One Schoolhouse's April 29, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on what academic leaders need to know about independent school finance and operations in the face of COVID-19 with Jeff Shields, President & CEO of the National Business Officers Association. Topics include the business model’s heavy reliance on tuition and enrollment, including a breakdown of the operating budget and percentage allocations, as well as challenges emerging with our financial and operational models in this new normal.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO of One Schoolhouse: I'm joined today by my good friend Jeff Shields, the president and CEO of NBOA, the National Business Officers Association. Hi, Jeff.
Jeff Shields, President & CEO of NBOA: Hi, Brad. How are you doing today?
Brad: I'm so excited to have you here because it's really important for academic leaders to understand school finances in order to create solutions that can really fit within the means of schools. Yet we know that historically, the academic side of the house has typically tuned out the business side of the house and the business side of the house, historically tuned out the academic side of the house. And I know you and I have both been working for a long time to help change that quite a bit.
Jeff: That's correct. I really think what's changed is that the head of school has really seen how understanding the business model, developing their financial chops, et cetera, has been really not only valuable, but really expected by the trustees at this point in time. Not to let the business officers off the hook. You know, they can't just shrug their shoulders and say, I don't need to know anything about the program or I don't need to know anything about student learning or I don't need to know anything about anything other than the numbers. I do think those days are long gone and the most effective schools, I think, are led by heads of school, other academic leaders, and the business office working together in partnership.
Brad: I couldn't agree more. Jeff, can we just dive into a couple of questions?. So, Jeff, as we head into this kind of new normal or new whatever-we-want-to-call-it, I think it's important for academic leaders to understand the state of business and operations in independent schools prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
Jeff: There is no denying that the business model for schools already had numerous challenges even before COVID-19. I still think back to ten years ago and the impact that the economic downturn had on independent schools. Not a whole lot changed over the last decade. I would say until last year, and I'll get to that, but I do think as we went into this pandemic, most schools are very reliant on tuition. I'd go further and I'd say most schools are very reliant on fundraising and that's a real challenge. That was a challenge for schools this past year and going into this environment.
I think some other characteristics I'd share with the folks are that we were seeing steady enrollment overall, but really very little growth. Now, of course, I'm talking about across the board nationwide and certainly in independent schools, enrollment experiences could vary. Some have seen decline and some saw modest increases. However, the overall number of students enrolled in independent schools, in our schools, hasn't really grown much over the last several years.
I already mentioned fundraising. We saw that softening, so that was challenging for schools and filling that gap. There is a gap between how much we actually charge net tuition, how much we collect net tuition per student, and what we need to do to keep the school running.
A little good news, endowment performance was actually pretty strong again before the pandemic. It's been a rollercoaster ride ever since, but it was relatively strong.
These factors combined, what I thought was really interesting was over the past year, really helped drive schools to experiment with new tuition models and different financial aid models. And these have included tuition reset. We saw a really bold tuition reset by Southern New Hampshire University where they've reduced their tuition $39,000 to $10,000. Independent schools have been doing that as well. We saw the Kiski School, an all boys boarding school, do a significant tuition reset. One of the first boarding schools that I was aware of doing that. Montgomery School also did a tuition reset to be more competitive in thier particular market. Then, of course, there’s indexed tuition. I'm just going to clarify that I don't believe that index tuition is just a fancy new way of describing financial aid. Of course, it involves financial aid, but schools that are really doing it well are really doing it strategically so they can offer a wide variety of tuition price points and offer their students and families lots of flexibility while still honing in on the net tuition revenue that they need to collect.
All of these things were ways of opening the funnel and expanding our market. Of course, boarding schools were under tremendous pressure and still are. I think one characteristic, again, pre-pandemic, that I found most troubling was the data showing us that families even with the means to pay our tuition were still not selecting our independent schools. And that was really challenging. Again, it goes back to how can we open that funnel? How can we bring more people in? I think this was most evident and probably most people on the call would be able to observe that we saw a softening in lower school enrollment and yet, at the same time, for some schools, depending on your program, we did see much stronger demand for high school. So I think those are the key characteristics that I was observing and I'm sure many schools were discussing even prior to the onset of the pandemic.
Brad: So, if at least nationally, we were not talking about the rosiest of pictures heading into this, although we were talking about schools innovating on that whole variety of levels. What challenges are now emerging to our financial and operational model in this new kind of COVID-19 environment?
Jeff: Yeah, that's a great question. Obviously, we've been thinking a lot about it. NBOA has been working really diligently with partners like NAIS and EMA and state regional associations. I actually haven't seen a coming together of all of the different associations serving in schools before, including One Schoolhouse certainly.
First and foremost, business officers and everyone is concerned about the safety and health of our school communities. That's top of mind. And frankly, I'm relieved that today I'm not aware of any major outbreak within any school community that we've seen in other types of communities, in other types of workplaces. There have certainly been some positive cases and there's certainly been some exposure, but no outbreak that we’ve heard of. Schools reacted and were really on top of it.
I think what's happening right now is, as you well know better than anybody, schools are managing whatever distance learning solution that they've implemented, whatever they've put in place. Now they’re making decisions about the status of bringing students back to campus next year, which I think is really challenging and hard.
I think about my daughter who’s an eighth grader and the move up ceremony that we realize she's going to have in a virtual way and not an in-person way. I think of any high school senior with all those milestones and not being able to really experience a traditional graduation or other ceremonies. Schools are weighing those decisions heavily and also being creative about how to serve the community and serve those students in different ways. We're making a decision about summer programs. And, many heads of schools and many trustees and business officers are grappling with the PPP loan application process.
Brad: Can I stop you for a second? What is the PPP loan for those that are not aware?
Jeff: Yeah. I appreciate that question. It is a new program, a federal program administered by the Small Business Administration. The Payroll Protection Program, or the PPP allows schools, who choose to do so it's up to the individual school to apply work with their bank, to access resources funds that can be forgiven depending on certain circumstances. I don't think it's helpful to go into the details now, but it's really to help schools support the teachers and all the administrators and everyone who's on the payroll.
So I think what's important for your audience to know is that 75% of the funds, if a school was going to secure those, at minimum would have to go towards payroll. That means we keep everyone employed, which is a good thing, and then up to twenty five percent can also be used for facilities, which we're still paying for as our facilities. We're still maintaining them. We're still doing a lot of things around our facility. A lot of trustees, boards, and business officers are all grappling with it and I just think I'd be remiss for not mentioning that this is going on the backdrop, although it does not directly impact academic leaders at this point.
Then obviously the big question in all of this is, how is this going to affect our enrollment? And if enrollment is impacted, I think everyone on the call knows that budgets are impacted. The correlation between our tuition revenue and our salary and benefits is undeniable. If we do experience enrollment challenges, we will have to respond budgetarily..
