Two of Michigan’s long-established public charter schools are seeking to set effective examples of how to adapt and provide education in this trying time while campuses are closed down. These schools are showing how the charter structure has enabled flexible and effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Located in Mt. Pleasant since its 1996 founding, Renaissance Public School Academy enrolls more than 420 K-8 students, most of them economically disadvantaged. Farther south, the student body at International Academy of Flint (founded in 1999), which also includes a high school, is about twice that size. The overwhelming majority of the Flint academy’s students come from low-income, African American families. Both schools are accountable to their Central Michigan University authorizer, as well as the parents who have actively chosen them.
Even as the Flint academy has had to close its building, it made maintaining nutrition for its vulnerable student population an immediate priority. From mid-March through the end of April, its staff has served a total of more than 12,000 meals, mostly through offering a weekly pick-up service but also by providing porch deliveries where needed. “We are committed to overcoming the challenges that stand in the way so we can continue to be steadfast to our mission and assist in providing the essentials to our families,” said school director Traci Cormier.
The school has used partnerships with outside organizations to reach students remotely. The local Crim Fitness Foundation provided both online recordings and paper handouts that encourage students to stay physically active. The foundation’s training resources in how to promote mindfulness have helped teachers keep students, some of whom live in cramped and chaotic surroundings, focused better on their online lessons. The evidence suggests that this has been useful. As Cormier observed, “We've seen kids that weren't as successful in a traditional classroom be more successful in this setting.”
The school’s management company, SABIS, has used its international experience to help school employees avoid some common technical challenges. The school’s distance learning plan includes providing kids at all grade levels with some online content, either live or recorded, while also offering a backup paper option where technology gaps exist. Teachers call or check in online with students weekly, allowing the urban charter school to connect with 90% of its pupils.
Similarly, educators at Renaissance have been challenged but not paralyzed by distance learning. According to principal Lisa Bergman, about 97% of the school’s 420 students actively participate in learning, the few holdouts not responding due to domestic issues. When surveyed by the school, 75% of parents reported that the remote classwork their children are receiving is on the right track. “There are some really daunting obstacles, but very few barriers that you cannot get around,” she said.
Renaissance’s entire program is built around project-based learning, which involves students in deeper, hands-on investigations as a way to help them grasp academic material. Educators design projects to help students make connections with things they’ve learned before, as well as between different subject areas. Embracing this approach means Renaissance students are encouraged often to work together.
Getting students to collaborate has not been easy in the distance learning environment, but the experience of working together in the classroom has smoothed the way for pupils to do similar kinds of work online. Renaissance quickly responded to the pandemic, handing out 200 Chromebooks while launching a creative online approach. “We knew right from the beginning we were not going to create packets and pass them out,” Bergman said. “We were not going to lecture and record a video.”
Fifth- and sixth-graders were assigned to make a case for addressing a local environmental issue of their choice. At the first opportunity provided by the teacher, 57 students were ready to post their five-minute video presentations. Within two hours, they had watched some of their peers’ videos and produced a combined total of over five hours of rebuttals. In late April, the school sent care packages with fun items, school supplies and other basic materials like construction paper.
Neither school leader is sure what the fall term will look like, but they are working hard to set up plans. “We're going to get guidance from the state at some point, but we can't wait for that right now,” said Cormier.
The Flint school’s director is actively gathering input from those affected to figure out questions, ranging from lunchroom setup and transportation to how online instruction should be deployed. For students who need help in catching up as a result of missing classroom time, teachers are making plans for summer school, though it’s not yet clear what exactly it will look like. High schoolers who have fallen behind in earning course credits toward graduation will be required to enroll, and younger students will have the option of receiving remedial help.
Both leaders are carefully considering how they could adjust the next school year so they can better serve medically fragile students and others whose parents may be hesitant to return their children to campus. But Bergman believes that, to benefit most students and their families, “We’ll need our school doors open” in the fall.
Whatever the coming school year looks like, Renaissance’s principal wants her team to focus their instruction on what they think students will need in a post-pandemic world. “What is worth learning? What do we really want to put in front of them?”
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