By Amy Roach and Rebecca Bates
November 11, 2020
It seems like every day the COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges, and educators and students have been asked more than ever to adapt and flex. Around the country, schools have been forced into uncharted territory—remote or hybrid learning for an indefinite time period. Teachers may be teaching face to face one day and maneuvering to an online platform the next day. Student teachers are completing practicums in environments that are new and unique to their cooperating teachers, who may not feel as though they are the master teacher in such a new world. Parents and caretakers are tasked with responsibilities to support children’s learning like never before. Yet, despite this shifting landscape, educators and students are achieving, problem solving, and succeeding.
As a Region 9 Comprehensive Center Advisory Board member pointed out: in January 2020, educators didn’t know if they could do remote learning for one day; in March, they started doing it for half a year; and now in November, they are still going! It is pretty remarkable what schools have been able to accomplish given the circumstances, and it is important to acknowledge those successes. Recognizing the need to celebrate the positive, Region 9 asked advisory board members for their stories of personal and professional back-to-school successes. Now, we want to share these stories to encourage others to celebrate the good that is happening to support education in Illinois and Iowa. Maybe you will see a reflection of your school or district in these stories or notice an opportunity to try something new.
Making the Most of What’s Available
David Ardrey, the executive director for the Association of Illinois Rural and Small Schools, shared that for small rural districts in Illinois, funding has been an ongoing issue, and many didn’t have enough money to take the extra steps needed to open schools this fall. One district, however, has shown the power of planning. Illini Bluffs School District #327 has been back to school at full capacity since the very beginning of this school year. They spent the entire summer with the team preparing how to go back to school in a way that would be safe for all teachers and students. A survey found that nearly 77% of parents were in full agreement on a return to in-person school, and the district has 75% of students attending in person.
In a testament to Illini Bluffs’ success, Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, spent 2 hours on Skype with students and teachers from Illini Bluffs learning about the work they did to prepare, how it is going, and what they are doing now. He was enlightened by the creativity the district used to offset the high expenditures for personal protective equipment. Illini Bluffs is an anomaly for rural Illinois, where many districts are fully remote right now and are trying to figure out the best approach. Illini Bluffs leaders planned and were able to find a way to be in-person safely, and they are being recognized for it at a national level.
Ability to Continue Programming
Deanna Stoube, professor of education at St. Ambrose University, expressed how pleased she is that the university was able to have practicum and student teaching placements in schools this year. As she shared, “We were unsure we’d be able to be guests in the schools.” She also highlighted that they have adjusted their teacher preparation to incorporate opportunities to learn online and hybrid instructional skills. It is encouraging to see teacher preparation programs make the necessary adjustments to ensure future teachers are ready to face any challenges that may be thrown their way.
Maggie Perales, an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), shared that City Colleges of Chicago reached out to the Parent Mentor Program at SWOP and other Chicago community-based organizations to see if they could work with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) administrators. The goal was to have CPS administrators serve as coaches to the parents from the Parent Mentor Program and support the parents through the City Colleges of Chicago’s career bridge program, which would start the parents’ career path to early childhood education. Even amid the current remote learning situation, SWOP was able to recruit five administrators to support this program, and more than 60 parents demonstrated interest. Currently, there are two cohorts of 20 parents each that qualified to begin the career bridge program with the City Colleges of Chicago this fall. The SWOP Parent Mentor Program aims to help students succeed in academics while giving parents opportunities that may lead to different leadership roles or new career paths. Despite this year’s remote learning environment, and the challenges it brings, SWOP has had strong numbers for the program!
Mike Beranek, the president of the Iowa State Education Association, has been pleased to see that educators understand the importance of self-advocacy and how to connect with their communities. He also noticed that individuals are beginning to recognize the inequities that have long existed in education systems, and they are developing strategies to try and address those inequities.
Increased Professional Learning Opportunities
“It’s been powerful to see the energy and passion around learning and growing in the area of equity and acknowledging that we need to remove barriers for each and every student to ensure opportunities.”
—Dana Schon, School Administrators of Iowa
Dana Schon, professional learning director for the School Administrators of Iowa (SAI), shared that SAI has implemented a series to support school leaders’ professional learning in a job-embedded way that does not pull them away from their school buildings or put them in front of screen all day. Teachers and teacher leaders are involved in this learning alongside their principals and superintendents. For one equity-focused series, SAI partnered with West Wind Ed Policy.
SAI also hosted four statewide mentoring meetings for 129 new leaders and their mentors. In each, they discussed how leaders are supporting the social-emotional needs of staff and students. One district, for example, is providing mindfulness sessions for staff. Through this experience, staff also acquire strategies and ideas to share with students.
Opportunities to Improve
—Mark Klaisner, Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools
Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, shared that although much progress has been made since schools closed in March, there are still lessons to be learned from our current situation. For one, districts are learning a lot about efficiencies. People are realizing that professional development can be done online, and district staff are evaluating learning standards to determine which ones are priorities. There are increased connections among educators as they meet more often to receive support and resources. Remote learning has prompted teachers and administrators to evaluate how this difficult situation can provide an opportunity to do things better.
Klaisner also talked about student performance and shared that remote settings can be a good fit for some students. For example, school may have been an anxious place for kids who were bullied, but they are thriving at home.
Lindsey Jensen, 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and an English teacher at Dwight High School, echoed that sentiment and highlighted that for students who struggle with anxiety and social-emotional learning, showing up to school in-person can be a very difficult situation. “While most people associate remote learning with being a less-than-ideal situation,” she says, “it is actually a better environment for some students. They feel safe and, consequently, are willing to take more risks than they might be willing to if they were in person.” With remote learning conditions creating a safe environment for those students, they are excelling in their academics.
“Businesses, in my opinion, have never been more engaged in the educational outcomes and realities in school districts, and that trend will continue for the foreseeable future.”
—Joe Murphy, Iowa Business Council
Joe Murphy, executive director for the Iowa Business Council, shared that businesses have become more flexible with respect to time off and work-from-home policies. Now that a number of companies are in the process of bringing employees back into the office, those plans can change quickly when schools are forced into quarantine practices as a result of exposure and positive cases, and businesses need to provide flexibility and adapt to those ever-changing conditions.
What Are Your Success Stories?
Overall, educators, schools, districts, businesses, and communities are meeting challenges and finding new ways to support student learning. Some of these changes may be temporary, but others may offer an opportunity to learn, grow, and approach education in a new way. The U.S. Department of Education recently started to highlight back-to-school success stories via social media, such as an innovative apprenticeship program in Iowa and words of wisdom from a first-grade teacher in Illinois.
What are the success stories in your school, district, or community? How are you supporting student learning? Please send us your back-to-school success stories via our contact form or by tagging @Region9CC on Twitter!
Amy Roach is a technical assistance assistant at the American Institutes for Research and coordinator for the Region 9 Comprehensive Center advisory board. She also supports a project in Illinois on equitable family and community engagement, as well as work in Iowa on equitable access to quality instruction.
Rebecca Bates is the deputy director of the Region 9 Comprehensive Center and a senior technical assistance consultant at the American Institutes for Research. Bates has more than 20 years of experience supporting literacy instruction and student growth as a teacher, coach, and consultant.
Photo courtesy of Pexels/Julia M Cameron.