Schools and the educational organizations that support them are some of the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. A few weeks ago, we had the benefit of engaging in interviews with leaders from Charter School Growth Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, Silicon Schools Fund, and Transcend. One of the questions we asked was whether these organizations, in their work supporting school systems and leaders, had seen any patterns emerge in those schools that had been able to successfully and rapidly adjust to remote learning.
While this question was originally one of many, we were blown away by the answers we received, which held within them equal doses of innovation, compassion, and agility. Against all odds, schools, organizations, and the families they support have shown an immense amount of agility and creativity as they adjust to a new, remote normal.
Ninety-five percent of students participated in distance learning in the first week at Purdue Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis. Because the school model prioritized self-directed learning prior to the pandemic, students were used to using technology in self-paced ways, creating their own schedules, and connecting with teachers, other students, and experts through Zoom.
We see schools succeeding for two key reasons: they have created strong human relationships that serve as the foundation for adapting to change, and they have strong leadership that brings the community of adults and young people together through trust, openness, and collaboration.
NYC schools working with the Literacy Design Collaborative made the transition to remote learning in one day—and started virtual instruction immediately. The schools have 86-95% attendance daily and have all the kids set up on working devices.
And Impact Public Schools in Tukwila, Washington raised funds to buy Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots for students without technology access and ensured families could pick up meals each day. The team also implemented a multi-phase distance learning process that includes a weekly “Impact at Home” newsletter providing suggested learning for the week with links to videotaped lessons, online read alouds, and instructions for submitting work. It includes a weekly social-emotional learning lesson and creative ideas for engaging young learners like an “Impact Radio Station.”
Patterns for Success, Now and in the Future
These are just some of the stories we heard, but they illustrate five shared trends in what best set up schools to continue to support student learning in this current environment and beyond: 1) a deep understanding of the student body; 2) a commitment to high-quality teaching; 3) a focus on student-centered learning; 4) pre-existing use of technology; and 5) an ability to innovate.
Below, we look deeper into the patterns that emerged, and share quotes from each organization that offer insight into what they’ve seen on the ground.
A deep understanding of the student body and their needs
The organizations we interviewed all noted that school leaders that have made the transition well have aimed to meet (and continue to reassess) the needs of families and students as the crisis continues, whether those needs are academic or not.
Silicon Schools Fund said that, “Mindset is key. Schools and organizations with the mindsets of meeting the needs of students and families first; willingness and openness to redeploy resources (including people) to the areas of highest need; and design-orientation and not being wed to current practices are best set up for success.”
“We see schools succeeding for two key reasons: they have created strong human relationships that serve as the foundation for adapting to change, and they have strong leadership that brings the community of adults and young people together through trust, openness, and collaboration,” shared Transcend.
NewSchools Venture Fund added that, “Strong relationships are critical for ensuring students are still participating in their learning… They also increase the likelihood that students and families will remain connected to their school communities.”
Understanding the evolving needs of students and families becomes even more important the longer the crisis lasts. Charter School Growth Fund noted that while many schools in its portfolio distributed Chromebooks and hotspots soon after schools closed, “Some now are doing a ‘second wave’ of distribution to support families with multiple children who have access to only one computer.”
A pre-existing and continued commitment to high-quality teaching
Schools that have been able to transition to high-quality remote teaching already had a pre-existing commitment to high-quality teaching, which includes support for teacher professional development and high-quality content.
NewSchools Venture Fund shared that schools positioned to succeed during remote learning are, “laser-focused on how to best meet students’ academic and non-academic needs, finding creative ways to sustain rigor and joy over Zoom. There is a focus on teaching new content and offering choice in how students learn it.”
The content is key, agreed Robin Hood Learning + Tech Fund. “Our partners that were already using high-quality curricula not only have a strong backbone of content, but are also able to partner with those curriculum providers as they create additional supports and resources for a fully virtual environment.”
Robin Hood Learning + Tech Fund also added that schools that have created tools and systems for strong teacher collaboration, and set time to nurture that collaboration, are in the best position to support remote learning.
A focus on student-centered learning
“Schools that have focused on student-directed learning as a key feature of their model are making the transition to distance learning more easily. Students are used to choosing which subject to focus on when, seeking help from teachers and other students, and using a range of tools to complete a task,” said NewSchools Venture Fund.
Some public charter schools have found creative ways to continue their student-centered programming, shared the Charter School Growth Fund. For example, Bronx Charter School for the Arts in NYC now teaches Music and Visual Arts virtually to all students, and Kairos Academies in St. Louis is facilitating DIY science experiments via Google Chat.
Schools that were using technology consistently as a way to enhance student agency have been able to shift more easily to distance learning because students are continuing to learn on the platforms they’d been using throughout the year.
