In writing “The Story of Kennett: Shaping Our Future One Child at a Time,” Joan Holliday and I came to the conclusion that Kennett’s priority was to get the kids right so how is that going during this pandemic?
Well, they’re not dying, as kids have immune systems that work pretty well against the coronavirus. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t affected with the quarantine, their family’s stress, and of course the closing of schools.
A first class education is probably our greatest gift to the kids along with their growing up in a safe neighborhood and loving community. In the past school year the kids lost the better part of one whole marking period of classes to the virus. We were blindsided by the experience with 20 percent of the kids not even showing up for the on line classes. They didn’t have the support at home and/or computer access to the internet.
We’ve learned that internet access around here is terrible, but Gov. Wolf is sending financial help. And there were frustrated teachers trying to manage a Zoom call with 28 clueless kids. The result was Kennett, Avon Grove, Oxford and Unionville learned from the experience and worked to make sure the technology and knowledge was available this year in the form of Chromebooks, hot spots and training.
The teachers were given a crash course in teaching digitally through the technology. Schools started to share best practices. The result is, at least for the first week of school,the attendance has been about what you would expect for any first week of classes.
Information technology exploded in the ‘80’s, but it was years before corporations took advantage of it to flatten their cost structure from 7 levels to 5 and then more. This technology is causing department stores,newspapers, and office buildings to become somewhat obsolete. I have been waiting for education to harvest the potential of the digital world and we are just seeing the beginning of it.
My guess is our response to the pandemic earlier this year was about 60 percent effective. Which means our students were short changed about 15 percent of their school year. So it’s 2020-21 and it will be summer before the vaccine is working.My guess is we will be teaching/learning virtually at about 75 percent of normal.
If this is true, then at the end of this pandemic our kids will have lost about 40 percent of a school year, which we need to make up. This is about $137 million of education expense for the four Southern Chester County school districts.
The good news is Scott DeShong Principal from Avon Grove High School, the largest of the 4 school districts,found that the assessments of the kids showed they were farther along than you might have expected.
And Lorenzo DeAngelis, principal of the Kennett Middle School shared that they have a pretty good understanding of the knowledge gaps of each student in their diverse student body. Kennett also has strong programs to fill the gaps through summer school, the Walk in Knowledge program, and After-the-Bell. By teaching at 110 percent of a typical school year, we will make it up in 3 ½ years.
One of the big issues is our diverse student body consists of “haves” and “have nots”. To combat this,the Square Roots Collective and the Opportunity Network through the Education Discovery Group with the help of Dr. Blakey (Supt. of schools for KCSD) have a plan. They have been working to find safe places around the community to have distance learning pods where kids can be dropped off to have a positive learning experience. They are looking for volunteers to help resource the pods.
Along with strong community support, we have four key players to make this year a success. Teachers, Students, Technology, and Parents. All need to develop special skills and capabilities for the virtual learning process to be a success. When you change a process this radically and bring in major technology, you basically make everyone feel stupid. And people don’t like feeling stupid, not teachers, not kids, not parents. So far everyone is getting better, becoming less “stupid.”
Talking to the educational consultant Jeff Lee Byrem I find that Pennsylvania has had cyber schools for decades. So part of this is melding the hard stuff of technology and the soft stuff of the classroom. We have teachers trying to teach on line and in the classroom at the same time. Big mistake. The kids on line were looking at the back of the teacher’s head.
A Kennett teacher was very frustrated at the end of last year when the kids weren’t even showing up. At least the first week of school this year is different. Not only were they all there but she was ready for them and she feels she learned more about the individual kid’s personal needs and learning capabilities than she had ever learned in the first week of school in the past. For better or worse she is not so much teaching a classroom but teaching 26 individual kids. She still doesn’t know what they look like but communicating by text focuses the mind on what you really want to know and say.
I just hope the schools don’t solve the attendance problem by dropping the kids from the class roster who don’t show up. It’s all about not letting kids fall through the cracks.
What kind of learning is this? Lectures, or chalk and talk, isn’t as good as project based learning in the world of technology. But even a taped lecture can be listened to again for better notes. Some students will blossom with these new capabilities and some won't, but we need to get it out there and challenge all the students to be the best they can be.
So I’m optimistic that this great experiment of virtual learning can advance the quality of our school systems and build capabilities within our kids. The real failure would be to not learn from the opportunity.