Brad: So let's let's pause there actually for a second. Let's tie together two things that you just said. So when I asked you the first question, you talked about how schools have become more reliant upon tuition, which now makes us reliant upon enrollment during this time significantly more than we might have been even a generation ago. Just to give folks a sense for a bit, to make sure that we're kind of understanding the landscape on this. About how much of a percentage of schools annual revenue is coming in from tuition these days?
Jeff: Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, according to our BIZ data, most recently for the most current fiscal year, I would say you can ballpark it between 70 and 80 percent, depending on the school. Could be a little higher, could be a little lower. It depends, but most schools fall into that sweet spot.
Brad: You also mentioned that so much of a school's expenses are in faculty and staff between benefits and salary. What does biz data tell us about that?
Jeff: I would put that number around 60 to 70 again. It varies, so it's slightly under, but you can see the relationship is clear. It's the same for many, many non-profits across the country. That relationship between your primary revenue stream and your primary expense, which is investing in your staff.
Brad: Right.So that kind of leads me to my next question, which I think is very much related to these two things. And that is what actions can the academic leaders consider taking that can help their school thrive both during this crisis and then as a follow up to the crisis?
Jeff: I want to acknowledge that this is slightly out of my lane because I don't I don't often give advice directly to academic leaders, but since we're talking about business and finance and operations, I feel comfortable doing so. I also just want to acknowledge that I've had the privilege of serving on the One Schoolhouse Board for the last seven years, serving side by side with academic leaders from across the country that are innovating and I've learned so much from that experience. So I feel a little bit more firmer on the ground with venturing into this area for you and the folks that have dialed in.
We've been put on notice about our need to transition from an in-person, face-to-face learning environment where all of our students are in the classroom together to some kind of distance learning environment. We didn't know how to do that before, but we know how to do it now. So I think that if the need arises again, schools are going to have to toggle from opening to distance learning again sometime in this next school year. Is it the fall? Is it the winter? I don't know, but from where I sit, we're going to have to do it better and even faster than we did this year.
I want to say we did really well. Schools responded and I'm hearing that again and again and again. It's really exciting to hear that story being told how well the faculty responded, how well the students have responded, and how we demonstrated how agile we could be compared to some other offerings that are out there, some other K-12 options that are out there. I think schools have been remarkable in this regard. At the beginning, we were understandably a little flat footed, but ultimately delivered. I think that's something we should all be proud of.
I do think next year we have to be even more prepared and the transition has to be even more seamless. I know, as you and I have discussed, it could even mean opening distance, learning, opening again and then distance learning. Toggling back and forth throughout the year is not out of the question. I think supporting students and families with this kind of potential environment, as not only the school circumstances demand but as their family circumstances demand with parents who are working or trying to work and trying to help their students. That's on the horizon and absolutely something we have to be prepared to do.
I really want to say a big thank you to Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C., which is where my daughter attends. She's an 8th grader, at a sixth through twelve school in D.C. You know, I have a focus group of one with my eighth grade daughter who is attending an independent school and it's amazing to me how resilient she's been in this environment. It's really inspiring and it's all because of the support of great teachers. As we all know, everything happens because of great teachers. The engagement she's having in this environment, the agency (I know we talk a lot about at One Schoolhouse), the expectations, it's just really great. It reminds me yet again that students are ready to step up to the challenge. You know, as we talk about potentially toggling back and forth, I believe that schools will be able to meet them again if they make the right decisions now.
Think about the number of faculty that now have had direct experience with distance learning. That's just incredible to me to think about that. But you know what? It's been almost entirely on the job training and it's been almost entirely under a lot of pressure in a time constrained moment. Think about the opportunity we have to help our faculty be more planful, be more reflective, and prepare for that type of learning for this fall. I think that's really exciting and I think that's what I believe we have the opportunity to leverage from an academic standpoint at this moment. I know that schools will be concerned about expenses just like anyone else, but you know, I'd really like to have the conversation or encourage schools to have the conversation that it's really doubtful we'll be spending a lot of PD money on travel, hotel or airfare in this next year. Let's not abandon our professional development budgets, but really shift those investments to online opportunities for our faculty to really get up to speed and advance their skills and abilities that, like I said, they learned in not the most ideal circumstances. Those are some of the initial thoughts I have.
Brad: Yeah, happy to hear you say that too Jeff. I know that NAIS last week did a SNAP survey of heads of school. In that SNAP survey, somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of schools said that they're considering cutting their professional development budgets next year. What I'm hearing you say is that might not be the best course of action, or at least school should be thinking about reallocating their professional development budgets differently than they had previously.
Jeff: Right and I really think it's I really think it's an opportunity, because I think if we do if we want to prepare for some difficult circumstances as it relates to enrollment, well certainly there might be an opportunity to reduce PD. Like I said, sometimes the most expensive part of professional development is getting on a plane and paying for that hotel. It's generally not registration fees onto themselves. I think obviously One Schoolhouse is one great resource, but I really think if we're going to leverage this opportunity and we're really going to ask our communities and our faculty to rise to the occasion, we really have to support it.
I mean, kind of the same subject, but different. One of the most frustrating things I think a business officer can experience is investing in technology and then going into a classroom and still seeing it sitting in the box in the corner. And you know what? That’s no one's fault. It’s very often not about the faculty not wanting to use the technology or the business officer not dedicating the resources. It really comes down to the additional training and support and sometimes we shorthand that and I don't think we can in a scenario like this one. I really believe, given how well schools performed in this environment, I think it could be a real key differentiator for schools going forward if they leverage what they've already done and invest in it.
Schools who want to be adept and agile are going to need the training and support to do that.
Brad: That's a really good point. Can you talk for a minute or two about a webinar NBOA hosted last week about safety and operations for this fall? It has been the talk among independent school administrators all week long.
Jeff: There were a couple of webinars that happened last week that were important for this topic. McLane Middleton really brought some really expert medical advice to the NBOA community last week that I think really helped give folks pathways to think about. It really was expert advice on topics from transportation to food service to obviously the health and safety of our faculty and staff. It gave the folks on the call, that was way beyond business officers, a lot of clarity around that. We also did a webinar last week around facilities and preparing our facilities for the next reopen and what that looks like.
Brad: Jeff, thank you so much for sharing these insights with academic leaders. I know that sometimes it's difficult for academic leaders to really want to jump into those business operations conversations. I think you've made this accessible to folks and given great information.Thank you.
Jeff: Thanks for the opportunity, Brad. And thanks to you and all the great work that One Schoolhouse and your whole team is doing. I know many, many schools appreciate it.
