Private schools, charters moved forward with remote curriculum 

Are there lessons for district schools as they look to the fall? 

WHEN THIRD-GRADER Alisa Paley’s public elementary school in Canton closed for COVID-19, the school gave students laptops and her teacher held optional daily 40-minute Zoom meetings. A month in, the school began emailing homework.

Alisa was home with her grandfather during the day, since her single mother, Abbie Paley, works in a hospital. Paley, dissatisfied with the minimal school activities, enrolled Alisa in Shaloh House, a private Jewish elementary school in Brighton with around 45 students.

Alisa logged onto her computer at 9:15 a.m. and was in online classes most days until 4 p.m., with a lunch period and regular exercise breaks sprinkled in. Her mother said the math and English were more advanced than what she got in public school, and she learned about Judaism.

“She’s engaged. It works for her,” Abbie Paley said before school ended for the summer. “It’s something educational and appropriate, and I don’t have to be afraid she’s somewhere on Google or YouTube looking at something not age appropriate.”

Shaloh House executive director Rabbi Dan Rodkin said the small school added 10 new students after it moved to remote learning, all from public schools, and hired three teachers. It charged new families discounted tuition and let them enroll month-by-month. Rodkin said the school’s size lets him be nimble. “We’re very small and very flexible,” he said. “I can easily make decisions.”

The shift to remote learning during the pandemic in many ways highlighted disparities that already existed in the state’s education system. Districts in more affluent communities seemed to make the transition more smoothly than those with high concentrations of poverty, where students often lacked computers, reliable internet service, or an adult at home.

As Beth Kontos, president of American Federation of Teachers in Massachusetts, put it: “The Wellesleys of the world are having a better experience than some of our other communities because there’s far more that goes into education than the building and the educator.”

But another divide emerged as well, this one between district public schools and charter and private schools. While performance varied greatly among all types of schools, many private schools and charter schools worked hard to stay on course with their curriculum during the frantic switch to online learning. That was not the norm in most public schools, even in wealthier districts. 

Many private and charter schools were committed to teaching new material from the start, while state education officials instructed public school districts for weeks to focus on review. Many private schools continued grading and testing, while many public school districts, following state recommendations, shifted to a pass/fail model. As the shutdown wore on, some private schools, like the one Abbie Paley sought out for her daughter, even began attracting public school students looking for another option. 

A recent statewide survey by the MassINC Polling Group found that 75 percent of district public school parents rated their school’s response to the pandemic as good or excellent, compared to between 85 and 91 percent of parents at independent private schools, Catholic schools, and charter schools. Charter school parents were most likely to report their children getting personalized feedback and one-on-one interaction with teachers. Parents in district schools, meanwhile, were least likely to report personal interaction with teachers, and least likely to have their children attending an online class.

Education officials are busy preparing for the fall, when school seems likely to include some mix of in-person and remote learning. There are lots of important differences between the various school sectors, but the experience of private and charter schools may offer lessons worth considering — whether about planning, scheduling, or grading — as districts get ready for an extended run with this new normal. 

‘POP-UP’ PRIVATE SCHOOL

Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute, a think tank that supports charter schools and expanded school choice, said schools that have done the best job at remote learning went into it with a plan. “They had something in place before the pandemic so they weren’t reacting to it,” Gass said. “The public system seems like it’s been reacting, coming up with guidance or plans kind of on the fly rather than having thought ahead of time what they need to make the transition more seamless.”

Pioneer is urging state officials to develop more robust plans for the fall for remediating learning gaps and for possible future school closures. It says plans should include ways to advance the curriculum, meet for longer than half the school day, continue grading, and be clearer about expectations for teachers.

That kind of structure would probably appeal to Jacquie Chakrabarty, whose 12-year-old daughter attends an Arlington district middle school. When the school shut down in March, it taught through videos and assignments, but not live classes. That approach was common in districts where children may have obligations like babysitting or working. But Chakrabarty said it wasn’t working for her daughter.

Chakrabarty turned to Acera, a private school in Winchester focused on project-based learning for gifted students in kindergarten through ninth grade. On April 27, Acera opened a two-month “pop-up school” for 6th through 10th grade students. 

