Pandemic innovations may hold the key to future school improvements

Vaughn Springer
Oct 22, 2020 8:37:57 AM

It wasn't all that long ago that we all found ourselves doing our best to simply keep our heads above water. For educators, the decisions they made last spring, then over the summer as they prepared for this year, not only affected students in the moment - but would come to have lasting impacts for this entire school year, and that meant both thinking outside the box, and having a little faith along the way.

Angela Gilbert, Superintendent at Tipton Academy in Garden City was notified on a Tuesday last spring about the seriousness of the pandemic. By Friday, her staff was in training on how to provide the best education through virtual learning.

Our main priority was to stay visible in their lives. We knew some schools wouldn’t do that, but our students needed to see us every day.

- Angela Gilbert

And that’s what they did. In what may have seemed like a whirlwind, they put together a plan including Khan Academy, open communication, and weekly staff meetings to address the situation at hand.

The next step was considering what the fall might look like; there were a lot of questions and little answers. No one knew if schools would be able to go back in person. Communicating with families was key, which they did through almost weekly surveys asking about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Tipton staff knew what was working and what needed to change. By mid-May, much earlier than other districts, there was a plan in place for the fall.

Students at Tipton had three options for this school year: attend in person five days a week, attend in person two days (either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday), or completely online. Wanting to keep classroom sizes small, Wednesdays became full quickly. This brought forth virtual Wednesdays, or as Tipton calls them, Chrome Wednesdays.

These days are completely asynchronous allowing students and families to work on a schedule that fits their lives. They were provided sample schedules that showed students how to manage time working throughout the day or the evening. At 2PM, every student meets on Zoom for one hour of instructional time.

Out of everything, you can always find positives. While I wish this wasn’t the way we had to get here, I can appreciate the positives that came from it. 

- Angela Gilbert

Gilbert noted that 80% of families are engaging with their students at home learning, which has created a perfect environment for parent-student engagement in a way they’d never seen before.

On Wednesdays, only about 40 students are in the building and they follow the same schedule as their remote peers. Staff now have a day within the workweek for professional development -whether it be creating lesson plans and content, or professionally engaging with each other while students are still getting educational content. This has introduced more sharing within lessons; teachers who can teach a subject very well are recording them for others to use.

Additionally, students don’t have to miss out on learning when they’re out of school - the content from the day is readily available to them online, just the same as it was to the students in the school.

Gilbert understands that they don’t have all the answers, but they’re focusing on the now. With their base model in place, it’s now time to concentrate on individual families and their needs. Moving forward, they’re creating optional Zoom hours to connect with teachers and better understand topics their children are learning.

What I have loved about this situation is that it has finally given us a chance to break the mold of traditional education. It’s great because the world doesn’t always work that way."

- Angela Gilbert

At Tipton, Chrome Wednesdays opened up a whole host new of opportunities for students, families, and educators. Across the state, we're seeing other charters test out small class sizes, new technology integration, outdoor learning spaces, and so much more. 

As we look into the future, the challenge will become not just making this school year work as we continue to deal with the pandemic, but also learning how we can use these creative classroom innovations next year and beyond for lasting impact.

An African American student plays with wood chips on a playground

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