With District 65 schools settled in for remote learning until at least mid-November, District 65 administrators on Sept. 14 presented their plan to support and monitor student learning in the current school year.

The rapid switch to remote instruction last spring left some academic and other gaps in student achievement, and the administrators described what they had learned from the end of the spring semester as well as from input gathered over the summer and at the start of the current year.

The overall goal of much of the work was to “design instruction, engagement, and feedback in a manner that will lead to at least a year’s worth of learning regardless of the student or educators learning environment (remote or onsite),” according to a memo from Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction; Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools; and Terrance Little, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools.

The memo set out how District administrators will engage in continuous improvement, monitor remote learning and analyze and report the information.

Learning From the Spring

The goal of the monitoring plan for remote learning is to guide instruction by using information on student achievement and learning conditions gathered early in this school year.

Recognizing that students may have very different “learning conditions” – such as race, ethnicity, income level, language skills and environment – the administrators plan to seek information that will help identify systemic and other barriers to student learning.

“We ground our work in the instructional core … which emphasizes that increases in learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teachers’ knowledge and skill, and student engagement,” the administrators said.

The District analyzed information from the spring remote learning survey for educators, students, and parents/caregivers and engaged stakeholders. For a story on the survey results, click here.

Several specific areas, they found, needed sharper focus in order to improve remote learning:

· communication with families to ensure a clear understanding of what is expected and how students are doing

· contact with and support of students

· academic learning

· opportunities for social-emotional learning

· cognitive engagement

· consistency of learning routines and relationship.

These shortcomings are not unique to District 65. Evanston Township High School found in its assessment of spring remote learning that students should have a clear understanding of what to expect on a daily and weekly basis and feedback in addition to grades from teachers.

At the June 8 meeting of the District 202 School Board, Pete Bavis, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at ETHS said  ETHS teachers should revise course content and expectations and communicate these to students at the beginning of the school year; improve structure and framework so students will know what to expect on a daily and weekly basis; interact regularly with students – and have students interact with each other – via Zoom; post daily agendas, handouts, directions before the class starts; build community and provide feedback.

Students crave feedback in addition to grades, Dr. Bavis said, and he encouraged teachers to provide written, audio or video feedback.

At the June 8 meeting, Dr. Bavis also said, “We are elevating well-being, doing work on assessment and will work on community-building. …  We’re simplifying and going deeper. We want to provide a safe space – intellectually, emotionally and health-wise.” For the full story on the June 8 District 202 meeting, click here

Although ETHS mandated professional development over the summer for its teachers and staff, District 65 did not. The Sept. 14 memo from the District 65 administrators said, “It is important to note that starting the year remotely is challenging. D65 educators have been charged to build relationships, classroom community, and learning routines so as we move forward, our classes can do the hard work of learning together. This takes time in any environment and takes more time as the District and educators learn about and use some tools for the first time.”

Providing Support

The District 65 administrators revised the Remote Learning Guide for educators in light of the new teachers’ contract and the feedback from stakeholders. In addition, according to the memo, “The team has provided school teams time through the first three weeks of September to get the remote learning guidance fully implemented within and across schools.”

Administrators will also receive feedback from principals, who will spend time in classrooms, and from stakeholders by way of a survey.

Getting the semester underway with remote learning involved gathering feedback and responding to problems quickly.These responses were largely technological in nature: providing technology training and support for families and educators, strengthening the online technology supports for educators and working with vendors through problems.

Monitoring the Progress of Remote Learning

Academic and technical support, together with student engagement, will help guide the District in monitoring the progress of remote learning and ensuring that all students will have full access to grade-level curriculum.

The yearlong monitoring will use classroom-specific measures such as the completion of short learning tasks, as well as standardized assessments such as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test, the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) and Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR).

The administrators indicated they expect low scores on the fall MAP test and that data would be used along with other “observations of learning” to inform instruction for the year.

The District plans to continue to use the MAP assessments to monitor students’ strengths and areas of growth. In addition, administrators will report periodically to the Board on students’ progress. They will monitor the percentages of students who take certain assessments at the appropriate time (“milestone dates”) and ascertain areas where additional support is needed, to ensure students receive “a year’s worth of learning in a year’s worth of time.”