Projections from public health authorities strongly suggest that schools should be prepared for an unsettled learning environment in the academic year 2020–21. Significant impacts to schools’ calendars and weekly schedules could be widespread or localized, should outbreaks occur and school-closing or stay-at-home orders be put in place. The right approach for finishing the school year was to minimize academic change to assist students and teachers in the enormous and unanticipated disruption in their lives. Now is the time to pivot and recognize that we can now anticipate the need to sustain academic programs for a longer time period. Schools need to develop a hybrid learning model to be nimble when circumstances change. What does this term mean in the complex educational and operational situation in which schools will find themselves?
Hybrid learning is an environment that allows for maximum flexibility between online and in-person instruction. There may be some days when a school’s physical campus must be closed and others where campus is open. When campus is open, only some students may be physically present. Some students may primarily receive in-person instruction, while others receive most of their instruction online; there will likely be movement between these two groups. There may be faculty who teach primarily in one modality or another.
Highly functional hybrid environments are based on a few solid principles. At a foundational level, a robust learning management system (LMS), used by all faculty, provides a common platform for housing and delivering instructional materials and, even more to the point, offers a consistent user experience for teachers, students, and families. At the instructional level, all faculty must develop a shared set of skills in conceptualizing and building courses and teaching in multiple modalities (in-person, online, and blended). With a common platform as well as common principles underlying instruction in an effective hybrid environment, student learning continues seamlessly even as modalities change.
While preparing for this scenario is daunting, it is essential. The upcoming summer break provides schools with time that we haven’t had in the spring of 2020 to line up ideas and resources. With thoughtful planning that begins with identifying key needs and aligning these with the right resources to meet them, a school can face a hybridized ’20–21 not as a time of acute disruption but as a modified but mission-driven and effective way of doing school—of delivering programs and student support at accustomed levels of quality and intensity.
Principles for Hybrid Learning
Hybrid learning is an environment that allows for maximum flexibility between online and in-person instruction. There may be some days when a school’s physical campus must be closed and others where campus is open. When campus is open, only some students may be physically present. Some students may primarily receive in-person instruction, while others receive most of their instruction online; there will likely be movement between these two groups. There may be faculty who teach primarily in one modality or another.
The principles of hybrid learning are predicated on the assumption that the school already has a strong, effective, and mature curriculum and culture of learning and that the school’s engaged community can thrive across modalities.
These principles draw heavily on both the Principles of Independent Curriculum and The Pedagogy of One Schoolhouse.
Congruent With The Mission And Values Of The School
A hybrid learning program aligns with the stated mission, values, culture, and strategic priorities of the school.
The Student–Teacher Relationship Forms The Foundation For All Learning
A hybrid learning program keeps students and teachers in community whether online or in-person. Teachers are equally responsive in any learning modality.
Responsive To The Interests, Capacities, And Aspirations Of The Students Being Taught
A hybrid learning program serves the actual students in each class, regardless of modality, and is designed and implemented to meet students’ interests, abilities (both developed and developing), aims, and requirements in all dimensions.
A Sufficiency Of Technology
A hybrid learning program relies on robust, ubiquitous, and curated technology tools that empower the delivery of the program but do not dictate teaching or learning.
Multiple Modes Of Assessment
A hybrid learning program supports the measurement of student mastery of articulated competencies and standards through a full range of assessment tools and techniques, both formative and summative.
Structure And Organization Are Essential Operational Elements
A hybrid learning program provides predictability and consistency in uncertain and fluctuating circumstances.
Inclusive And Just
A hybrid learning program recognizes the variety of students’ multiple perspectives, fluctuating situations, experiences, and access to resources.
Wellness And Balance
A hybrid learning program relies on a deep understanding of the developmental, social-emotional, and physical needs of learners and educators alike.
One Schoolhouse's April 22, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar on fostering diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the online space with Gene Batiste, chief diversity office at St. John School in Houston TX and chief catalyst with Gene Batiste Consulting. Gene discusses: the biggest DEIB challenges facing schools in the midst of COVID-19; new boundaries and expectations for learning from home; and, embedding your school's values throughout your crisis response.
BRAD RATHGEBER, Head of School & CEO at One Schoolhouse: So, Gene, first, actually, can you tell us a little bit about your background in this work so that everybody has that sense of it?
GENE BATISTE Ed.D., Chief Diversity Officer at St. John School in Houston TX and Chief Catalyst with Gene Batiste Consulting: Thank you. So I've been involved in these DEIB work or diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging almost since birth. Having been born and raised in a military family and living overseas, I had the benefit of going to Department of Defense Schools and being in a multicultural setting. My parents were from Texas and Louisiana, so I would have gone to segregated school. That's where my passion for DEIB began.
In the early 90s, I worked in my first independent school. There, I really began to see the connection between academic learning and the importance of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. So I was at St. Mark's School of Texas for nine years as a teacher and as a mid-level administrator of a scholars program and in diversity work. At that time, I was connected with NAIS through some committee work. I presented it to people of Color Conference and after spending a year in St. Louis as an Assistant Head and Director of Upper School, I joined NAIS for 13 years, serving as Vice President for Professional Development first and then for leadership development in equity and justice.
While I was at NAIS and working at the national level on things like the People of Color Conference, on developing and implementing an assessment of inclusivity multiculturalism called AIM, I went back to school and got my doctorate at Penn and started my own consulting work and actually started consulting with the school where I'm currently serving as chief diversity officer here in Houston, Texas. And that's what brought me to where we are.
BRAD: Your background is just amazing. And it's so helpful in helping us think through these challenging times that we have right now. From where you sit, Gene, what are some of the challenges that you've seen just emerge perhaps differently during this time of COVID 19 than you've seen previously?
GENE: I think the first thing that's coming to mind is the very impact of community has been thrown on its ear in the wake of COVID-19. And the other thing I'm thinking about involves all the gains and the progress that schools have made and diversity professionals and school leaders have made in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging either are lost or they are being put on the back burner. And that's for understandable reasons to some extent, because we need to be about still being school and still focusing on teaching and learning in this new way.
I think that as I hear from diversity professionals around the country, some of them are feeling that they're not being consulted or involved in contingency planning, which is very ironic because these very diversity practitioners have been trained in crisis and trauma management. And so that sense of disconnection between the very expertise in how to be community from these individuals and not involving them or consulting them in this process. I'm concerned also and I'm hearing concern about this “getting back to basics” approach to teaching and learning in schools, particularly independent schools.
And then finally, there's a stark impact of socioeconomic and class diversity that is very much apparent in this space with virtual learning, particularly synchronous learning, where teachers and students and other adults in the community are seeing each other in their home space. And so we are seeing very obvious signs of socioeconomic and class diversity in how backgrounds are presented. Some folks are actually camouflaging their real background with a screen or something. That's a reality. One of the blogs I'm following is a teacher is suggesting actually seeing a benefit of a particular comes to culturally responsive teaching, allowing her students to see her in her home space, but not just doing one static background, but actually doing her lessons from different parts of her home so that her students can see her real lived experience.
