Shh… I’m going to let you in on a secret. Academic Leaders, want to know how to get your business office to love you forever? Go to their office at some point this spring, and ask: So, I know that we put in huge investments in order to make this school-year-unlike-any-other work… how can we maximize those investments as we head into the future?
I know, I know… we aren’t used to talking about investments and money, generally. But, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Academic Leaders started asking questions that never crossed their lips before:
These are the questions that our business offices deal with every day, but to get the most accurate and actionable answers, they can’t answer them alone. As Academic Leaders, we need to collaborate with our campus leaders in facilities, security, technology, and finance as never before. Our schools were better because of that collaboration, and that’s not something we want to lose post-pandemic.
Business offices in schools also are often the most outward facing of the departments within a school, because they have to be. They are constantly engaging with outside vendors (banks, food service, construction companies, etc.) that give them a window into the ways that culture and industry are changing. This also gives them insight into trends that will affect how schools operate and what that will mean for the student experience, sometimes years before it’s visible in the academic program. That wider perspective is important information for Academic Leaders to have, as we increasingly build competencies in our students that prepare them for life, not just college.
Collaboration with the business office and other outward facing offices (such as enrollment and advancement) might also help us think expansively about what our classrooms might look like in the future and what new opportunities are present in a post-pandemic world to reach more students in more equitable ways.
This is a guest blog post written by Liz Katz with Amanda Rosas --- Since the summer, many independent schools have been reckoning with their histories as predominantly white institutions. At One Schoolhouse, we know that we share this challenge--our staff does not yet reflect the diversity of race and identity in the United States. For us, as in many schools, taking on the crucial work of antiracism means recognizing that we have fallen short of representing the diversity of our student body, our schools, and our country, and working to remedy that inequity. As a supplemental school, we also have to consider how the work of equity and justice can be embodied in our mission to be a partner to schools in the process of transforming education. That means providing our schools with the courses they need to meet the needs of all their students. As a part of this work, we are excited to be adding Black Identity in the United States, and Latina/o/x Identity in the United States to our offerings in 2021-2022. Other initiatives are currently in progress and we look forward to sharing them over the course of the next few months.
Amanda Rosas is a Mexican-American educator who will be teaching One Schoolhouse’s Latina/o/x Identity in the United States in Fall 2021; she currently teaches Gender and Sexual Identity in the United States and the Spring Activism Seminar at One Schoolhouse. At Visitation School in Mendota Heights, MN, she teaches Spanish and Social Studies and advises STAND, a student diversity and justice group. Rosas says that at most independent schools, “BIPOC students walk the hallways feeling like one of the few.” While independent schools have long supported presentations, student clubs and affinity groups focused on the experiences of students of color, they are also recognizing that these experiences can’t just be addressed as units or lessons.
Most education in the United States inaccurately centers the privileges of whiteness, Christianity, and heterosexuality. It leaves all our students with an erroneous understanding of history and erases the experience of people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and non-Christian religious communities. Rosas observes, “When you put Black, Latinx, or LGBTQ+ history at the center of a course, you don’t have these historically dominant narratives [of whiteness] threatening to take over. You take away those distractions. If you really want to center the experience of these students and give them space, this is the way.”
Course catalogs and curricula aren’t just an expression of how students spend the four years of high school. They are manifestations of a school’s values and priorities. That’s why the BIPOC experience needs to be both accurately represented and visible in the course catalog. Rosas reflects, “It’s powerful to see yourself represented in a course.” The self-determination, resistance, and contributions of individuals and communities who share their identity provide students with essential windows and mirrors. “You see people who are like you, people who have fought for you. You see that justice and hope are things that can happen for people who are like you.”
Students need courses that accurately reflect the complexities of identity and race in the United States. For many schools, creating these courses is part of an initiative that includes gathering information, evaluating material, and recruiting teachers. All of these are rightly time-intensive processes, but there are students in schools who need access now--two years isn’t a long time in the history of a school, but it’s an eon to a sixteen-year-old. To ensure that students can access a course of study that recognizes their needs, and as part of our mission to partner with schools, we’ve committed to expanding our catalog and offering courses that reflect the range of students and experiences in our schools.