Dr. Beardsley said administrators “know that there continues to be a disproportionate impact on students of color, within and beyond our community” and added they will analyze the data with a racial lens. Feedback from District 65 community, educators, students, parents, caregivers and community partners will illuminate where additional supports are needed.

Since school began, administrators have been focused on  establishing relationships, creating spaces for students to explore identities and connect, attending to social emotional learning and building the learning routines for students, said Dr. Beardsley. As the year progresses, she said, academic and social-emotional learning supports will be layered in.

The District will measure student engagement both by looking at the number of students logging in on a daily basis and by considering students who may be learning asynchronously – leaving a session for a time but completing the work.

Results from these early weeks of the semester show an 85% engagement rate at nine schools in the past seven days, Dr. Beardsley said. “And the highest percentage that we have is one school at 95%. So we are seeing a really significant uptick and regular engagement with learning and access to the learning,” she said.

Posts from schools range from 1,600 to 4,000, Dr. Beardsley said, which indicates students sending in their work. In addition, she said, more than 80% of the posts received some form of feedback – indicating a “level of return and engagement between teachers and students.”

Dr. Beardsley said, “We are taking on a year’s worth of learning and taking on a new set of tools. … There’s a lot of ongoing troubleshooting and problem-solving everybody is doing. Yet we are seeing … more and more meaningful learning and a challenge. And I think we’re beginning to find our stride. So I really thank educators, school leaders, everybody that families, because this is a collective effort.”

Special Education

Ramona DeCristofaro, Executive Director for Special Services at District 65, reported at the Sept. 14 meeting on how special education is being handled remotely.

“All case managers should have been reaching out with families and starting services with a priority on synchronous learning and some asynchronous opportunities … and by the end of the month, families should have received or collaborated with their case manager on an individualized remote learning plan,” she told the Board.

Some special education teachers are co-teaching with the special education agenda, and some staff members have started live therapy sessions in small groups and with their students, Dr. DeCristofaro said.

“There’s a lot of collaboration and partnering that would need to occur” before students with Individual Education Programs (IEPs) could be brought in for services.”

In addition, she said, many special education students and their families have had been significantly impacted by  remote learning. Difficulties in accessing the curricula and in being able successfully to engage in the learning process present problems for the educators as well as the students and their families, she said.  She said she understood that many students and families wish to return to in-person instruction.

The flip side, however, is that some of the District’s more vulnerable students – who attend Park School or Rice Children’s Center, as examples – are at significant risk of contracting COVID-19. “So we want to make sure that we’re really thoughtful about the plans that we put in place to potentially bring them back.”

Dr. DeCristofaro said she has contacted special education staff in other districts to learn how they are setting up successful learning environments.

The immediate priorities, Dr. DeCristofaro said are “students who we know are significantly impacted, have demonstrated regression or are not accessing remote learning, despite everyone’s best efforts – those students who have services that are really difficult to replicate in remote settings.”

Dr. DeCristofaro said the Special Services Department is hopeful about bringing students back as soon as it seems safe to do so. “The health and safety of our students and educators and families is the biggest priority for us.”

Board Comments 

Many of the Board members’ comments and questions centered on how students are making the transition to a new level of education – to middle school and to kindergarten, as examples.

Board member Joey Hailpern said the District needs to assure parents there is flexibility in remote learning. “It’s helping parents understand that … if your kid is not feeling okay that morning, but as they get engaged later on that day, it’s absolutely fine.” Speaking to parents, he said, “This is the biggest part of what you guys do out there for your children [for] one, two or five hours straight.”

Dr. Beardsley acknowledged the difficulty of transitions and said the academic team is looking at how continuous learning segments are put together.

“It’s difficult for some kids to get on and off. … But certainly if there’s a point where it’s overwhelming for that child, it is absolutely okay and encouraged to step away. And we want to work on engaging and bring those children back into learning when they’re ready.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said one of her children is a new kindergartner, which has made her aware that much of early learning is learning how to transition.

