“Simple, Equitable, Joyful, and Accessible:” Best Remote Instruction Practices From NJ Charter School Leaders

On May 19th the New Jersey Public Charter School Association held a webinar called “Learning from NJ’s Public Charter Schools during COVID-19.” Interest among the 360 attendees was intense as local leaders shared best academic practices as well as strategies for managing everything from meal distribution to digital access to family trauma. Given the uneven quality of home instruction offered by NJ’s 555 traditional districts — in general, wealthy districts’ programming is far superior to low-income districts (see here for a comparison of Princeton and Trenton) —I was particularly interested in how the charter school sector, which primarily serves low-income students of color, was delivering instruction and social-emotional support.

The webinar, hosted by NJPCSA President Harry Lee, began with remarks from Senator Teresa Ruiz and Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, who both chair legislative  education committees. More on their comments tomorrow. First, some stats from Lee, based on a NJPCSA survey:

  • 83% of public charter schools had a virtual/online learning program up and running by March 17, the day school buildings were closed by Governor Murphy.
  • 67% of public charter schools had a 1:1 device program already in place prior to the pandemic.
  • Charters spent $2.6 million on technology to provide access to families with 16,432 devices and 6,259 hot spots distributed.
  • Public charter schools are distributing approximately 46,000 meals per week to students and families.
  • Attendance rates are high (a daily average of 91%) and public charter schools have prioritized connecting with students to ensure all children continue to learn.
  • 94% of public charter schools are providing synchronous, real-time instruction to students at least several times per week.
  • Public charter schools continue to hold students to high expectations but have developed supports and flexibilities for those most impacted by COVID-19.
  • Many staff roles and schedules have been “flexed”: Teachers are spending fewer hours teaching and more hours checking student work and having office hours. Some schools schedule evening/night hours for students who have family obligations during the day.

Speakers during the webinar included Steve Chiger, Director of Literacy at Uncommon Schools; Sheyla Riaz, social worker at KIPP NJ; Connie Sanchez, Executive Director, and Ashley Serafim, Learning Disabilities Teaching Consultant, at Unity Charter School; and Yanivis Hage, ELA Director at iLearn Charter Schools. Here are a few highlights from their discussions (and here is the slidedeck). 

Chiger: Uncommon is “focused on making sure families have everything they need” at no cost during school closures. Our literacy program needs to be “simple, equitable, joyful, and simple.” For example, 8th graders typically would now be reading Shakespeare — Othello, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. But that wasn’t fair to parents — or kids — so we’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun, among other books.” We need, Chiger said, “to remind kids of the nurturing power of stories” and “build a curriculum that is accessible to all students, that is both rigorous and reasonable.”

Riaz: “We began remote learning at KIPP on March 16th. All our students had laptops, hotspots, and meals in two weeks.” KIPP has been “very focused on social-emotional learning [SEL].” Our first priority was to ensure our students had the basics: food, shelter, health. “We find that securing food is the greatest need.” KIPP will deliver food directly to students’ homes, if necessary. We’re “constantly assessing social-emotional needs and building supports and coping skills, “giving families a tool box” and a “model of resilience.” All students have access to “wellness classrooms,” each led by a social worker, “SEL corners,” and individual counseling sessions. Parents have access to counseling too.

Sanchez: Twenty-five percent of our students are identified as eligible for special education. For each of these students we’ve communicated with parents one-on-one to complete wellness assessments. “School is a respite for parents too. We need to train parents in SEL to meet their child’s needs.” Our staff meets every day to confirm we’re meeting those needs. First we used Google Hangout “but there was too much chatting. Now we use Zoom. Every morning we check in with each child to make sure there is some engagement. Not everything is tech-based and parents aren’t necessarily teachers.” We have specials every day, “a project based on something parents can do with their child.” With this intense oversight, we found that teachers need Fridays to plan and do one-on-one work so we’ve created “Fabulous Fridays” for kids with fun virtual activities that they choose.

Serifim: We have some children and families with health issues and in some cases we’ve mailed them assignments. We’re holding IEP meetings virtually and offering all services remotely to comply with our students’ IEP’s. We also have social hours, which give students a chance to interact with each other.

Hage: Our school is based on a high-quality STEAM curriculum in a digital environment, so our transition was easier than for most. “We have a 90% attendance rate and a 90% parent satisfaction rate.” We support parents through iCARE and have “created curriculum guidelines for each grade. We’re providing SEL for teachers too.” The network just had its first session of Professional Development for teachers using remote instruction; 100 teachers participated. 

Throughout the webinar there was consensus that all students will need remediation once brick-and-mortar schools reopen. Charter leaders remain deeply concerned about funding, especially since their schools are underfunded compared to district schools, typically receiving 73 cents of each dollar they’re entitled to.

And a note to Gov. Murphy: These leaders urge you to decide quickly whether schools will reopen in September. (One speaker predicted they won’t.) Either way, public schools –both charter and traditional— need to know NOW so plans can be developed to best meet children’s academic and emotional needs.

What do you think?

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