And then a final challenge, I think, is around assumptions -- just all of the assumptions that are coming will be challenges for our schools. Assuming that you have Wi-Fi connection, assuming that you know you're OK and assuming that students can thrive when they're dealing with trauma and crises and by extension, that adults are OK. And so I think that school leaders and diversity professionals are really going to need to confront the assumptions that are coming to surface because of COVID-19.
BRAD: There is so much to unpack there, Gene. Can we follow up on a couple of things you said in there. The first one is that you're hearing from many DEIB practitioners that they're worried that it's taking a backseat or completely out of the vehicle kind of at this time. What message does this convey about our school values and how might we be able to embed those values more fully into the way we respond to this crisis?
GENE: What is that age-old adage from Maya Angelou, “when people show you who they really are, believe them.” I think diversity professionals and school leaders that are passionate about DEIB are wondering if the words that are very impactful in our statements of community and inclusion or in DEIB are simply words. Now is the time where we take a look at those words and we try to engage with them again.
I think that this idea of extending grace and leniency is very important. We recognize as diversity professionals that schools need to run in this new and present reality for us. Diversity professionals need to be mindful that school leaders are trying to see how schools are going to survive when it comes to tuition. I know that Jeff Shields is doing a session next week on this.
Once a rhythm is in place for that, then we need to come back to looking at our statements, looking at our commitments and principles to DEIB and make sure that those are actionable and not just flowery speech.
BRAD: Are you finding concerns with kids in impacted socioeconomic terms, older siblings taking care of little ones while parents need to work? Thus those kids' difficulty in managing synchronous learning opportunities at schools.
GENE: Right. Particularly synchronous learning that I am hearing about because, parents are either working in the home or if they're not, if they're essential, particularly we're seeing that here in Houston with our medical staff, our medical parents as well. That is a concern. Again, grace and leniency really needs to be in place here. I know that a number of schools are modifying not just their expectations for learning, but also they're modifying their school schedules so that it's not an 8-5 or 8-3, but it's perhaps only a 9-1 or they're doing 30 minute classes and providing an opportunity for modifications as needed given the home circumstance. This is what the core of culturally responsive teaching is all about, where you set up a trusting relationship with your students, where you're mindful of their lived experience, what they're bringing to your virtual classroom, and making adjustments as necessary.
BRAD: Any ideas about honoring transition's traditions and farewells, particularly in this space?
GENE: Yeah, whether it's graduating from kindergarten, going from middle to upper school, or graduating high school, schools are asking: “how do you do that in a virtual space?” I'm hearing some very innovative ways of doing this. First, just honoring the difficulty of honoring those rites of passage and those transitions, I think is key throughout all of this. My core message is communication and transparency are going to be so important and then finding novel ways. I heard one example a few weeks ago in a Zoom conference that the Glasgow Group sponsored about a school that is honoring their graduating seniors with “graduation in a box.” They're including their cap and gown and the diploma, a letter of congratulations from the head, some confetti or noise maker, and putting it in a box and just shipping it to every graduating senior. Just, you know, just as one example. While not the same as face to face can be, it is a short term kind of solution. But I think it's also important to realize we're simply postponing these important transitions. We may do them later rather than cancelling them outright.
BRAD: So, Gene, I also want to follow up on something that you said earlier, because it relates to a topic that we've discussed in these webinars previously, and that is that schools should think really inclusively and expansively around the talents that they have in the building. So a previous example was understanding that an athletic director is almost always somebody who is amazing at operations, and can help leaders think through some of your operations on campus a little bit differently. You talked about DEIB practitioners as having a really interesting, expansive set of competencies that leaders might not necessarily initially gravitate towards. Can you expand a little bit on that?
GENE: I think that because DEIB professionals are working with classroom teachers on curriculum. They're working with your division heads and with your associate head or your head of school when it comes to hiring and retention. They're asking those key questions about culturally responsive teaching and they're asking those key questions and offering resources for cultural competency, which is going to be another very important thing to promote during this time of COVID-19. And so I think just making sure that you include their voices and it may not necessarily be the answers they have, but the questions that they ask that can help in managing and thriving within this new reality.
BRAD: Do you have any suggestions for teachers or administrators on how to connect, reach, support students, and families who aren't responsive or who are disengaging in this distance learning environment?
GENE: I'm reading and hearing a lot about that happening, particularly in the public school sector. I haven't heard about it quite so much with independent schools, though, that that's not to say it's not happening. I would recommend that we be proactive and that we consider every avenue, including using email, using text. But if you need to get in your car and do a drive by in a little bit of a honk on your horn to say hi; that kind of face-to-face kind of connection may be important. I've heard from both my undergraduate school as well as a former school where I taught from their advancement office just reaching out to say we don't want any money. We just want to connect to let you know that we're concerned about you. Every avenue that you already use to communicate, continue with those but also consider a new way, including a drive by to let those that are disengaging or are reticent to engage that you're still there.
BRAD: I've heard of that, too, I've heard of teachers taking their homeroom list to just doing drive bys around neighborhoods and saying hi to kids through their windows. Are there resources that you found particularly helpful to share with families to help them navigate this time at home.
GENE: Yeah, a lot of great stuff. I know that NPR and public TV have a lot of great resources. Scholastic is offering a lot of great resources as well. For those that are particularly concerned about diversity, equity, inclusion and blogging or social justice, Teaching Tolerance offers a lot of great resources that can be modified and used by families as well as by educators for keeping that culturally responsive space in mind. NAIS has extensive resources they make available on their website. I would recommend that diversity practitioners and leaders seek out the Zoom and Google conferences that are available because they too are curating resources. NAIS is doing it, the Glasgow Group is doing it as well. And I'm noticing that more and more state and regional associations are responding. I think utilizing the expertise of others in the field through virtual meetups is a very present and very helpful resource.
BRAD: It is wonderful to see, Gene, how the whole community is trying to come together and starting to maybe figure that out. Are we getting to the place or where we're starting to figure a new reality out?
GENE: I hope so. I think that, again, as schools are getting into a rhythm of synchronous and asynchronous learning, they are trying to rethink community. One tool that I would recommend for diversity practitioners and school leaders is to use something from organizational development called reconstructing questions. I use this a lot in my consulting work too, take your statement on community and inclusion or take your principles around DEIB and ask four questions:
1. What are we doing now that we can do more of that promotes DEIB in our school given this new reality?
2. What are we doing now that we should do less of what we are doing?
3. What aren't we doing that we should be doing?
4. What are we doing that we need to stop doing in order to, you know, not just maintain but thrive in community and inclusion in DEIB with this new space?
Using these for reconstructing questions that have served me and served the schools I serve very well and reimagining and rethinking a number of important things, including your DEIB work.