Founder and head of school Courtney Dickinson said she started the pop-up school after a group of Arlington public school parents who were unhappy with remote learning approached her looking for another option. Classes ran from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and there were elective and after-school classes until 5:30 p.m.

There were interdisciplinary Zoom discussions, individual work time, exercise time, an online math tutorial and project time. Classes covered woodshop, lab science, and cooking. A “wearable electronics” elective combined arts, design, electronics, and microcomputing. 

Acera architecture teacher Esteé Hill remotely checks out the progress students are making growing seedlings. (Photo courtesy of Acera)

Dickinson said 19 students enrolled in the full-time pop-up school and 24 students were taking electives. Most were from Arlington, with others from Needham, Winchester, and Burlington. The school rehired two former teachers who had moved out of state, but could suddenly connect with students hundreds of miles away. 

Chakrabarty said her daughter thrived with the dialogue with her teacher and interaction with a consistent group of peers. She did an initial project about the book Einstein’s Dreams, a fictional collection of stories dreamed by Einstein about time and relativity. “That interactivity felt like it was something [she] was really missing,” Chakrabarty said.

In Massachusetts public school districts, state guidelines instructed districts to use the initial school closure on March 17, which was supposed to last three weeks, to ensure they were addressing students’ basic needs, like safety and food. On March 25, when the closure was extended, the state urged districts to move forward with remote learning for half of a regular school day, focusing on reinforcing skills already taught. It was only on April 24 that the state asked districts to move ahead with new material, focusing on core skills needed to advance to the next grade.

The state guidelines encouraged public schools to grade on a credit/ no credit model.

The go-slow approach seemed driven by a recognition of the difficulty of abruptly switching to remote learning for nearly 1 million students, many of whom were facing struggles at home. State guidance documents stressed that schools “should be mindful of equity concerns and work to reduce the potential disproportionate impact on our most vulnerable populations.”

But that created tension in suburbs like Arlington, where some parents were fine with the approach but others were eager to see lessons move forward. 

PRIVATE SCHOOL PUSH 

At Archbishop Williams High School, there was little doubt about how to move ahead. The Braintree Catholic school did not skip a single day of school, according to principal Mike Volonnino. It designated Monday, March 16, the first day at home, as a “Zoom practice day” to adjust to the technology. Every student already had an iPad and internet access. The school then started holding 30-minute classes (down from 47 minutes) from 8:15 a.m. to noon four days a week, with Wednesdays reserved for office hours. Teachers restructured tests to be open-book.

Volonnino said attendance was nearly 100 percent, and the school was understanding when individual students had problems – for example, if a parent got sick. “This is a really challenging time, period, so there’s a real social emotional benefit for students to be able to see classmates, meet with teachers, have a routine, know they’ve got to be up online at 8:15,” he said.

At Saint Joseph Prep, a Catholic high school in Boston with 275 students, assistant head of school for academics Scott Poponyak said school ended on a Friday and by the following Thursday it was meeting remotely.

Before the pandemic, students were already using Google Classroom for homework and assignments, so they all had their own devices. Students attended classes online from 8 a.m. to noon, followed by an hour of office hours, with breaks between classes. 

Poponyak said class attendance rates were above 90 percent, and the school covered 60 percent of its curriculum for the final quarter of the year.

Tom and Mary Nolan of Framingham say their three children at St. Joe’s were at their computers – video on – each morning by 8 a.m. They had homework and open-notes tests and quizzes, though the school cancelled final exams. Their son took his Advanced Placement tests. What’s been nice is it’s given them a routine and schedule,” Tom Nolan said.

There are many reasons private schools were able to pivot more quickly to more comprehensive education.

Parents at private schools tend to have more resources. Almost all students have access to high-speed internet and a laptop, and the schools can more easily help the few who do not. Private school students are less likely to be working during the pandemic and more likely to have a parent available during the day. Private schools also tend to have much smaller class sizes and far fewer students with special needs, and certainly less severe special needs than public schools.

“It’s an apples to oranges comparison. I don’t know how you can compare a small independent school with a fairly homogenous population relative to the heterogeneity of a public school system,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said, “We’re educating two different demographics with two very different funding sources and two very different sets of resources, and those three factors make all the difference in the world in what can be done.” 

Along with the wealthier families they tend to serve, private schools have more flexibility than public schools, said Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, who teaches educational policy at Harvard. That includes more flexibility in curriculum and in adjusting demands on their labor force without renegotiating contracts.

