Finding Bright Spots

How might a collective focus on what’s working help us tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges this spring and beyond?

As educators across the country respond to this spring’s circumstances, the weight of the challenges facing our communities can sometimes feel unbearable. Moreover, trying to operate as a school district in these stay-at-home conditions can also contribute to a sense of isolation, as if we are each and all navigating this situation on our own.

While these measures may create an environment of social distancing, there are still opportunities for social connection through which we can learn from each other. In their book Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath recommend a technique of finding the bright spots, scanning the environment with a focus less on what’s broken and more on what’s working. Finding bright spots and learning from them that can provide insights into successes that can pave the way to transformational change.

To identify and amplify those bright spots, we asked district team members representing the Virginia Is For Learners Innovation Network a simple question:

What has your school community done in response to the emergent situation that you would wish to celebrate or share with others?

What resulted from that question is a veritable array of light representative of short-term, intermediate, and long-term efforts to meet health and wellness needs, communicate with the school community, address internet access, and distribute learning resources in concert with an overall initiative to support continuity of learning throughout this spring and potentially beyond.

Below, we offer a selection of just a few of those responses, with an invitation to consider how these strategies might complement and enhance your approaches to serve your community. (Note: While you are welcomed to review the survey responses in their entirety to find colleagues with whom to extend the conversation, we also offer our coaches at ALP to pair you up with district partners of interest. As always, we’re an email away.)

Addressing Continuity of Learning

Educators banding together

  • Our district created a COVID-19 Response Team that included development of Choice Boards for Continuity of Learning.
  • We have pulled together teams of instructional specialists, administrators, coaches, and teachers to identify the key content on which to focus for the remainder of the school year as well as lessons and other resources that can be provided to students in a variety of formats.
  • Teachers have risen to the challenge in so many ways.  They have created engaging activities accessible both online and offline seemingly overnight.  They are utilizing online conferences with multiple students such as Zoom.  They have brought their best, creative selves to make this work as best they can.  They didn’t need division level PD to make it happen.  They did it because they are great teachers, and it is the asset that I am most proud of.

Multi-tiered learning resources

  • We also developed an elementary and secondary at-home learning document that included a cover letter for families and three accompanying resources:  innovative learner (invitation to explore something NEW), read, write, and think (resources focused for elementary reading, math, and content; primary source performance task for secondary students); and teacher resources.
  • We have designed a multi-tier approach to our Continuity of Instruction Plans (Digital and Non-Digital) – Phase I (Emergency), Phase II (Enhanced), Phase III (Extended).
  • We are working on a next tier learning plan focused on cross-curricular learning incorporating the 5Cs.
  • We had already been working with instructors to move away from worksheets and be more project based due in part to our VALIN  cohort. This has certainly pushed us in that regard.

Learning resource creation and distribution

  • We have created a continuously updated website with a choice board for student (and family) engagement as well as a performance task aligned to our learner profile competencies.
  • We have set up website portals for student learning and continuing growth in their lives throughout this crisis, staff portals to share information and guidance in providing information to students and parents, and leadership portals to guide and direct information on learning and staff development throughout the rest of the school year.

Scheduling learning experiences

  • We have landed on a set schedule for students & teachers including virtual breakout sessions and office hours.  We are finalizing deadlines for courses and teachers are working to create plans to finish up the learning of new content.  I am proud of how flexible everyone is and love that in a weekly check-in one student wrote “I am feeling much better about working from home since the first week.” so I feel like the support, structure, and consistency we are providing are helping!
  • We made resources available to families for continued learning without jumping in to an online schedule immediately. Time was used to carefully plan for ongoing instruction from teachers in order to consider students’ social/emotional health, equity issues, and more.

Meeting Health and Wellness Needs

Food distribution

  • We organized meal pick-up and delivery throughout the catchment area including delivery to specific economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
  • We have created a division-wide weekly “drive through” experience so that families can receive food and other necessary items during this pandemic. Our elementary schools have also been delivering food items to students in need.
  • The food distribution process continues to be adjusted regularly and aligned to meet the larger community, using data to drive sustainable decision making in an effort to meet the needs of our vulnerable population.

Partnerships with local organizations

  • Our Community Den and Tiger Packs Program continues to provide food boxes to students and their families each week entirely from donations from our community organizations, individuals and faith houses.
  • We are partnering with our faith community who buys, packs, and organizes these bags for us.
  • We worked with local fire departments to support our efforts and were able to develop 5 areas to include our 3 schools to ensure parents could get to us.

