One Principal’s Creative and Strategic Approach to Distance Learning During COVID-19
As Principal at Laurel Magnet School of the Arts (LMSA) in Laurel, Mississippi, I have made it a priority to respond quickly to changes and convey a clear vision every step of the way throughout the coronavirus pandemic. When our district closed school buildings in mid-March, our focus at LMSA quickly pivoted to making plans for distance learning. Using creativity, clear communication, and online access to resources, we were able to continue the learning process for our students while making sure our efforts remained equitable.
Organize the Process
Our distance learning kick-off began by rallying our teachers, the real champions of the process especially when facing the need to make swift changes. I made sure our teachers not only understood our learning framework and objectives but were also ready to leverage the tools at our disposal to put distance learning into motion. Indeed, in just the first few days, we were able to plan out a full month of instruction in advance.
Our next step was to ensure equitable access. We uploaded curriculum to Google Drive and provided links to our learning resources on Facebook and our school webpage. Notably, our use of already available computer-based learning programs positioned us to quickly establish recognizable routines for students and families to help ease the transition to distance learning. We also printed hard copies of instructional materials to prepare for curbside pick-up by parents. The result was we were able to achieve a 90-95% participation rate early on, as well as full community buy-in.
Maintaining an “A” Rating During Distance Learning
As I’m sure my peers have found nationwide, focusing on academic rigor during the distance learning process can be challenging. In our school, we stuck to our use of the Ready print curricula and i-Ready online instruction for math and language arts to ensure standards alignment even in atypical circumstances. Getting insights into students’ progress when they’re not in the physical classroom is another challenge, but it’s been made easier through the data made available by i-Ready. We ask students to spend 30-45 minutes per subject with an 80% pass rate in the online instruction, and this has given us insights we can really act on in the form of a phone call or video chat with individual students, as needed.
Steps to Prepare for Distance Learning Efforts Moving Forward
As the pandemic continues, we’re focused on staying one step ahead of the process to make sure learning continues seamlessly. This includes growing the capacity of teacher leadership at all times to prepare for the event that virtual learning could continue longer than expected. Through it all, it’s essential to instill creative and fun ideas into the process. Here are some strategies we’re using to accomplish these goals:
- Set clear expectations. First, we made sure teachers were prepared to deploy our school's online instructional plan. When teachers know the expectations, they can deliver and excel. Then they can let parents know what to expect and better prepare them for their part in pushing learning forward.
- Be organized and consistent: Families want to know what to expect from the distance learning plan. Nothing should feel sporadic. To that end, we decided to focus on one subject a day with themes such as Monday is “Bookwork Monday,” Tuesday equals MC squared, W.O.W. Wednesday (Working on Writing), Thursday is Creative Thursday with the Arts, and Finish Strong Fridays. Our plan for the week is written out and easy to follow.
- Engage with parents. Students actually look forward to school-work and a structured daily routine, so we take advantage of the unique opportunity at hand by using multiple means to communicate information to parents. For instance, we use our Facebook page, our school webpage, the district webpage, and our online student information communication tool School Status. Using these tools, we give regular call-outs to families to share what is happening.
- Stay focused on school culture and climate. The feel and flair of a school have a way of following you as you shift to distance learning, so find fun and creative ways to keep it going. For instance, I still do daily morning announcements just like I did at school, only now, I do them on Facebook Live. Each Monday, I introduce our “i-Ready Rockstars” as part of these announcements, something parents love―and they’ve supported the effort by uploading photos of their scholars at work, at the kitchen table, on the living room floor, or on the porch.
- Foster school spirit. Everyone is craving a bit of fun right about now, so it’s important to offer some community-building activities. To that end, we have organized everything such as School Spirit Week, Virtual Bingo, and Medical Monday when we recognized our community health workers. Our students love scrolling through our school Facebook feed to see all the photos families have submitted for each of these events.
- Make it personal. While being text-savvy is helpful, phone calls go a long way. Phone calls provide richer opportunities to connect and give us more opportunities to show compassion. It’s important to let our teachers, parents and students know they are not alone during these difficult times.
- Avoid the slide. Our school is going for another “A” rating, and we don’t want our scholars to suffer when they return to school. That’s why we’re pushing ahead with our focus on academics, both accelerating instruction and providing remediation, as needed. We’re leveraging our instructional technology to assess student progress, so we’re even better positioned to meet students’ needs when school reconvenes.
As we look ahead, there is a great deal of uncertainty and we can’t be sure when restrictions will ease, and our school buildings will open once more. We must be prepared and anticipate the start of summer enrichment programs while remaining realistic about whether those programs will take place. Regardless, we should be ready for the start of the new school year in August but unsurprised if we experience delays or we need to adopt a hybrid approach that combines in-school instruction with distance learning. By remaining consistent, communicative, and thorough in our instructional practices, we can collectively succeed in making sure that student learning doesn’t miss a beat.
About the author:
Dr. Kiana Pendleton is Principal at Laurel Magnet School of the Arts in Laurel School District, Mississippi. For her outstanding leadership and dedicated service, she was selected as the Laurel School District’s Administrator of the Year and has now been selected by the Mississippi Department of Education as the finalist for the Fourth Congressional District. With the selection, Pendleton is now one of four administrators in the running for the title of Mississippi Administrator of the Year.
Pendleton, along with the work of dedicated students, teachers, staff and parents, moved the school from a B to an A on the 2018-19 state testing results, achieving the highest rating the school has seen on the state’s accountability model in over a decade. “I could not have received this honor without my teachers, staff, students, parents and my family,” Pendleton said. “I have an amazing team who is supportive, talented and as enthusiastic about teaching and learning as I am.”