“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” – Albert Einstein
Einstein was correct; change comes when we change our thinking. For most educators in the past few months, our thinking about education and school has changed. E-learning is not a new concept. There are many educators and students who participate in e-learning. The difference is e-learning now is some educators’ and students’ only option. We lived in a world where education and school happened in a building; now, education and school is at home in front of a computer, over a phone, and from a safe distance. We have to, at least temporarily, in the words of Einstein, change our thinking.
Schools across the country, including our Far Eastside of Indianapolis elementary charter school, made a move to e-learning. It’s amazing how quickly things change in a matter of months. March 6, I had a meeting with my new teacher leaders to discuss staffing for the 2020-2021 school year. A month later, I was meeting with that group to talk about how we would kick off e-learning. We went from a school without one to one technology to having laptops for every scholar in grades 3-6. Our Microsoft platform that we previously used for emails over the past year and a half now became the lifeline to our new digital school. Zoom, which I used once every blue moon, soon became a daily necessity as I was interviewing teachers for the next school year. We traded in our doc cams for Chromebooks. Staff meetings happened over Microsoft Teams. Lessons were recorded and stored on Microsoft Streams, and assignments are now posted, turned, and graded on Schoology.
As a school and a charter network made up of two other schools serving a total of little over 1,100 scholars ranging from grades kindergarten through twelfth grade, the majority of them Black, and the majority of them in the lower socioeconomics, we decided that there would be no excuses. Whatever the price, whatever the time needed, and whatever the sacrifice, we would KEEP KIDS LEARNING AT ALL COSTS. It became our new motto. When the pandemic hit, we were a week out from spring break. So, we had three weeks to go from a school in a school building to a school online. My AP and I spent the next three weeks, day in and day out, creating a plan not just for our school but for both elementary schools in our network. We sacrificed planned vacation trips and much-needed rest because we knew that some students and families were counting on us to come up with a solid plan. The top leadership in our network worked diligently to ensure we had the technology in place; now it was up to us to provide the plan.
Even when we kicked off virtual learning on April 7, 2020, at 9:00 EST, there were many, including scholars, families, and teachers who did not believe it was happening. They did not believe that we would carry over the expectations from the school building to this new virtual learning environment. If anyone believed right away in the plan besides me, it was my AP Tina Cowan. We had spent three weeks creating this plan. We told our teachers in the beginning if you don’t do anything else, I ask that you trust us and do exactly what we tell you to do. Follow the plan with fidelity and integrity. It was different because we previously led our building with some freedom, but now there was none because it had to be done our way across the board for this to work.
Our plan included teachers in grades K-6 who would teach live lessons. Teachers would teach an hour of reading and math and thirty minutes of writing. There would be time in between each section for scholars to do some independent work on platforms such as Moby Max and Lexia. Friday was used for virtual field trips, physical education, and art. Along with watching our virtual morning meeting video, we used our support staff to make phone calls to kids who were not online; they also served as on-the-spot responders. IT supported with technology issues. Also, they did some weekly family check-ins to ensure our families felt the same level of care they would feel if they were inside of the school building. Our leadership team had the same responsibilities except those responsibilities shifted into the virtual space. We observed online classrooms throughout the day and provided feedback to teachers on their lessons. We modified an observation and feedback tool to ensure we could provide our teachers with feedback to improve their virtual instruction. Although we did not have Chromebooks for our K-2 scholars, we did provide packets. But to complete the packets, they had to watch the lesson. In case scholars could not get on live for the lessons, every scholar had an account through Microsoft provided by our network, so they could access any lessons they missed in our video hub located on Microsoft Streams. We wanted to put in as many fail proofs in as possible. We tried to eliminate as many of the excuses as we could.
Our motto for our network is “College or Die.” A bold approach to education. We also tell our scholars that “College Starts Here.” We have an obligation to make college attainable for a group of scholars that many in society write off. We understand that the national statistics of black and brown children from low-income communities are not good for college graduation rates. We are fully aware we are trying to educate our scholars in a system that is not designed to see them succeed. We fully understand that once the pandemic is over, the system will not care or allow for the excuse of COVID-19. Our understanding of the impact COVID-19 had become our drive to create the best education option for our scholars. We were hypersensitive to the fact that data was coming out that showed communities of color were disproportionately being affected by the virus more than others. I was aware that many parents had lost their jobs, but we could not, in good conscience, allow that to be an excuse for our children to not receive a quality education. If we failed in educating them and lowered the standards, then we would be doing just as much harm as the virus that had already changed their lives.
We ended our distance learning on Thursday, March 26. We are proud of the education we provided to our scholars and families. Based on the end of the year survey, our families were pleased as well. As the principal, it was vital for me to maintain this level of expectation. Thus far, I can say it is one of my greatest achievements as a school leader.