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Rohnert Park's ‘Mr. Rogers' welcomes kindergarten students to his distance-learning neighborhood

Ask Ryan Kurada and he'll tell you that teaching was always an obvious path for him to follow, and you'd get no argument from the many people he has come across in his young career, even if lately he's had to pursue an altered method of delivery in these days of remote learning.

Kurada, 29, a kindergarten teacher at University Elementary School at La Fiesta in Rohnert Park, can still remember playing the role of instructor as far back as his own kindergarten year, using the teacher's pointer, leading games and reviewing the alphabet for peers. And when it came time for parent-teacher night, Kurada eagerly guided his parents through the building to meet his new classroom lead each year.

“School was always an emphasis in my upbringing. I always loved school,” he said. “Kids are such curious beings, and it's the perfect niche for me. It combines creativity with learning through your hands and your senses. I found all of that such a key element in the early years, and I … learned it's where all of those skills come together naturally.”

Now into his fifth year of teaching at the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District's elementary built around project-based learning, Kurada is hailed as a leader in his field. He even took home the prestigious Sonoma County teacher of the month award in 2017.

But the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order have upended traditional education and classroom instruction as we know it. In short order, teachers and students across the county's 40 public school districts had to familiarize themselves with socially distanced, remote learning.

Undeterred, Kurada quickly developed a private group for his class on Facebook, an online platform that the parents of his 25 students were familiar with. Ever the overachiever, he also started producing ornamented YouTube videos, often wearing costumes such as a bear outfit, green crayon getup and astronaut suit related to the week's lesson plan, to continue sharing his passion while keeping his young students engaged.

The weekly videos, which tend to include storytelling and a writing or project-based prompt, have been a hit. They've also begun to gain traction across the education landscape.

“He's wonderful. He's just a really passionate man putting himself out there and doing what he believes is best for children,” said Charlotte Straub, principal of University Elementary. “And now that he's making all these videos, I keep having a vision of him on TV teaching kids. He just pulls you in and everybody feels really comfortable. In my mind, he's another little Mr. Rogers.”

What had initially seemed daunting to parents, who were suddenly faced with navigating how to work from home as well as ensure their children kept up with their studies, became a daily routine they also look forward to.

“The only way I've been able to get through this is the amount of help he's been giving out. That's been invaluable,” said Amanda Bandalin, whose 5-year-old daughter Sierra is in Kurada's class. “He gives off this great feeling of being really interested in everything that the kids put out. He points out what he loves about it, and really makes it tailored right to that child so that they can feel the connection with him.”

Learning on the fly and adapting to a new environment isn't new to Kurada. His family moved around the Bay Area during his early years before landing in Nevada. There, he went to middle school and then a magnet high school in Las Vegas focused on international studies and performing arts.

The curriculum helped put him on track to travel and volunteer in Thailand and Cambodia, which ultimately galvanized his interest in teaching. The Sonoma County native volunteered during the summers to teach art and English at orphanages in Southeast Asia while attending Academy of Art University in San Francisco. That's when Kurada saw firsthand how education could be transformational in people's lives.

“I'd never experienced that before,” he recalled in his cheerful, almost lyrical tone. “To them, it was like it was gold. It was a key to a better life, and it touched me.”

Shortly after getting back, he changed his major from photography to art education and plotted a course to enroll in an advanced master's program at Sonoma State University. The School of Education's faculty associate dean, who is also dean of early childhood studies, tried her best to talk him out of taking on such an accelerated dual program, but he enthusiastically assured her he was ready for the challenge.

“It's unusual for students. People don't tend to do well if they do both,” said Chiara Bacigalupa, who would go on to lead Kurada's master's committee. “He was just unflappable. He said, ‘Nope, this is what I want to do and I'm really dedicated to it. I promise you I can do it.' He managed it, and it says a lot about him that he did it really well. Yeah, he's a pretty special guy.”

Despite his continued success with distance learning, Kurada acknowledges the venue is incomparable to the connections developed through in-person instruction. A timeline for return to the classroom remains uncertain, but he longs for being with his students to again spur on their imaginations to construct projects rooted in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM as it's known in education circles.

“Nothing can ever replace the classroom experience - nothing,” said Kurada. “Kids need that human interaction; they need that personal interaction and feeling, and you can't get that through a screen.

“Obviously my goal is to sustain learning, but also bring them joy,” he said. “Students love to see their teachers participate and be silly. These are hard times and if I make them smile, I know I'm doing my job. I want to them to be happy and to smile.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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