BRAD: You know, that's a nice transition, that leads us to a question from a participant “What we need to be thinking about as DEIB professionals going into the fall of 2020?” I know that a lot of schools that I've been working with, Gene, have started to shift from “OK. We can get through this year” to “What the heck is the fall going to look like that?” That shifting conversation seems to be happening right now.
GENE: One thing is to think now about the new ways that diversity professionals and school leaders that are passionate about these DEIB will do their own professional development this summer. I'm seeing that a number of organizations and institutions are moving to virtual PD for DEIB. Seek those out and continue with your own development in this area. I know that in my own case we have community inclusion associates at St. John's and we're going to have a spring retreat virtually.
And part of that is going to be to start our planning for 2021. Those faculty forums and those other ways we're going to involve our faculty associates in doing professional elements. Start working on your calendar now, realizing that you want some flexibility to it. Make sure that your PD is in place and make sure that you're thinking strategically now about plans. Do this in a co-creative way.
This is an opportunity in a virtual space to involve school leaders, to involve students and to involve parents in reimagining DEIB work and how to deliver it. What a way to get buy-in from your community if you say, we really want to rethink what we are going to do in DEIB come join us and be part of this effort!
BRAD: Are any other things that we should really be thinking about as academic leaders in our schools, particularly, I guess, focus towards not just completing this school year, but understanding that we may be in a very different environment heading into this fall?
GENE: I think that in teaching and learning and even simply being in a school, understanding the crisis and trauma created is very, very important. We haven't talked about social emotional learning, but there is a strong link between striving to be a school and the impact of social emotional learning for students and making sure that you have SEL in place not only to finish off this year, but for next year as well.
Adults in the school community need as much grace and leniency during this time as we are affording affording students. Use this time to collaborate with other schools, use NAIS, use Glasgrow Group, reach out to others that you know and share your ideas and share your struggles with DEIB and COVID-19. One of the good things we are going to get out of this is that we’ll be collaborating more and see a level of interdependence moving forward.
I think that's basically it. I'm always available to answer questions beyond this. I'm just so grateful that One Schoolhouse is realizing the importance of this conversation for school leaders.
BRAD: Gene, we all appreciate the expertise that you bring to this conversation and the care and thoughtfulness that you bring to everything that you do. So thank you so much for joining today and for offering your guidance for academic leaders.
GENE: My pleasure. Thanks so much, Brad.
Identifying Learning Gaps
One Schoolhouse's April 15, 2020, Academic Leaders Webinar focused on "learning gaps" that may develop this spring, as students work in distance learning environments for the first time. Tom Rochon, President, and Glenn Milewski, Chief Program Officer, from ERB discuss: resources available this spring in order to assess student learning and well-being, and a new tool that schools can use next fall to understand what gaps emerged and how to target skill development over the 2020-2021 school year.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School of One Schoolhouse: So we are thrilled today to be joined by Tom and Glenn from ERB (Educational Records Bureau) to explore this topic of understanding what learning gaps might be created as we go through this crazy spring. Tom and Glenn, welcome. Thank you so much for joining today.
Tom Rochon, President of ERB: Thanks, Brad, thanks so much for having us here. As you know, it's an unprecedented time with obviously, lots of unique challenges for schools right now. I know assessments are not necessarily on top of the list of things that everyone is worried about, yet it rises very quickly to near the top of the list for a number of reasons.
Brad: Absolutely it does. The first question I'd love to just know a little bit about is: what resources is ERB making available to educators and families right now to help them through the COVID-19 crisis?
Tom: We know that assessment is most valuable for innovating schools. It's a way to show that students are learning what they need to know to demonstrate the effectiveness of the educational program despite or because of the school's experimental stance or directions.
And right now, all schools are innovating schools. Everyone is experimenting. We're in unknown territory, so we know at ERB and we've been working really hard to support what has been an abrupt and unexpected transition to distance learning. So, in the immediate term, to address your question directly, a number of schools have taken us up on the offer of the free Writing Practice Program for the rest of the academic year. This is a self-guided online A.I. driven writing instructional program that students can follow and they get feedback through the A.I. algorithm.
Teachers can monitor how much work they're doing and how they're progressing and put their own stamp on it by interacting with students.
Brad: For those unfamiliar with that program, what are the appropriate grade levels for the WPP?
Glenn Milewski, Chief Program Officer at ERB: Typically the most popular grade levels for that program are grades 3 through 8. What the people who use the program tend to really value is the fact that the results are presented immediately after students submit their writing, and they're fairly detailed. There is feedback on six different traits and each trait has a particular rubric to guide the feedback that's given and so it does really help students practice and benefit from trying out different essay prompts online.
Tom: We also know that SEL work is one of the hardest to transition to a distance relationship. Yet at the same time, there's been just a glut of resources offered over the last month or so in that area. So, we are also curating a selection of SEL perspectives and exercises on our website.
And, then the third thing I'd want to mention in the short term is an announcement that the ISEE admissions tests will be available to students at home within a proctored and secure fashion so that schools can continue to do their admission testing through the spring and into the summer at the tail end of the full admissions cycle.
Brad: That's great. Can you talk through other ways that ERB is supporting schools with testing options? We know that a lot of schools are used to doing their CTP testing, for example, in the springtime.
Glenn: Tom mentioned the admission testing that we are doing with at home proctoring. We're also supporting achievement testing via the CTP with at home testing options. What's different about the two approaches is for the ISEE program, our partners at Prometric, will be proctoring the exam for students. So, schools won't be involved in that process and it will mirror pretty much the same procedures that students and families have when they enter a Prometric test center. Our members will receive test scores for the ISEE, but they won't be involved in administration. For achievement testing with the CTP, it's a little bit different. We're asking schools to administer the exam to their students at home and to follow the same procedures that we have in place for CTP online testing, which are well established and well owned, with the exception that teachers and administrators will be proctoring via a video conference using Zoom. We've got extensive materials to support implementation available on our website on the CTP portal.
We've heard from over 200 members that have interest in doing this and they really want to know what to plan for. One interesting point that came up today is that, we had our first school administer CTP online at home and several dozen students took the exam and they were able to obtain their scores immediately after the assessment. It was frankly a little bit bumpy, we sat in with the school and it was their first time doing CTP online testing. They were a paper school, and so they were kind of working out the kinks and this sort of new way, but I would count it as a success. Every time we administer another one of these at home, we're learning a little bit more and more adjusting directions for schools.
Brad: For schools that are used to running the CTP test in the spring. Would you encourage them to stay on that cycle right now and to try to move to the online format, or would you encourage them to do something different?
Glenn: The way that I always answer this question is to say that we want to support schools in what they feel they should do to best support learning. We’re trying to be as flexible as possible and give schools as many options as they need.
Tom: I think that perspective is exactly right, and there's obviously a sense in which this spring and summer will be unlike any other. So the data from whether a school tests at home with CTP this spring or moves to a fall testing cycle, there will always be a certain breakpoint or a certain asterisk next to it. We understand that, which is why we simply want to give schools as many options as they can have.
