Leading in a Crisis: Charter School Leaders Share Their Experiences
June 25, 2020
Here at EdTec, supporting charter schools to succeed is at the heart of everything we do, day in and day out. As we navigate this difficult time together, this blog series will address various topics to help school leaders identify the tools, resources, and support they need to lead effectively.
This time, we reached out to our charter partners to learn more about their experiences over the past few months, including how they’ve tackled distance learning challenges and supported their school communities, as well as what they expect for next school year. We’re grateful to share insights from school leaders at two of our partner schools: Ms. Jade Rivera, Founder/Executive Director of Albuquerque Collegiate Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Dr. Hassan Dornayi, Principal of Para los Niños Charter Middle School in Los Angeles, California.
What has been the biggest challenge of implementing a distance learning plan? How is your school tackling this challenge?
Ms. Jade Rivera: I think the biggest challenge of distance learning that we’ve faced is not being able to maintain the same systems, routines, and structures that are so integral to our school’s overall culture. Our teachers have worked hard to create and implement strong and predictable routines for Kindergarten-2nd grade students, which help our students experience that positive success every day, even if on an online platform.
Dr. Hassan Dornayi: The uncertainty. Things are constantly in flux and often you don’t know what things are going to look like even a month ahead, let alone the next school year. For us, this means that we need to be flexible for whatever might come our way. We have a vision and plan moving forward, but also have in mind how we can change and update if and when we need to, while still ensuring our students and families have what they need to succeed.
What has worked best for you when it comes to managing faculty and staff remotely? Do you have any tips for other school leaders who might be struggling to lead their team from a distance?
Ms. Jade Rivera: In the normal school setting, we start every day with a quick 5-10 morning huddle. In light of the pandemic, we’ve shifted this to a beginning and end of week huddle. It’s certainly not perfect, but it gives us an opportunity to check in with one another, share wins and highlights from the week, as well as brainstorm how to tackle challenges together. We’ve also held a few informal Zoom happy hour chats, where we can just hang out as friends and share updates from our personal lives. I’ve certainly missed seeing my teammates every day. We’re so much more than just colleagues, they’re some of my closest friends. Connection, now more than ever, is so important.
Are there any resources that have been especially helpful to your school during this time, that you would recommend to other school leaders? This could be an online learning resource but does not have to be – we’d also love to hear about other online tools, community resources, nonprofit organizations, etc.
Ms. Jade Rivera: Our co-teaching model has lent itself well to collaboration and multi-pronged support for distance learning. Teachers were already used to working in tandem, so team teaching on Zoom with 2 adults per class was a fairly easy transition. Furthermore, it has been a huge help to have co-teachers for online lessons, with one teacher able to focus solely on instruction and the other teacher able to help with technology needs, of both students and teachers.
Are there any unique actions your school is taking to support teachers, students, and/or families that you would like to share with other schools?
Dr. Hassan Dornayi: We are constantly pushing for ways to not just support our students, but also how to support their families. A student can’t succeed if they don’t have safe, stable, and secure homes. Our integrated services work to ensure our students and families thrive – through education and wraparound support to address concrete needs, and build sustainable growth. These times have been challenging for students and families in a number of ways and we can’t expect students to be academically successful if we haven’t supported their other needs as well.
What has worked well for your school when it comes to supporting students with learning disabilities?
Ms. Jade Rivera: Our special education teacher maintains very close communication with our special education students and ancillary providers, which helped a great deal when transitioning to online provided services. Continuous communication and flexibility have been absolutely necessary to ensuring our scholars maintain their provided services and learning opportunities.
How do you think the extended school closures will impact “business as usual” once schools reopen? What will learning look like then?
Ms. Jade Rivera: One thing is certain, school will look and feel different come the fall. Our hope is that we are able to continue to implement a strong academic program for all students, while being incredibly thoughtful about the safety and health measures we put in place for everyone in our building.
Dr. Hassan Dornayi: I think everyone will need to take on the approach of doing whatever is needed to meet a student where they are and address their needs, whether it be fully online or a hybrid model. I think for our teachers, because many of them are already going above and beyond to help our children, this will be an easier adaptation. Schools that don’t already have an integrated model like ours in place might need to have more preparation to determine where the students’ needs are and how they can help them persevere.
Have you been able to connect with other school leaders during this time to share resources or advice? How has this helped you to work through challenges?
Ms. Jade Rivera: I’ve been really fortunate to be able to connect with both local New Mexico leaders, as well as leaders from charter schools across the country. These connections have been tremendously helpful as we worked to design our distance learning plan, and as we begin to think about a hopeful return to school in the fall. Beyond the practical sharing of resources and ideas, it has also been a great support to have a network of colleagues who fully understand the challenges of the work.
Share something good that has come out of this for your school.
Ms. Jade Rivera: Our families have been so supportive throughout this entire process. From ensuring students stay engaged in their learning, to helping us creatively celebrate our teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week, they have never wavered in their backing and care for our school community. We are lucky to have them.
Dr. Hassan Dornayi: This crisis and transition to remote connection, has shown what an amazing culture we have at the middle school. We started teaching the Monday after we went on ‘shelter in place’ and our teachers haven’t looked back. We have virtual classes, assemblies, and connections with our students that keep our positive attitudes and collaborative spirit alive. It has been incredible to be part of this effort.
While every charter school is different and what works for one school might not work for another, many charter school leaders have found it helpful to hear from their peers to get a fresh perspective and be inspired to try news ways to serve students and families during this challenging time. We hope you found these insights to be helpful, and we would love to hear what has worked well for your school, too – please share your thoughts in the comment section below!