Welcome to Insights, a new SmartBrief Education Originals column, featuring perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
In today’s column, Jean Sharp, chief academic officer at Apex Learning, shares her experiences of working with students in alternative education programs and how the tactics used in those programs can help all students when they return to their classrooms.
Back in March, just after the shelter-in-place orders went into effect and schools transitioned to online learning, I texted a friend saying, “Ordinary life will feel so good when it returns.” But now I wonder: Is that even possible? Ordinary life, that is. It occurs to me that we will likely need to reimagine (and prepare for) how we do life in a not-so-ordinary world. And that’s true for schools as well.
But I am optimistic. In fact, I’ve been considering how we can leverage strategies to support student learning from what may seem like a rather unlikely place. Let me explain.
There was a time in my career where my work focused on serving the needs of non-traditional students through alternative education programs. Our students were vulnerable. They had messy lives. Most were credit deficient and at risk of not graduating. Many had family issues that pulled them into adult responsibilities well before they were ready. Some had to work to support themselves or their families. Others made poor choices, not always understanding the consequences. And, many simply had learning gaps that made it difficult — if not impossible — to keep up in class. These students arrived in alternative education programs for a variety of reasons and with significant needs.
Our goal was to create a culture of learning that offered a second chance to students who missed out on educational opportunities — often through no fault of their own. What I learned then — and continue to see in effective alternative education programs today — can help us anticipate what all students will need from schools as they begin the long road back to campus.
For most of our students, school was not a place they wanted to be. Spotty attendance often contributed to their current situation. But, when they walked through our door, we made sure they knew they were safe, welcomed and accepted. Everyone on our team — from teachers to our support staff — demonstrated interest in who they were and appropriate empathy for their situation.
We took every student who wanted to earn a high school diploma and made it our mission to help them reach that goal. We focused on removing excuses and teaching them how to make better choices so they could own their learning. We put them at the center of the experience and kept encouraging them through the journey. The old adage rang true: Our students “didn’t care how much we knew until they knew how much we cared.” They knew our culture of learning included adults who listened, communicated and cared.
Meet students where they are
Engaging our students in learning meant determining what they needed — not collectively, but individually. Each student had unique academic needs and required a different plan to progress. We invited them to share their stories through a writing assignment — an autobiography — that gave voice to their experiences.
We implemented a series of assessments to measure instructional gaps and reading levels so we could consider appropriate scaffolds, supports and intervention. We talked with each student to develop an individualized learning plan, often beginning with courses that were of high interest to him or her.
We set clear expectations, gave them choices and worked together on SMART goals. Social-emotional learning gave them strategies for school and life, including how to weigh decisions and their impact on the future, and facing down challenges and finding ways to overcome them. They learned that hard work is key to achieving their goals.
Individualizing student learning requires effort but the outcome was worth it. Each student was working on what they needed to know and do. It was relevant. It mattered. And, it afforded them early successes that they could build from.
Go slow to go fast
My experience has taught me that many non-traditional learners are transactional. They simply want to know what they have to do. This behavior may lead to completion — in time — but it is not a strategy for learning. In fact, it often leads to a “guess and check” approach aimed at just reaching the established mastery threshold. We wanted to avoid this churn.
One practice we implemented was enrolling students in two courses at a time. This allowed them to focus on their learning in a way that was often difficult with a full schedule of courses in a traditional school schedule. They had more concentrated time in the course content and, eventually, could progress faster. They always had something to work on. If they needed help in one course, they could work on the other until their teacher was available.
Our teachers supported students academically but also served as learning coaches, helping them learn how to learn — how to take notes, prepare for quizzes and tests, and manage their time. This helped students take ownership of their learning. The investment takes time but the return is worth it when you lean into what matters for each student. A small win, each success, builds upon the other until students begin to believe in themselves as learners.
Give them hope, and a future
Our culture of learning afforded a second chance for our students to stay — or get — on track towards graduation. We believed our students could learn. We provided a solid offering of standards-driven courses that engaged them with grade-level content. We set expectations for mastery at 80% and we shared successful practices for meeting that expectation. We encouraged students to stretch beyond what they believed they could do. We gave them hope — a belief in a positive outcome. We focused on preparing our students for next — the next day, the next course, the next step following graduation. You see, our students had a future. And, we continued to prepare them for theirs. We knew we could all survive according to our measure of hope.
We will get through these uncertain times. And, there will be a day when we welcome students back to school. When we do, we must recommit to making school a place where students are welcomed and acknowledged; where learning is focused and relevant; where instructional approaches consider the specific needs of each student; and where we encourage students and prepare them for next. Our students will need school to be a place where opportunity thrives.
Jean Sharp has more than 25 years of leadership and management experience in the education and software publishing industries. Her expertise includes product development, curriculum strategy, instructional design and development, project management and effective implementations for digital learning solutions. Among her credits are numerous award-winning educational software products published for both school and consumer markets. Jean currently serves as the chief academic officer at Apex Learning.
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