A ‘MORAL OBLIGATION’

The student population is more similar between charter schools and district public schools. Publicly funded but operating independent of traditional districts and usually with non-unionized teachers, charters enjoy some of the same flexibility of private schools, but enroll a student population that often looks more like that of the state’s urban districts, with lots of low-income students and high percentages of black and Latino students. 

Excel Academy has four charter school campuses serving middle and high school students — primarily low-income, Latino students, many of them immigrants, living in Chelsea and East Boston, some of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus. 

Assistant Head of School Sarah Stuntz said officials quickly realized how challenging at-home learning would be. Many students were taking jobs at Amazon or Market Basket to fill in for laid-off parents. Some got sick. But the school also recognized the importance of continuing academic instruction.

“We believed that what was most important was families’ safety and health, but we had a moral obligation to provide access to learning,” Stuntz said. “For a lot of students that provides stability, that provides opportunity for enrichment, it provides identity. And a lot of parents were grateful it provides something to do.”

The school gave all students Chromebooks, some distributed at free food sites. At the high school, learning was not tied to a set schedule. Teachers posted a new assignment every day, and some offered optional classes. In the middle school, realizing students needed structure, teachers began offering online classes — with options to learn by video at another time — midway through the pandemic. Teachers adapted classes, developing science labs that could be done at home, or had students post pictures of their art projects on instagram. Grading continued, but no one could get a D or F, to incentivize learning while not penalizing those who could not do school work.

Around 90 to 95 percent of students engaged with their teachers through a weekly advisory call. Around 60 percent participated in classes. For those who didn’t, Stuntz said school officials figured out how to keep them engaged — for example, finding audiobooks for a student who enjoyed reading but had no physical books — and crafted a plan to help them catch up when they were ready. The school is offering an in-person summer school in July to help those students.

Michell Matos de la Cruz, a 5th grader at Boston Collegiate Charter School, working during the spring shutdown with the online math platform Reflex, which the school used in parallel with Zoom classes. (Photo courtesy of BCCS)

Some charters intentionally surpassed state guidelines. When state guidelines were still recommending schools focus on review, Shannah Varon, executive director of Boston Collegiate Charter School, a middle and high school in Dorchester, said school officials chose to move forward with core parts of their courses. “We had a deep sense if we were to only review with students…it was just going to be boring,” Varon said. “We were in a race for student engagement that was hard and so we wanted to make sure the kids were at least going to learn something.”

MASS. AN ONLINE LAGGARD? 

In general, Massachusetts has not been at the forefront of online education. Michael Horn, cofounder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, who has written books about online learning, said there are good ways to personalize education or engage students online, but most schools have not adopted those methods. “Massachusetts, relative to other states, I think, has been woefully behind on leveraging digital learning inside of schools to create robust blended learning environments before this hit, so as a result there really wasn’t the infrastructure in place in many schools to make that shift,” Horn said.

Nationally, Horn said charter schools have responded the best to the shift to remote learning, followed by private schools, then traditional district public schools. Horn said some district public schools also had a “misguided sense of equity,” which led to a mindset that if some students have no devices or internet, the district should not offer online classes; or if a district cannot advance curriculum for special needs students, it should hold back on teaching all students. 

Some charter schools developed unique ways to help families, whether through COVID relief funds to help families pay for food or internet service or help-desks that offered support with devices.

At Lawrence Family Development Charter School, a K-8 school with 780 students, predominantly low-income and Latino, director/superintendent Ralph Carrero said teachers made huge efforts to address individual needs. When school officials discovered that two young children had spotty attendance because they were home most days with their non-English speaking grandmother while their mother worked, a teacher took a mobile hotspot to their house and taught them in their backyard.

Lawrence Family Development distributed around 150 Chromebooks at the start of the pandemic to students who did not have them, then ran online classes for four hours a day, plus an hour-long activity, like gym, music, or art. Carrero said around 98 percent of students participated. With a pass/fail system that mainly required students to log in and try to work, only 14 students failed. 

Carrero said he thinks there are lots of lessons to learn about making curriculum accessible outside the traditional classroom. In responding to the pandemic, Carrero said, “We accelerated the future. We had to.”