Glenn: And I want to actually build on what, if it's ok Brad, build on what Tom just said because ERB is launching a new program for back to school next year.
Brad: Let’s transition to that.
Glenn: ERB is launching the Milestones program to complement to the CTP. Except that it's a much lower intensity brief version of the CTP that only includes two sub tests, reading comprehension and math.
The reason I mentioned this in the context of COVID 19 is that we feel that for schools who simply cannot test this spring, they're not able to do at home CTP testing, the most helpful option for them would be to administer the Milestones assessment in the fall and to get a quick look at students overall level of learning and any areas in which they have particular strains or weaknesses. Many schools, I think are going to be feeling quite in the dark after a six-month hiatus of not having in-school learning. So what can really help them is a data point in the beginning of the year.
The way the Milestones program works as a complement to the CTP. Milestones is offered in three assessments in the fall, winter, or spring. And for schools that are administering the CTP in the spring, they can administer Milestones in the fall and winter. The first full assessment is this learning check. The second assessment in the winter is a kind of a follow up, so for students who performed particularly poorly or to just get a check on learning for all students mid-year, the Milestone assessment is available.
And then to your earlier question, schools that are typically administering the CTP in the spring, we recommend that they administer it again in the spring of 2021, and that will allow them to preserve their longitudinal trend data to have a very robust and fulsome look at all of the areas that we measure and a good tool for evaluating curriculum effectiveness.
Brad: So let me just recap on that to make sure that we get that answer super clear for schools. So schools have a couple of different options for the spring, they can move to online testing environment if they haven't moved to the online testing environment, and/or if they do not think that it's right for them to offer a spring CTP test date they can still get a snapshot of where their students are through the ERB Milestones program this fall and winter. It will help them again identify some of the gaps that may have been created over the previous six months.
I really appreciate and I think everybody on this call, appreciates the way that ERB is reaching out and helping schools both with free resources and thinking about things very flexibly in regards the mission program and the CTP program and the Milestones program probably couldn't have come along at a better time.
We do have a few questions that are coming in. Corbit is wondering, do you have any data around expected deltas when schools change? And I think that's from spring to fall testing.
Glenn: So one thing to keep in mind about the Milestones program and the CTP program is that we use a vertical scale so that accounts for different times of year when students will test. So, think of it like the scale in your bathroom. The measurements are always the same and what changes are the norms that we use to interpret those measurements. So, we have fall and spring norms for the CTP, we had those for a long time, but for the Milestones program will have fall, winter. and spring norms to help with those interpretations.
Tom: I really like to extend Glenn's metaphor, because on the one hand, if you shift from fall to spring or spring to fall, your school, your results would be compared against other schools that are testing in the fall. On the other hand, we all know that our weight fluctuates during the day and if we typically weigh ourselves in the morning and then we start weighing ourselves in the evening, we're going to get a different result. And while we might have a norm pool to expect, actually, I don't know what happens if we generally gain weight or lose weight during the day, we might know to adjust in that way, but you'll never be able to know exactly how your metabolism is, or let me drop this extended metaphor. Your school would actually be affected by that shift. So it does represent a shift that cannot just be statistically controlled or raised.
Brad: Another question that came in is will there be a skilled breakdown on the math? And I'm guessing as that's related to the Milestones program, too.
Glenn: Let me hit some of the high points in terms of the design. And by the way, for people who are interested in more information, we have a website specifically geared to this program. It's called It's at erblearn.org/milestones
Some of the high points when I mentioned that the Milestone program was a compliment to CTP, I failed to include the detail that it uses the same score scales and it will have the same content standards mastery scores as the CTP and it will also use the same norm pool. So basically, it's a short form of the CTP and that's what our members asked for. We conducted a lot of outreach with them and they said for this to be helpful from a pedagogical standpoint, we need to have results on the same scale and with the same level of detail and the same norms.
What we're also doing that's going to be different for Milestones and CTP as well is we're adding criterion referenced interpretations and that's really exciting. We have some technical advisors who said you're doing great on the norm reference interpretations, but it would be helpful to give some criterion reference feedback as well. So we're actually working with several dozen teachers to help us interpret what level of performance on these assessments reflects meeting expectations and exceeding expectations, so we'll be providing criterion reference feedback for milestones as well.
Brad: I want to make sure this question is answered fully: is there a way to compare the fall milestones data to the traditional end of year spring data?
Glenn: Absolutely, and it goes back to that scale metaphor, right? So imagine you weighed 100 pounds in the fall and you weigh 120 in the spring the plus 20 points is your growth over the year. And we can measure that reliably because we have these very strong vertical scales on CTP and Milestones.
Tom: And identify an expected growth from fall to spring so that you can not only understand the trajectories of the different students in a given class, but you can also understand what those trajectories look like against a general sort of external set of norms.
Brad: Are there other other places you can think of if you are a school leader that you would be really interested in digging into and identifying student gaps and learning as we get into the summer and fall?
Glenn: ERB has partnered with Re-think Ed to offer social and emotional learning programming and our contribution to that partnership has been to create an assessment of social and emotional learning competencies. It's very brief and it's really guided toward helping educators help students refine and build on their competencies. But one of things we realized very quickly after we started getting data back is what power there is in linking social emotional learning competency data with learning achievement data. And there are really important relationships that you can see in those data points. And moreover, there's this notion that if you're helping students develop in social emotional learning areas, you're also going to have a corresponding impact on their learning achievement, which we all kind of know intuitively, but seeing that effect in the data has just been very powerful for us in schools.
Tom: I'd piggyback onto that I mentioned at the beginning of the webinar that all schools are now experimental schools perforce by dint of the environment. And one of the aspects of that experiment, of course, is trying out different distance learning techniques. I'm sure that there's not a single uniform school philosophy that's managed to develop over just a few weeks. Different teachers are doing different things. And actually, Brad, I think it was from you that I heard the intriguing anecdotal finding that students who are extroverts might not be doing as well in the transition to distance learning because they are so relational, relationship oriented as students who are introverts. Yet another opportunity to understand the impact of this experimental moment and distance learning by combining data from our SEL measure in our CTP measure.
I guess what I would say in general is that the more data one can collect on student learning in this time and the more you can relate that to this to other aspects of how the school understand, how teachers understand, the students and their characteristics and how they learn, the better prepared the school will be to absorb the lessons from this moment and assuming that the future is going in a certain direction anyway. To use those lessons to become a really effective educational environment in what might be a future hybrid scenario of in-person and distance learning. This is a special moment and looking at it in a certain way, it's a glass half full moment where there's a lot of opportunity.
Brad: And so we should be thinking about measurement broader than we typically have in the past.
I think that's one of the key takeaways from this.
