A principal and executive director of an inclusive charter school describes a case-by-case approach to special education in the virtual environment and reflects on elements of virtual learning that can be carried forward into the brick and mortar setting. Key takeaways about educating English Language Learners remotely are shared.
When we began remote learning, it didn’t take long for us to realize that a singular approach wouldn’t work for our school. Students in our classrooms were socioeconomically, linguistically, and racially diverse, bringing a wide range of abilities and disabilities, interests, skills, experiences, goals, and dreams to the learning setting. Each home situation was different, and family struggles were amplified by the health crisis. Some parents had lost their jobs, and some had no access to Wi-Fi. Some lived with multiple families in a small space. Others were struggling with food insecurity. A one-size-fits-all approach simply wouldn’t fit.
Inclusion is a central part of our school’s model. As we saw how the situation played out in our school community, we realized that inclusion in this virtual context meant ensuring that everyone has access to participation in learning. So the first few weeks of virtual learning were all about assessing and addressing the barriers our students were experiencing.
If a student wasn’t attending virtual class, we reached out directly to parents to figure out what the barrier was and what we could do to help. For students and parents who needed help navigating the learning apps or Google Classroom assignments, we met by phone or face-to-face to provide guidance in English or Spanish. Each day, our school-based team has met to problem-solve, share information on individual students and families, and reflect on what more we could do to engage and involve every student. We reach out, we listen, and we respond with care and empathy for each member of our community.
The response of our parent community has been crucial to this inclusion effort. A group of our parents put together an amazing fundraising campaign (the “Kindness Campaign”) to help us provide Chromebooks, internet access, and food to all the students who needed it. Before the pandemic, we had put a lot of effort into building up our school community. It was incredible to see how that community came together to support our goal of ensuring that every child at our school was able to engage with virtual learning.
“Inclusion in this virtual context means ensuring that everyone has access and that no one is left out or left behind.”
The case-by-case approach extends to the design of our special education program during distance learning. Using the virtual environment, we’ve maintained strong, consistent contact with the parents of students with disabilities. We check in on their home learning context, find out what they need, and figure out how we can help. Physical space limitations and other factors in home environments—such as lack of access to peers—have often made it impossible to work toward the goals in our students’ IEPs. So instead, we provide individualized programming for our students in partnership with parents and based on their feedback.
The feedback we’ve gotten from our parents has been varied, and it changes all the time. As parents get to know their children as learners, some have chosen to focus only on certain targeted goals of the highest priority to them; we’ve come up with many creative ways for parents to work toward prioritized goals at home. Others are seeking lots of resources and activities from different service providers and specialists, so we provide that. Often, what a family wanted two weeks ago is not what they want now, so we work with them to make sure the individual programming for their child is still meeting their needs. Each week, our education specialists meet with families to discuss student progress, offer suggestions and guidance, and support parents and caregivers as they do their best to facilitate learning and progress with their children at home. We incorporate what we’re learning into the learning activities we create and select, remaining responsive to the needs of all students and families in our community.
We’ve found that this case-by-case, individualized approach toward students with disabilities has a lot of benefits. Teachers have had to be strategic in curating the online apps and activities. I think it has elevated teachers’ understanding of what individual students need at different times. Learning how to use technology more strategically has been a major positive takeaway from this experience.
We’ve also gained a lot of insight into our English language learners program. We have a large population of Spanish-speakers in our school community. For many of them, this pandemic has been a barrier to engaging in school at all. So much of virtual learning is based on reading and writing, for both the students and the parents. Although we work hard to ensure that information is provided in Spanish to parents who need it, virtual learning still presents a challenge. For example, one of our parents had no idea if her child was using a math game application assigned by our teachers or if he was just playing video games. Because our school staff has remained in close communication with each family, we were able to identify and address a potential barrier to learning by speaking directly with the parent about the activities and assignments (including games!) her child was doing at home.
As we look toward the reopening of our school in the coming months, we’re thinking hard about how we want to change things going forward. Our Spanish-speaking staff, many of whom were ELLs from the community themselves, have emphasized the importance of prioritizing the creation of a safe space for parents of ELLs to learn English as well. Parents have voiced their desire for “culture days” where parents of different backgrounds can bring in food and teach the kids about their culture, celebrating what makes each family unique. We have also resolved to ensure that there are Spanish-speaking parents in leadership positions in the parent groups at our school, including the TLC Community Association (PTA), School Site Council, and Room Parent representatives. Our goal is to foster an engaged community among the families, just as we foster community for the students.
We’ve also learned that it’s more important than ever for us to find ways to communicate the end goal of ELL programs to parents of ELLs—and the importance of taking steps now to ensure that all students have the opportunity to achieve at school and pursue higher education someday. The need to provide school in a distance learning format has highlighted parents as essential partners in the education of our students, and we intend to keep this alive moving forward. We were already planning to do workshops on the ELL process and the goals of English acquisition for all students before the pandemic, but the current situation has underscored the importance even more. This will benefit our school and our learning community far into the future.
What we learned/Big takeaway
This pandemic has raised a lot of questions about the purpose and goals of schooling. In a sense, it represents an opportunity to return to what matters and build school around that. We’re going to take a lot of things we’ve learned during this time forward, such as using technology strategically and finding ways to foster increased engagement among our families of ELLs. It’s been amazing to see how our students have adapted to this new way of teaching and learning, making it their own. We’ve even seen some of our youngest students creating their own instructional videos. This is an entirely new way for even young kids to show what they know at school—whether it’s happening at home or in the classroom.
What we are still figuring out
We’re a learning organization, so we’re always figuring out better and more effective ways to invite participation and engage diverse learners. The virtual environment raises new challenges and offers new opportunities. We’re figuring out how to remove barriers to access and how to build upon what’s working well for students.
What I would tell other leaders during this time
You can’t do it alone, so why try? Collaboration is absolutely critical. Listen first, and then make choices in partnership with your community.