“Learners transition with songs, activities, games, routines that build in familiarity and also socialization that helps children adapt to school and the rigors of learning in a school environment.” She suggested administrators consider how to build transitions – “the jumping on and off” – into remote learning.

“The hard starts and hard stops, I think, are challenging for little people,” she said.

Board member Elizabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said, “I would just add on the other side of that transition spectrum, having a sixth grader.”

While educators have done a “phenomenal job of just trying to get routines and normalizing the experience,” Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said, “middle-school transition has so many social pieces that are hard to translate into a remote learning space.”

She also said the District would have to be “really intentional” about fostering some of the social connections that would develop naturally in a school – such as walking down the hall or meeting at an after-school activity.

“I think probably the sixth-graders are at the greatest disadvantage because they have been put into this bigger, bigger pond, but haven’t necessarily had the chance to interact with peers from other schools,” Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said.

She suggested that, in addition to focusing on kindergartners’ needs, the District also look how to foster for sixth-graders “some of those social connections that aren’t as natural in the remote learning space.”

Dr. Beardsley she would touch base with a group of kindergarten educators who this summer created some recommendations for the first 30 days of kindergarten.

She also said over the past two weeks, school leaders and teachers have discussed how to smooth out some of the transitions.

“We’ve been encouraging them to lean back into the things that we know are good teaching, and then think about ways in which we can make them work in a remote setting. And so right now we are focused on gathering feedback and continuing to tune in to improve resources for kindergartners … and we’re continuing to say, ‘What else can we do?’

“The first couple weeks have been about developing strong learning routines and rituals, and working out some of the kinks. And so we’re going to keep doing that.”

For middle-school students, Dr. Beardsley said, some of the problems lie in figuring out breakout groups and pairing students together.

The District issued a social emotional learning roadmap and an SEL toolkit, she said, and there are coaches “working on restorative practices, to create spaces to build community.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said the streamlining communication with students and families to make clear what is expected and how students are doing is a really great leadership opportunity, both on the District- and building-leadership levels.

In the memo, the administrators praised the cooperation of the teaching staff and acknowledged the year will likely see additional challenges. “Our success will be measured by our ability to stay open to learning and overcome the challenges as they come our way,” they said



Other Professionals Weigh in on Remote Learning

Across the country, educators of all levels are discussing the impact on students of this year of mostly or wholly remote learning. New York Times writer Emily Bazelon recently moderated a panel of educators discussing several aspects of this topic from both their professional and personal perspectives, much of which was published in the Sept. 13 New York Times magazine.

The panelists were Susana Cordova, superintendent of the Denver public schools; Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine; John B. King Jr. is the president and chief executive of the Education Trust; former public school teacher Pedro Noguera, current dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California; and public middle school (Atlanta, Ga.) teacher Shana V. White, who is also a Diversity and Inclusion fellow at Georgia Tech and an Equity fellow for the Computer Science Teachers Association.

The panelists discussed the academic and social-emotional gaps that remote learning necessarily entails – isolation from the camaraderie of meeting before school, walking to class, eating lunch and the distance from direct academic or other support.  

Mr. Noguera said, “For all kids, sometimes when they log on, you don’t know what they’re doing. They could be playing with the dog, as my daughter was doing, while Zoom was going on. When school is functioning as normal, we expect kids to show up, and then we have them. Now we are really dependent on the families to make sure their kids are participating from hour to hour. When parents have to work, then there’s no one. Kids are left to do this on their own.”

Many feel, nonetheless that families are sharing if not shouldering the education of their children. Ms. Bazelon quoted Keri Rodrigues, the head of the National Parents Union, who said, “Now we are facilitators of education, especially for K-6. Education doesn’t really happen remotely without parents doing it. There are a lot of responsibilities on us.”

Mr. Noguera said too often school districts have focused more “on the logistics than on the substance.”

One question discussed by the panelists and echoed by many, even those who do not have school-aged children, is where this year will take public education – whether the increased poverty and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will ignite a stronger commitment to quality public education for all students pre-K-12 or  those in power will continue to let the chasm of opportunity widen.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...