Glenn: I think for us too, unlocking the power of those measurements through better reporting platforms is really where our emphasis is. And again, I don't want this to be a pitch either, but we're really excited that we're making some important improvements to our reporting that will be a part of the Milestones program and CTP next year too.
Brad: Another question that we have come in is what would you recommend that we as academic leaders recommend to families to support their kids learning over the summer time?
Are there other tools, resources, places that from your perspective and where you said we should be thinking about offering out to families?
Tom: The summer melt phenomenon is long known and the COVID melt will presumably be even more severe because students haven't had the on-campus educational experience right up until June, so I think the question is very well-placed. I’ve mentioned the Writing Practice Program that we've made free for schools to use with students, and again a few schools have already taken us up on that. There's also a just a direct to family version of the Writing Practice Program that we have. Parents who are in direct contact with, because they've used an ISEE test in the past, we've made them aware of that. And quite a few parents have already. That's not free, that's something that parents have to purchase. But parents have already taken us up on that in fairly significant numbers. And so I think the philosophy of every parent is a little bit of a homeschool coordinator now. It's a philosophy that's being adopted.
Glenn: One other idea that I would mention as importance is project-based learning. A lot of the research is showing that that can have tremendous impacts on learning achievement. But it's also the sort of activity that a student can work on over an extended period of time, such as the spring and throughout the summer. On the other hand, I also know that parents, educators, and even the children are stressed right now. And what is also important for them to do is to kind of take a break over the summer as well and come back to school fresh and ready to learn.
Brad: Right. Well, again, Glenn and Tom, thank you so much for joining us today.
Last week, I interviewed Liz Katz, our incredible Director of School & Student Support at One Schoolhouse, on how schools should support students as they move to distance learning. Here are her thoughts.
Brad Rathgeber, Head of School & CEO of One Schoolhouse: Can you talk about what's different about supporting kids in a distance or online learning environment compared to how you support kids in face to face schools?
Liz Katz, Director of School & Student Support at One Schoolhouse: It’s important to start with the reminder that the tools that are experienced and fantastic teachers have at their fingertips in the classroom aren't there in the online space. When I was a classroom teacher, I could read the room, I could see when people were losing attention. I would notice if a student's quiz answers were really different than they usually were or if they looked really tired or when somebody suddenly changed their seat and wasn't sitting next to their good friend anymore. All of those things are pieces of data that we take in without thinking about them.
When you're online, you have to use data in a different way, and your data is different. The first thing that's really important to do in distance learning is to identify what those markers are that raise your flags of concern. At One Schoolhouse, there are a few flags that are probably similar to what you do in your face-to-face classroom. We get worried if grades drop to a certain point; we get worried if somebody’s average drops suddenly.
But there are also a few that are a little different. We get worried if a student is missing more than two assignments, and we get worried if a student isn't responding to messages.
One of the things that we know about students working in an online space is that when students have a hard time, they go downhill pretty quickly. And so we want to try to be at the front edge… we'd rather raise the flag early and then be able to pull it back down instead of being in the position of waiting too long and having a bigger situation to sort out.
Brad: Liz, can we pause there for one second? There's something really key there about what you just said. We want to make sure that we are on top of the situation even sooner in this type of setting. That can sometimes be a difficult thing for administrators to help faculty members understand, can’t it?
Liz: One of the things that we have, like every other school, is a set of expectations in terms of grading. We expect our teachers to grade work within five days, which isn’t too different from most independent schools. The reason why that's really essential for us and why we emphasize it with our teachers is that missing work is often one of the warning signs.
Frequently, teachers will say, “Oh, you know what? He’s such a great student. I just want to give him the benefit of the doubt and give him a few extra days to turn that in.”
And what we've learned is that if we frame our support not as punitive or disciplinary, but instead as supportive and as growth-focused, then students understand that our concerns aren't about getting them in trouble. It's making sure that they have what they need and that they're getting the tools and support from their face to face schools, and also from us online.
Brad: That's helpful. So I know I interrupted you there, too, in terms of some of the other differences that you see in the online space.
Liz: Sure. The other one I mentioned is that when we don't hear from a student, that that's really important. What we know is that when students get uncomfortable, just like all human beings, they tend to avoid a situation. And when somebody isn't responding to their teacher’s emails, sometimes it's an oversight. But a lot of times it's that first warning sign that something doesn't feel right, so they want to back away from the discomfort.
Part of helping students develop a growth mindset is helping them to lean in when it becomes uncomfortable. The first step is to train students to reach out for help when something feels hard. We do that all the time in face-to-face schools in our advisory program, or informally, when we pass a student in the hallway and pull them aside to say, “Hey, how's it going?” When we’re online, we don't have hallways. And so we have to figure out other systems to get those students to reach out to us, too.
Brad: Liz, I've heard you say to schools at times, the good news about the situation is that the kids who you were worried about on campus are probably the same kids that you should be worried about in distance learning. Now, can you speak to just why you know that and even the data that you have that supports that?
Liz: Sure. Let me start with the data. I mentioned that you need different data in an online space. One of the things that we track very carefully is who we reach out to when we have concerns. We’ve tracked this data now for three years. It's pretty consistent that about 60 percent of our students get all the support they need from their teacher that day. When they run into a tricky spot, they ask their teacher, their teacher gives them the support and the student never hits any of those thresholds that I was talking about. They get everything that they need from their course teacher.
We have another 20 percent of students that, at some point over the course of the academic year, need one or two of those reminders. They need me to reach out in my role as Director of School Support. They need their on-campus contact to reach out to them as well. Usually, that little nudge helps everything fall into place, and the student picks up the behaviors that he or she needs in order to be successful and able to implement them for the rest of the year.
We know that we have between 5 to 8 percent of students who need ongoing sustained help. I'll tell you from my work as a dean of students that that number is pretty consistent with what I saw in the halls of a school, too. Usually, when we're reaching out about those students, the school says, “Yeah, that doesn't surprise me,” because these are the students who often have a hard time getting work in or maintaining positive study habits or working independently.
What we know is that the way that a student behaves at school is typically the way that they behave online. Is that always true? No, not 100 percent of the time, but it's a pretty good place to start! As you're moving to distance learning, if you have students who are on that list regularly, you're going to want to plan to be checking up on them regularly in this context, too.
I'll also say that right now we're in uncharted territory. And in terms of the toll that the current crisis is taking on all of our students, on our families and on our communities, we know that kids will be having a harder time than they might have in face-to-face schools. That's not about the transition to distance learning so much as it is about living where we are at this moment in time. I would encourage you that when you have kids who run into distress--because everybody's going to have a few of those--to make sure that you're putting it in the context of what's going on in the bigger picture.
Every year, usually in the third week of school, I get e-mails and calls from schools who say, “I have a student and he says he just can't learn online.” And I usually say, first of all, this is exactly when we would expect somebody to run into trouble.