And Transcend highlighted Lindsay Unified Schools, which was conducting targeted small group sessions on Zoom two days after schools closed. “Their learners—already accustomed to setting their own goals, accessing the curriculum through the learning management platform, and gathering evidence of meeting their learning goals—just kept doing at home what they usually did in school,” they added.
Now more than ever, successful student-centered learning requires real-time data, said Robin Hood Learning + Tech Fund. “Systems for collecting and analyzing data to inform learning are key to ensuring teachers can assess and target individual learning needs.”
Pre-existing use of technology for learning
Robin Hood Learning + Tech Fund summed up what many others were thinking. “It may sound obvious, but schools that already had technology and had started using it for instruction, not just for testing or information, were already leaps ahead when they had to shift to a distance learning model.”
Silicon Schools Fund noted that, “We’ve noticed a key distinguisher for schools success based on two main factors: level of expertise using technology prior to the pandemic and overall quality and functionality of organization.”
“Although no one could have anticipated the extent to which COVID-19 would impact public education in this country, we have seen that public charter schools that had made previous investments in personalized learning were able to transition to remote learning very quickly,” said leaders from Charter School Growth Fund.
NewSchools Venture Fund agreed. “Schools that were using technology consistently as a way to enhance student agency have been able to shift more easily to distance learning because students are continuing to learn on the platforms they’d been using throughout the year.”
An ability to innovate quickly
Many schools in the Charter School Growth Fund portfolio transitioned to remote learning plans within a week or two of school closures. But their innovation didn’t stop there. “As high-performing public charter schools enter into ‘phase II’ of remote learning implementation, they are starting to plan for longer-term school closures, refine how teachers engage with students, and collect data to understand what’s working and what’s not,” shared the team.
NewSchools Venture Fund mentioned that it’s not just innovating that’s important, but the ability to quickly reprioritize. “Leaders who moved quickly to address the impact of school closure, while thinking about what lies ahead—including adjusting the school calendar, bolstering student recruitment and retention plans, and rewriting beginning-of-the-year curricula to account for learning loss—were able to best support their students and families.”
“Whether a school’s response is chaos versus coping versus truly continuing the learning is less a function of what they are doing now and more a function of choices that the school community made months and years ago,” shared Transcend.
Shining Bright: More Examples from Across the Country
There is light in the darkness, and the stories below celebrate the school leaders and educators who do the very hard work of teaching students during a global pandemic. These collectively represent a cross-section of grantees from the five organizations we interviewed. We share them with you today so that we can all celebrate the school leaders, nonprofit workers, and teachers who are doing their best work under the most difficult of circumstances.
- Teaching Matters’ pilot to create digital resources for K-2 students was picked up by the NYCDOE’s Chancellor’s Office, who asked them to expand the work to reach all K-8 students across the district. These resources are now being used by 55,000 teachers and have been adopted by school districts nationally.
- By March 27th, five of Valor Collegiate Academy’s partner schools had already conducted virtual faculty circles, independent of any asks or pushes from Valor. Several principals shared that Faculty Circles have played an important role in helping teams connect in this new era.
- Aurum Preparatory Academy in Oakland, CA created a tracker for each student and are recording whether students have been attending online classes, capturing notes from phone calls with each student, figuring out who has acute SEL needs, and creatively figuring out how to respond to each student and families needs.
- Fugees Academy, a school in Georgia that serves a large refugee population, expanded its use of interpreters and translation services to ensure all families can access information and support during the shutdown.
- The teachers at Van Ness Elementary in Washington, DC developed simple class websites that make the technology feel personal (“this is specific to my class”) versus institutional. They share morning Strong Start videos that the class can watch to start their day in the same way they’d start it at school. Some teachers are even finding ways to continue to incorporate students in the learning design (e.g. include a video of a classmate doing the greeting).
- Fortune Schools in Sacramento, CA began sharing daily live messages by the principal and daily virtual yoga lessons to help their students remain focused and calm.
- Carmen Schools of Science & Technology in Milwaukee is helping undocumented families who do not have credit cards gain access to internet services.
If you regularly spend time with teachers, school administrators, and educators, you would likely agree that these stories are both extraordinary and unsurprising. However, from the data, we know that many students are not receiving the same educational opportunities as the ones described above. These differences are only exacerbated by the shift to remote learning given the unequal access to technology and the internet.
That is why we are so proud to support Charter School Growth Fund, NewSchools Venture Fund, Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, Silicon Schools Fund, and Transcend in their work to ensure that schools unlock the potential for all students across the country, especially during this chaotic time. A sincere thank you for participating in these interviews with our team during such a busy time for your organizations.