REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — It was just about dusk in Arizona when Charlene Radtke answered the phone, and she had just come in from admiring the sunset.
“I’m going to miss that,” she said.
There’s something special about summer sunsets in the Sonoran Desert. Fading sunlight over the horizon hits the clouds and the dust in the hot desert air, producing mosaics of blue, pink, purple, and orange that one would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else.
But if anywhere might rival them, it’s her family’s home-to-be, Redondo Beach, where the sky burns orange and yellow when the sun falls. And Radtke's daughter, René, is champing at the bit to start their next adventure.
Charlene and René are moving to Redondo Beach, just in time for the pandemic-delayed school year to start. The Redondo Beach Unified School District will start on Aug. 26 with online-only, distance education.
The Radtkes will have some time to settle in and pick up René’s school-issued laptop computer and textbooks when they arrive in the South Bay. But the typical trappings of one’s first year at a new school have been mothballed for the time being. At Redondo Union High School, this usually includes the Link Crew, a group of students who introduce new students to the school’s campus and traditions, as well as rallies held by the school’s Associated Student Body.
“Obviously, we don’t have that this year,” said RUHS Principal Jens Brandt. “So, we’re coming up with creative ideas.”
That includes virtual community chats for students and families, town halls, guest speakers, and videos.
“But we’re limited in terms of capacity for welcoming students — it’s going to be all virtual for at least the first few months now. When we do in-person, it’s going to be really important for not just new students but also current students to re-acclimate to being on campus,” Brandt said.
Redondo’s ASB teacher, Brooke Mata, has been in touch with her students, the elected student body leaders of each RUHS class, throughout the summer.
“We really have to try and find the balance of what the kids are capable of doing, in terms of leadership and really creating innovative ideas of what’s going to keep kids connected,” Mata said.
At the end of the last school year, Mata said, they tried weekly announcements, emailed to students. That might continue this year, she said, but they’re also considering socially-distanced spirit days, class spirit points, partnering with local businesses — all twists on what might happen in a normal year to connect students and the community. Really, district leaders said, all sorts of ideas are on the table, but very few are concrete at this point.
“I think that our students have a vested interest in everyone finding their place,” Mata said.
René found that out for herself. When her mother, an aerospace engineer, confirmed that the two would continue with a long-held plan to move from the desert, René got to work on social media. Through Instagram, she reached out to the incoming junior class president. (“They’re the president, so they have to know everything,” she said.)
She’s passionate about robotics — she was the only programmer on her old school's robotics team — so she asked who she might be able to connect with from Redondo’s robotics team, and was given a list of contacts.
“Robotics is the way that I know I can really connect with people,” René said. “I already have something in common to talk about with them, so it’s not like I’m just going out and talking to random people.”
When Charlene and René recently visited the South Bay to find their new home and acclimate to their new surroundings before the move, René was dropped off in Hermosa Beach to hang out with her new friends. There was a bit of culture shock — in the desert, she’s used to making eye contact with passing strangers. In L.A.? Not so much. (“They’re friendly when you talk to them, but if you just smile and nod, they give you the weirdest look,” she said.)
Plus, she has to figure out what to wear. In Tucson, the high temperature has been well over 100 degrees every day since July 26. In Redondo, the highs have hovered in the 70s over the same time.
But otherwise, she’s relatively comfortable and confident in the transition — and most of all, excited. Maybe more excited than her mother, she supposes.
“I don’t think anything’s really worrying me. I’m pretty impatient sometimes — I just want to be there and know what it’s like,” René said.
Charlene’s impressed with her daughter’s ability to make friends, and the legwork she did to connect with new people.
“But still, I think that just being quarantined for so long is…I don’t think it’s really good for kids’ mental health,” Charlene said. “I was really wanting to have at least a hybrid situation, or…are there parents putting together after-school picnics or something to let the kids get together, to get her meeting people face-to-face.”
René’s not too worried. She’s got her Playstation, she joked, but she still stays active, taking walks in the evening.
“I think online-only classes would be fine, but it’s more of…how am I going to meet my classmates? That part is a little hard — to be paired up with someone in school, and actually talk to someone…over text, you can be left on read and ignored with no consequences.”
Child socialization was among the top three concerns of parents surveyed by the district. In a meeting before the Redondo Beach Unified School District’s Board of Education, the district’s Director of Student Services Dr. Anthony Taranto said the district is working to develop virtual assemblies to ensure teachers and students will be recognized, even in the virtual environment, and that they’ll be trying to replicate the typical school experience in the virtual setting.
Taranto also told the board that the district has engaged with a local children’s health center to provide teletherapy to students at all grade levels, kindergarten through 12th grade.
What will be hard to replicate is the feeling of being on the RUHS campus. It’s a large school, both in enrollment (at the end of 2019, the district had an enrollment of over 3,000 students) and campus size. At 51 acres, it’s one of the largest high school campuses in California. RUHS has sat at roughly the same site, expanding outward from Pacific Coast Highway, since it was established in 1905.
Over the last 115 years, the school has established a rich history. Its academic mantle, featuring the sewn-in initials of each holder, has been passed down to the junior with the highest academic ranking each year; its student newspaper, the High Tide, has been printed since 1920; a century-old pipe organ sits in the walls of the school’s auditorium; and the recently-dedicated Alumni House holds treasures from Redondo’s past, from class rings and yearbooks to sports uniforms and mascot costumes. The school even has dedicated volunteer historians, who keep offices in the campus’s original administration building. As Mata, the ASB teacher, said, you can almost feel like you’re walking among giants.
All of that is to say, it can be a lot to take in for a new student, especially one who can’t set foot on the grounds for the first day of the year.
“It’s not going to be the same, like when we’re on campus, but what we can do is try and keep that sense of community where people belong, without having to be on campus,” Mata said. “Once you’re a Seahawk, you’re always a Seahawk.”
René wants to take high-level honors and Advanced Placement courses but is choosing to take a relatively light load for her first semester at Redondo. The relationships she’s building have helped — her new friends have helped her choose classes, and they’re already talking about beach hangouts and hikes.
By the end of our call, she was ready to step off: her new friends had invited her to play video games.
“It’s an example of how nice they are, and how welcoming they are, so I shouldn’t be too worried about people there, because they are super nice.” She paused. Her guard slipped a bit, and her anxiety peeked through. “But it’s also…I’m a high schooler. Kids can be mean.”
When Mata learned not only that René had sought out help, but that her students responded, she was proud.
“I want people to not be afraid to reach out if they need help. There are so many people at Redondo willing to help and make people feel like they’re a part of something,” Mata said. “If you give an inch, people will go a mile for you.”