So here we are. Most of us are in week three of distance learning. This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where it stops being new. This is when most of our teachers have been slowly ramping up to, whether it's because they started with review,or kept the pace slow because we're all learning how to do this. Now, [our teachers think,] here we are in week three. We should all know how to do this. We've got to start introducing some new material. And so, quite frankly, this is probably where it's going to get a little tricky for some people.
What we know is that every student can learn online. And we also know that it's harder for some people than it is for others. The way that we talk about it at One Schoolhouse is that we don't expect you to come to our online courses with all of the metacognitive skills that you need to succeed. What we expect is that you come ready to build them. And that means being flexible, being willing to consider new ways of doing school and organizing time and being open to feedback. I would be really surprised if you aren't having students and families who are going through this right now at your school, and it's OK.
The other thing that I say in week three is, listen, you've learned how to do school one way for many, many years. Now, you're doing school in a new way. That's like being a football player taking a yoga class for the first time. It's not that you're not in great shape. It's not that you're not a great athlete, but you're being asked to do something you haven't done before. You will be sore. You will have some aches and pains. You will think, I don't know how to do this, but those skills, those foundational skills that you have, are still there. They are going to stand you in good stead. The values and the goals in distance learning are the same. Just the tools are different.
Brad: OK. So, Liz, I'm going to pose something to you here, you've just talked about the really proactive and positive ways that we can answer the question, “I can't learn online or my child can't learn online.” What are some of the things that we should avoid saying in those conversations as well? You want to show empathy to the situation, but you don't want to accept the premise.
Liz: Right. Don’t accept the premise that distance learning is not for that child or for a group of kids. But the other thing we say is, yes, it's hard. It's OK for it to be hard. And here's the thing: most of our students identify as, being good at school and being good students. To be in a new environment, which every single student in the country is right now--that's destabilizing and that's scary. And what you do when you're scared is you freeze up and you say, I can't do this.
We have to help people establish a growth mindset about this moment. “I don't know how to do this yet,” is different than “I can't do this at all.” The other thing that I'd say is that we know that one of the biggest indicators of success in an online course is the student’s relationship with teachers. And this is where your schools have this all sewn up, because your teachers know your students, and your administrators know your students.
Those relationships, those connections… your families know how much you care about them. They know where your values are. They know that you are in their corner. And this is the place to pull on those relationships and to remind people how much you care about them and that you are going to get through this process with them. It may not always be graceful. You may not always feel grateful, but you will get through it together, because that's the kind of school that you are.
Brad: That's so good. You and I have been recipients of messages from schools and kids and parents over the last couple of weeks. We’ve heard from a few parents of kids who struggled at the beginning of this year who are now saying, thank goodness my child started to take an online class earlier this year because they're prepared differently to move into this scenario.
Let’s shift back to the structures that schools might want to think about putting into place to identify these kids needing extra support. Previously you mentioned two missing assignments as a marker to be wary of.
Liz: So let me talk about the system that we've developed at One Schoolhouse and how that translates to what that might work for your community. We send a questionnaire out to our teachers every week. We send it out on Monday. We want it back by Tuesday night. And we say, tell us about any student who you're concerned about. And then we list those flags that for us are those non-negotiable thresholds of concern, like a grade threshold or those missed assignments.
But our teachers, because they're experienced teachers and they know their students really well, are also looking at other things. I’ll sometimes get a note from a teacher saying, “This student’s answers have gotten a lot shorter lately, and I wonder if everything's OK” or, “There's a big project due, and he had he hasn't logged in a lot. I'm just concerned; it could come in and be fine, but I'm just a little worried here.”
We say to our teachers, use your skills and tell us what you know and why you're worried. When we get that information, we then send an email out to the student and to an administrator at their school. We call that person on campus the One Schoolhouse Advisor.
We keep the message pretty simple. We say, here's what we're worried about; here's how you're doing right now; here's the snapshot of your grade; and here's what you can do to get back on track. We send that out to the student and the advisor, and then we trust that connection will continue to support students.
Depending on how you're communicating out with your faculty and your staff, you may find that a form is a really useful way to do it. For us, it works well. We use a Google form that aggregates to a Google sheet. We can sort and take a look at the data. We can break it down by course. We can break it down by teacher or by school. So, for instance, we might notice that, oh my goodness, this week we have a lot of kids in AP Gov who are struggling, and that's unusual. We can reach out to the teacher and give some support. So it also helps us to support our teachers better. I would recommend having a system of some kind. That’s because consistency is really important. Keep the system as simple as you can: tell me what you're worried about and tell me what somebody can do to fix it.
I will tell you that even in an online program, nine times out of ten, the advice that we are giving is the same advice that you would give in your classroom: get the work done and meet with your teacher. Nine times out of ten, that does the trick.
Brad: What else should schools be thinking about in terms of student support now, Liz?
Liz: I'm feeling this [current crisis] as a parent at the same time that we're working with schools. So one of the things that I am taking from my parent life and bringing into my work life here is how deeply parents do not understand the magnitude of what schools are asking our faculty to do. I was on a parent call the other night, and a parent who I know well said, “Let me ask you, as an educator, why can't the school just get it together? And I thought, “Oh, it's a really good thing we're separated by a screen here, because if we were in the same room, this would not go well.”
As you are thinking about what comes next, consider how you communicate with parents. That’s in part because parents have so much faith in your teachers and they know how great your teachers are. They don't understand that what we’re asking teachers to do is like swimming in Jell-O. Our teachers are extraordinary educators. And I say that regardless of the school, the city, the division, the kind of school you are in. People become teachers because they care about kids and they care about their growth and they care about learning.
We need to help our parents understand that what we're doing is the best thing for their kids. You know, it's sort of a truism that if you've been a student, you're an expert on schools, and everybody thinks that they know what school is supposed to look like. Nobody knows what school is supposed to look like right now. And that's OK, because nobody knows what this world is supposed to look like right now, except that we want to keep people safe and healthy and we want to build resilience.
The goal here is not finishing up 11th grade and being ready for AP Calculus BC. The goal is getting your students ready for a world where they're engaged in learning, ready to thrive, able to put things in connection. It's also where they are building the skills of autonomy, independence, time management and prioritization that are essential to their success. The older our students get, the more essential these skills are. These are essential college readiness skills. We may not be giving students the content they expected to have, but we are still teaching them. And arguably, the lessons that we're teaching them now are the ones that they are really going to use for the rest of their lives.
Brad: I think that's a perfect place to end, so thank you so much for taking some time to share your thoughts. My guess is we may do a follow up webinar at some point later this school year too, as we start talking about how to end the year with student support, because there are some other things to think about there, including things like comment writing.
Don't miss our weekly blog posts by joining our newsletter mailing list below:
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)