A course catalog that gives equal weight to the experience of communities of color is a reflection of a school’s commitment not only to its students of color but also the work of dismantling racism and bias. Amanda Rosas saw the impact of identity-based courses in her Gender and Sexual Identity course first-hand: “[Student] saw that she could embrace her LGBTQ identity and take action to create a more inclusive environment at her school. It positioned her to see the world through a lens of justice...Bringing this aspect of self-love into your education is radical.” At One Schoolhouse, we want to partner with schools to provide courses that give students access to that kind of transformative experience.
In the Before Times, high-achieving students spent their summers packing their resumés. Programs on university campuses, internships in research labs, travel opportunities—even though it was summer, they didn’t stop. But as COVID-19 spread, so did the waves of program cancellation. In Summer 2020, almost everyone stayed home.
A year later, the national conversation on education is focused on learning loss. The prevailing narrative is that far too many students are far behind their usual acquisition of content. They haven’t learned what they needed to, the critics say, and we must focus on speeding up the pace of instruction as soon as possible, and for as long as it takes.
There’s no doubt that our students haven’t covered the material they usually do in an academic year, but I don’t think that focusing the summer on remediation is the way to go. To explain why, I find myself returning to a metaphor my children learned in preschool: “filling your bucket.” That bucket is your sense of well-being, and it can be filled by kindness and care, or emptied by conflict and tension. Right now, our students don’t just have empty buckets—their buckets are so cracked that they couldn’t hold water if we tried to fill them.
Trying to force all of our students into the same pattern of academic acquisition would be like trying to pour water in a bucket with a gaping hole. At the very minimum, our students have been managing chronic stress, long-term uncertainty, and isolation; many have also struggled with the effects of systemic racism, food instability, family responsibilities, and grief. As long as we ignore the social and emotional effects of the past twelve months, pushing students into activities that don’t fulfill them just can’t succeed.
I hope that summers don’t return to the resumé-packing patterns we used to see among high-achieving students, because they reinforced a toxically narrow definition of success. For those students who were too burdened to learn effectively this year, seizing the summer as “free time” isn’t a viable option—it simply won’t work because these students are depleted. We need a third option: summers that repair and restore the well-being that students need to be able to learn.
If we jump to remediation, we’re approaching learning and growth from a deficit-based mindset, zeroing in on what students are missing and then focusing all their attention on their shortfalls. Research is clear here: deficit thinking isn’t helpful. A strengths-based approach to summer asks students to reflect on what they need to be whole. To use that preschool metaphor, we’re asking students to identify what would allow them to repair and then fill those inner buckets.
Let me be clear that I’m not calling to abandon academic options for the summer. For some students, intense inquiry and academic challenge is exactly what’s going to fill them back up; for others, the reassurance of reviewing material will minimize anxiety. As educators, we know who those kids are. Their needs, however, are just as meaningful as the needs of a child who needs to spend time in a community of art-makers, or the one who’s missed the camaraderie of a basketball team.
In this time of rebuilding, we need to move away from the assumption that academic acquisition is the greatest goal of the high-achieving student. Instead, we need to see it as just one option among many for what makes teens whole. After a year when so many felt fractured, let’s not focus on filling resumés and filling out standardized test bubbles. Instead, let’s turn to filling our buckets, to the repair and renewal that restores a student’s sense of self.
As a former English teacher turned tech director, my fascination with technology began with its power to make the world a better place. I’ve given countless presentations that incorporated the idea that what we imagine in our fiction becomes our reality--sometimes faster than we can imagine. Seriously--I have a whole slide deck on how we’re actually living in the world the creators of Star Trek imagined in the 1960’s!
Having said that, I’m sad to report that virtual reality (VR) let me down.
If there ever was a time for a technology to emerge as the shining hero, this would have been it. We could have seen VR classrooms with chemistry labs or digitally built sets for Shakespeare performances. Those of us who have been on a VR expedition or dissected a virtual human heart—or even just played Beat Saber—know how “nearly there” this technology is.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools began by looking for a technological solution to crisis distance learning. What most of them found at the end of the search was that new tech wasn’t the thing that saved them—it was the way that engaged, creative teachers used existing technology that made the difference.
The role technology played was decidedly less glamorous than I’d imagined; technology infrastructure, rather than innovation, was key to ensuring learning continued as the long days of remote, concurrent, or hybrid learning turned into weeks and then months. School technology leaders worked long hours to ensure access for all students and faculty from home. The school’s Learning Management System (LMS), along with video connectivity became the backbone of remote learning, because consistency and reliability mattered more than anything else.
