#EmbraceTheChallenge: New Branches Charter Academy


New Branches Charter Academy

Meet 7th & 8th grade Math & Social Studies Teacher, Samantha Berzins

New Branches Charter Academy is a K-8 charter school in Grand Rapids that’s authorized by Central Michigan University and managed by Choice Schools Associates. New Branches was one of the original charter schools that opened in Michigan in the fall of 1994. The school has a rigorous academic program with a specific focus on the environment, building upon knowledge of Michigan’s natural resources, environmental concerns and being good stewards of the Earth. Check out how they've adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure students get meaningful instruction, at a distance.

Creating instructional familiarity in a sea of constant change

For 7th and 8th grade Science & Social Studies teacher, Sam Berzins, her pre-pandemic classroom was filled with upper middle school kids who were used to tackling great responsibility. Many come from exceptionally hard-working families, where parents are working sometimes multiple jobs to provide for their children, and Sam's students are tasked with being rockstar big siblings, chefs in training, and housework assistants (in addition to being students, friends, and kids). 

When the COVID-19 pandemic broke, Sam knew that balance would be everything. From the very beginning, the school team at New Branches formed a plan to first check in on each and every one of their kids, assessing their emotional wellbeing and understanding what tools they would uniquely need to have success with distance learning. For Sam, that meant ensuring that the online platforms she built for her upper middle school students were engaging enough to keep their attention, and were balanced enough to create a manageable workload under these new circumstances. 

Utilizing creative tools like Google Classroom, Seesaw, and more, she quickly adapted her instructional strategies, creating videos for student note taking, connecting students to one another, talking with students one on one, and assigning at-home work. And while the online tools and resources have been a necessary bridge for students and educators to continue instruction at a distance, it has been equally important to Sam to integrate consistency from her real classroom to help her students adjust. One simple strategy - use the format of note taking she does in-person during a lesson, and record the same process online, encouraging her students to follow along and take notes just like they would during a regular school day. 

On top of some of the familiar instructional strategies, Sam also emphasizes helping her students process the very real emotions they are experiencing during this pandemic, through one-on-one check ins and even full class Zoom meetings centered around a fun activity or game.

Once a week, we all get together to talk, play games and hang out. The most important piece in this is remembering that we're all just human beings, trying to process all of this and get through the day. My kids aren't just students - they're cooks, teachers for their siblings, and more - they've taken on new, changing responsibilities, and that has an impact on what they can do in my virtual classroom. So it's incredibly important for us to take time to decompress, and have some grace for our kiddos and their families as we all learn. 

- Sam Berzins

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At New Branches, Sam is just one of many educators and school staff members who have flipped their work upside down, adapting quickly to create an entirely new instructional space for their students. The team immediately worked to get Chromebooks to every child, also working together to clean out lockers and personal belongings. coordinating pick up times so students could get their things. 

Looking forward, virtual instruction will not be just a thing of the past. Whether students return next fall to a hybrid school model, a traditional in-person model, or an online model, Sam is confident that continuing to implement some of the online components she's used this year to support students who couldn't make it to school that day - or might help build confidence in those students who need to review the content again, and may not thrive in the traditional classroom setting. What is clear is that the extraordinary measures she and the New Branches team took during the crisis went above and beyond basic requirements, truly giving students a unique opportunity to continue learning during these difficult times. 

“My son’s school reached out to see if he needed any learning materials when the pandemic began, then continued to stay in contact with us via email/text/etc. offering him additional support. My son keeps in touch with his teachers either through Zoom or email on a daily basis.”

- Lashanda P. (New Branches parent)


More #EmbraceTheChallenge Stories

Check out our other featured MI charter schools who have creatively #embracedthechallenge to support students & families!

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Waterford Montessori Academy
Covenant House Academy East
Bridge Academy West
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