San Jose’s Presentation High School welcomed its final cohort of students for in-person learning on Monday — joining many other Bay Area private catholic schools that reopened earlier this academic school year.
Almost everything on campus looks the same. Since Presentation closed its doors a year ago because of the pandemic, it has maintained the same yellow flowers in front of the school’s entrance and its old-school brown brick hallways inside are lined with spirit week posters.
But the campus certainly doesn’t feel the same, Presentation High School President Holly Elkins said.
The halls are more quiet and less crowded because only 250 of its nearly 710 students are back on campus.
Classrooms have a new ‘Neat Board’ that projects all students faces and the teachers face onto one large 4K screen so all in attendance can interact and see each other’s facial expressions. It also has five microphones to make communication more seamless and natural, Elkins said.
“It’s so cool,” freshman Kendra Vincent said. “On a Neat Board, students can write on it, and then people online can also write through their iPads and it’ll connect the boards so you can see what everyone’s putting on there.”
Classrooms have a 15-student limit, although many rooms have even less students.
More notably, the private all-girls catholic school feels different because many of its staff are different.
After numerous sexual assault allegations were brought to light in 2017, an investigation from a Sacramento firm found credible allegations — from 1970 through 2017 — that five teachers and one coach had sexually abused students during their tenure.
To make matters worse, the school’s administration at the time failed to disclose the abuses and hold educators accountable.
In fact, at least three educators went on to teach children in different capacities around the Bay Area, the investigation revealed.
But in 2019, the school cleaned house and brought on Elkins and a new Board of Directors.
“Anybody who was involved credibly with anything related to the investigation no longer works with us here at Presentation,” Elkins said.
She and a new board of directors were the force behind the 2020 private investigation that outlined the abuses by the three English teachers, a Spanish teacher, a religion teacher and an assistant water polo coach.
“It starts at the top with governance, we’ve implemented, the president-principal model and we’ve done some other work with the leadership organization as well,” Elkins said. “It’s been a process but what I’m most hopeful about is how committed everyone is, from the board through our faculty and staff, to really making sure this never happens again.”
Since Elkins came on board, she said the school has held multiple listening sessions with students, parents and staff to foster a sense of trust and community, as well as learn from the school’s mistakes.
“I feel a really important responsibility to help these women in their healing process,” Elkins said with tears in her eyes.
Though she was not a staff member at the time of the sexual abuses, she said listening to the stories of the survivors and the pain in the community made her feel the weight of their trauma and re-emphasized the necessity to restructure the way the school prevents and responds to sexual abuse.
“The experiences that these survivors had, no student should ever experience, and I am incredibly sorry that it happened,” Elkins said. “But I’ve learned a lot, and the thing that I really have appreciated about those conversations is that they always come back to just one point — that this never happens again.”
Elkins said the school created a new Office of the Prevention of Student Abuse, Bullying and Harassment led by Cherie Somavia, a former police officer and family and marriage therapist.
The goal of the office is to create a safe space where students can disclose any form of abuse or harassment to a trusted adult, Elkins said.
The school also created the “Stop It” iPad application that allows students to report any sexual assault, harassment or even academic integrity issues anonymously. The app is automatically downloaded on all school-issued iPads before students get them.
“We also have boxes around campus so when we’re back on campus students can always put things in there,” Elkins said. “But the Stop It app has really been a great way to help us really make sure that we can keep an eye on everything that’s going on and know when something comes up.”
Elkins also noted that over the summer, the school worked with a third-party Title IX expert to change procedures for reporting sexual abuse.
Some new policies created proper boundaries that did not exist before. For example, under the new policies staff cannot give rides to students or hire them as babysitters, which used to be commonplace at the campus.
Elkins said the healing process will take time, but she is excited and hopeful that the changes will be impactful.
“This is new chapter for us and I have so much hope for everything coming out for the school,” Elkins said. “Especially now that we are open.”
The school reopened with a hybrid system. On Mondays and Tuesdays, half of the 250 students returning for in-person learning come to campus, Wednesday is remote learning for all students and, on Thursday and Friday, the remaining 125 students are in their classrooms.
At its entrance, there is a health screening where student and staff temperatures are taken. Arrows line the floors, directing people to walk in one direction, creating a loop throughout the campus to minimize interactions.
Vincent, who came back on campus three weeks ago said she felt safe coming back and was very excited to finally meet her peers in person.
Presentation began welcoming students in the fall, focusing first on students who had trouble accessing internet as well as those with learning disabilities.
In the spring semester it began welcoming back students whose parents felt comfortable sending them back.
Elkins said she anticipates the school will be fully back to in-person instruction by August and may even have an in-person graduation for seniors in May.
“Nothing is confirmed yet,” Elkins said. “But we have plans in the works and we are very excited.”