grab toiletries, shoes, clothes, books and anything else we could get our hands on.  Following a three-day weekend, we worked with community partners to have two school-wide field-trips, with half of our school at the Santa Barbara Zoo one day, and the other half at the MOXI children’s museum.  However, a week after the event, we knew we needed to get back to some version of traditional schooling.

Through a generous partnership with Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), we built a school from scratch in a matter of days.  With teachers sometimes sharing an empty classroom with 2 other classes and some classes even being in an event tent, we were able to have “school” at our local community college.  We could not have accomplished this without thinking flexibly.  Countless hours were spent thinking through logistics such as how to keep 5-year-olds safe on a college campus, how to manage pick-up, drop-off, recess, music, physical education, and art.  How do we feed 400 students?  What about our students with critical medications?  How to operate a school without a phone system? What about books? And pencils? And paper?  We brought in portajohns and handwashing stations. We received a generous donation of industrial heaters to keep our 3 classes in the event tent warm.  We put up portable fencing to create an impromptu playground.  We organized a huge team of amazing parent volunteers to direct students between locations and assist with walking them to restrooms and across a college campus.  All in all, it was an incredible effort of our staff, our parents and community partnerships that allowed us to build a school from the ground up, providing a sense of stability and normalcy for our students and families during an incredibly trying time.

Fortunately, after six days of school at SBCC, we were informed we could return to our campus! Though the water was not safe, we were excited to return, and bringing handwashing stations and bottled water was a small price to pay to be back home.  However, we had to continue to think flexibly even upon our return, as our town was evacuated many more times when rain was predicted.  We partnered with a neighboring (and aptly named) Hope School District, utilizing empty classrooms, boardrooms, and auditoriums at three different school sites for an additional eight days of school throughout the end of the school year.

Clearly, in the broadest sense we had to think incredibly flexibly to make all of this happen, but there were countless examples of individual flexibility along the way.  Teachers created and adjusted lessons on the fly when they did not go as originally planned because of the limitations of sharing a classroom.  They taught out of “to go” kits, whatever would fit inside one standard banker’s box, each time we evacuated.  PE teachers created engaging and fun activities in spaces not designed for PE and with little to no equipment.  Families waited patiently in long pick-up lines and learned new routines, trusting us to keep their children safe.  Students adapted to new environments, rules and procedures.  Many did not have their backpacks, lunches, or any personal items from home.  Once we returned to school, others still lived out of hotels or with friends and families when homes were uninhabitable.  Thinking flexibly was a hallmark of our community and was clearly demonstrated these past few months.

Flexibility is….When you leave your house and you don’t worry.  A time when I was flexible was at a fire and a mudslide.” Madeleine, 1st Grade