We used technology to replace what we were already doing rather than to imagine how school might be different. Dr. Reuben Puentedura’s SAMR model of technology integration is a useful guide here. The S refers to “substitution” in which technology merely enables something we already do, e.g. a live lecture takes place via Zoom rather than in the classroom, then students meet in breakout rooms rather than turning their desks towards one another to work in small groups. And as Alex Podchaski, CETL, Director of Educational and Information Technology at North Broward Preparatory School, as well as founder and co-host of the weekly #EdTechChat on Twitter said, “There was a whole lot of S” in pandemic technology.
It’s true that substitution was the focus of most school’s approaches to distance learning. And that makes sense—there was a crisis, and at the start of the crisis, it’s tempting to keep things as familiar as possible. The danger here is that we replicate systems that reinforce and widen inequities, continuing to disadvantage students who were already ill-served by systemic bias: students of color, working-class and poor students, neurodiverse students, and many others.
Now, as we head into the next normal, it’s time to think about what we keep and what we leave behind. First things first—I hope we all agree that we’ll NEVER go back to a world where schools don’t provide LMS access via a single platform. It is unconscionable that a student with seven teachers might have to navigate seven different platforms just to create the day’s to-do list. The idea that one tool “better matches” a course is a decidedly teacher-centered stance, and we should never do that to children again. Time and again, students had the best experience when teachers made the effort to see the online experience from the student perspective. Just as learner-driven classrooms produce better outcomes, attending to the user experience makes online experiences more engaging and productive.
Having said that, it’s my sincere hope that we’ll go “back” to thinking of technology as a frontier, a way to make change and discover new possibilities. As distance learning continued, there were many times when teachers and students created something new, with or without technology, that had never been done before. Let’s capture that entrepreneurial spirit!
In the summer of 2020, students and alumni leveraged technology and social media to amplify voices that had been silenced for far too long and acted to compel school leaders to examine, understand, and act to change the injustices perpetrated upon Black students on independent school campuses. Their bravery and imagination is transforming their schools. Creativity has bloomed in students at San Diego Jewish Academy as they’ve built their own virtual reality worlds by learning to program in Unity. Those worlds don’t have to be boundaried by the limitations adults have set in place. If we ever need another stay-at-home order, those students will have grown to be the visionaries who will build the more equitable and transformational VR classrooms that the next generation deserves.
I’m back to remind you that online learning is here to stay. In the fall, we shared some of what schools had learned through what was - let’s be honest - crisis distance learning. In replacing synchronous in-person programs with distance or hybrid learning, schools discovered how resilient teachers and students are, and how much families value their independent school community.
There’s now a renewed sense of schools’ value propositions because we have such a clear contrast to what is lost when school is distilled down to just for-credit course work. At the same time, we’ve also seen what can be gained when some learning is freed from the constraints of physical space or synchronous time. As schools plan for 21-22, both in-person and on-campus, we should take time to capture what has been learned. How can digital tools and online options make schools better -- more inclusive, more expansive, more effective?
Elements of online learning that improve outcomes for students shouldn’t be abandoned once students are back in seats in classrooms. Online opportunities can be leveraged in everything from a school’s DEIB initiatives to its enrollment management strategy. In online courses this year, teachers learned they could create pathways that allowed students to see themselves and have their unique needs met within the curriculum, instead of having to raise a singular voice against a dominant culture. Some students thrived under remote learning: introverts weren’t so worn down by the liveliness of in-person learning and some neurodivergent students thrived under conditions that allowed for choice and scaffolded agency.
What worked well in the crisis can be put to good use in planning for the new school year. Students who arrive in high school without Algebra I but want to reach Calculus by senior year can have the opportunity to complete a summer course, if it’s offered online. A wider range of voices, perspectives, and sources can be offered within a course when course materials are provided in an LMS instead of needing to be in print. Letting students record themselves on video for assignments ensures that every student will be seen and heard, no matter how quickly they formulate an opinion.
To decide how you want to move forward with online learning, here are some questions to consider:
As I said on this blog last fall, learning happened in novel and productive ways because students and teachers adjusted to distance learning. That flexibility and resilience is worth celebrating and cultivating. Schools should use every tool they have to create better outcomes for students, and that includes the new tools we’ve crafted in the online space over the past year. Before you move on, take time to reflect on what you want to carry forward--you’ll discover valuable lessons, practices, and strategies to retain in the years to come.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)