Coordinating volunteers

  • We are also using staff volunteers and bus drivers to deliver non-perishable food bags to families in our county without transportation to the food distribution site.
  • We had so many volunteers that we had to create a schedule and move food prep and loading points from 2 schools to 4. SCS has continued to feed students.
  • Students, on their own initiative, organized a food drive and were able to distribute food fairly quickly and efficiently.  The division also put together a food outreach program within a few days of the school closure on March 13th.

Health and wellness support

  • We are doing weekly acts of kindness to maintain wellness among the faculty and staff.
  • Our counselor has generated a form to reach to students who want to talk individually or in a group.
  • Our school community has set up virtual counseling platforms for students to access our counselors.
  • We have provided PPE to local agencies such as the Department of Social Services that is conducting home visits but had no PPE, and employed health and safety practices to keep employees safe and facilities sterile.

Communicating with the School Community

Communications from leadership

  • We implemented 7 Core Values and shared these with our staff and community.  These have guided all of our work and kept us focused.
  • We developed a Q and A document for staff as well as for parents related to the short-term closure, continuity of learning , and long-term closure.  We sought feedback from teachers and administrators on documents before sending these documents.
  • Our central office administrative team is making “cold calls” to families to check in with them.  These have been a positive addition to our communication strategy.
  • Our county administrator has been a featured reader on nightly read alouds.  This is huge for collaboration with our community!

Use of media

  • We have set up website portals for student learning and continuing growth  in their lives throughout this crisis, staff portals to share information and guidance in providing information to students and parents, and leadership portals to guide and direct information on learning and staff development throughout the rest of the school year.
  • Weekly communication superintendent letters have kept the community apprised of the fluid situation, with social media posts providing mini-updates in between formal communication periods.
  • The weekly updates given by our Superintendent to staff and also to families via YouTube have been phenomenal. Our social media presence has worked in favor of keeping our community in the loop of the status of this COVID journey.
  • Our goal is to stay connected with our students.  Check out our Facebook Page titled “Colonial Beach Schools Community”.
  • We have partnered with local radio stations for Raider Daily Challenge, a short question or riddle for students to answer and submit to Raider Challenge hotline or webpage
  • We have been utilizing Facebook as a broadcast channel. 9AM starts morning announcements, 1pm begins specials, 3pm starts guidance or math/reading game, and 7:30pm marks that start of story time.

Collaboration within and across communities

  • Our team has done a great job establishing a family connect team to make sure that all students are accounted for and have their needs met, partnering with local YMCA and Boys and Girls Club to provide childcare for first responders, and communicating with the community early and often.
  • There is connection and collaboration with the local government/county to ensure the response to the emergency is consistent and sustainable.
  • Collaboration and connection with neighboring school divisions gives us a collective big picture to reduce comparisons and understand the unique variable to each county’s operating response.

Addressing Internet Access

Wifi access

  • We deployed Smart Buses to provide free wifi, putting wireless routers on 31 school buses to be strategically parked throughout the city to expand wireless capabilities to families that need it.
  • We have also provided open wifi access in the front of all of our school buildings so parents/students can drive up and access the Internet.
  • The collaboration with the county for additional MiFi distribution to identified families by school community for connectivity has been critical to address equity.
  • We have partnered with businesses and organizations to provide mobile hot spots for free Wifi.
  • We have provided our at-home learning experiences on flash drives for those not having internet access. Students pick these up at regular intervals during our food distribution times.

Device access

  • We have conducted surveys with our families to assess technological needs. We have deployed digital devices, paper packets, and have endeavored to consistently contact students and parents to ensure quality, equitable, and experiential instruction.
  • We worked to distribute devices (iPads or laptops) to families k-12 to supplement our 4-12 one to one program and support the transition to online learning.
  • We have done research into accessing MP3/MP4 video players that could be loaded with content and sent to homes that lack Internet access.
  • We are providing Chromebooks to all families that do not have access to an electronic device with that they may keep in their household, even after the pandemic.  We are also providing hotspots for all families without the Internet.

One Word Summary: We.

One of the critical words echoed throughout this collection that does not show up in the word cloud above: We. Through the collective efforts of educators across Virginia, these bright spots have the opportunity to ‘go viral’ in their own right, so long as we are able to find ways to stay connected and learn from each other’s shining light.

We look forward to your sharing of even more bright spots on twitter via the hashtag #VaLIN, #VAis4Learners, and/or #ALPlearn.

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