"So, just now that we've reopened our buildings, I'm able to sleep at night."
Dr. Michele Eller is the assistant superintendent at Chickasaw City Schools in Chickasaw AL, on the outskirts of Mobile. A district with approximately 1,100 students in the physical school buildings, and 2,100 statewide virtual students. Chickasaw itself has a population of 6,100 people, half of which is comprised of diversity. 40 percent of the population is in poverty and considered underserved.
Chickasaw City Schools Knows Adversity
The schools—Chickasaw Elementary and Chickasaw Middle & High School—have been under school improvement plans for two years, meaning student achievement and attendance are below standards for performance.
The high school enrollment is 75 percent minority and 90 percent of students are economically disadvantaged; the school ranks 214th within Alabama based on performance on performance on state-required tests, graduation rates, and how prepared students are for college.
Dr. Eller is in her second year with the district and is no stranger to overcoming obstacles and advocating for education.
Yet, nothing prepared her for what COVID-19 meant for the students, educators, and families of her district. "The spring was all about triage," Dr. Eller said.
The Three Pillars of Chickasaw Education
When it became clear that COVID-19 was going to force the hand of school administrators alongside state governments to adapt, Chickasaw City Schools went into planning mode. David Wofford, the district superintendent, had the foresight to plan weeks before the school closures happened. "At first, we thought it just might be an extension of spring break. We asked what we’d need to do to handle that. The three areas we focused on were academics, physical well-being, and the socio-emotional aspect of school," Dr. Eller said.
"We’re a high-poverty, mostly free lunch district so we were all stressed thinking if they close schools, how will our kids eat? It goes beyond academics," she said.
The Alabama Destinations Career Academy (ALDCA) is a program of the Chickasaw City School district, an entirely virtual school that opened enrollment for the 2019-2020 school year, kindergarten through ninth grade. It’s a full-time, public school program serving 2,100 students across the state teaching both career readiness courses, career pathway courses, and core subjects of math, science, English language arts, history, art and music, plus electives.
"Because we have the virtual school, we had contacts with online curriculum and tools through K12 Inc. We buddied-up our virtual teachers with our brick and mortar teachers to help offer insight and prepping on how to create online lesson plans and instruct via distance learning," Dr. Eller said.
She continued, "for preschool, kindergarten, first grade, and special education, we knew we needed to create packets and tangible materials. Instructors would prepare materials for pick-up." Families could also check out devices, hotspots, and other necessary resources to keep students connected and engaged.
"When our schools closed, the first thing we did was contact Feeding the Gulf Coast (a member of Feeding America) to ensure we could continue to provide breakfast and lunch to all of our students. They assisted us with feeding families the first two weeks after school buildings closed. We contacted churches to ensure our students and families could eat on the weekends," Dr. Eller said.
The district CNP workers handled meal preparation and pick-up for families for the remainder of the school closure even throughout the summer, totaling 190,000 meals and dozens of volunteers.
Dr. Eller was focused on the care of her students as well. This aspect of education is perhaps what mattered most to the administration.
"I trained everyone how to use Zoom, and how to use Google Meet. Then, teachers could lead students through Google Classroom in order to facilitate remote learning. We sent out surveys to families inquiring about connectivity, internet, and availability of devices. Our support staff made hundreds of calls, just trying to connect with students and families."
Towards the end of the school year, Chickasaw City Schools hosted a parade, covering every single square mile of the district, driving past students waving from their homes. "It was every single one of us—principals, teachers, everyone, It was so sweet. Students just wanted to see their teachers’ faces, that familiarity," she added.
Engaging At-Risk Students through Project Based Learning
Chickasaw City Schools, home of the Chieftains, broke apart from the Mobile County Public School system in 2012. The Mobile district serves 53,000 students across 91 schools. Its district did not open its doors at the start of the school year while Chickasaw City Schools did.
Dr. Eller explained, "It’s not in the best interest of our families, or our students, to keep our schools closed. When the governor said everyone needs to stay inside at home during the month of April, we said, we have essential work to do. We couldn’t stay home. We couldn’t stay away. I have to commend the people in our district, even though they have families of their own. They rose to the challenge of embracing distance learning and staying connected to these kids."
When Dr. Eller joined the district in 2019, she knew the data. All three schools were considered on the state’s failing list for not meeting standards. She worked diligently with other administrators and staff to align the curriculum to the standards and implement test prep at all three schools. An expert was brought in to conduct an ACT bootcamp for both high school students and teachers. They made sure students were accustomed to and comfortable with computers and technology. They increased the Depth of Knowledge (DoK) within instruction. And, the district put a renewed emphasis on attendance and involving families in the effort.
One of the district’s overarching goals was to meet its one mission: student success.
Dr. Eller explains, "Our motto truly is, every student leaving career-ready. And, how can we make school exciting and fun for kids to want to come to school? Well, a few ways. We’re increasing the rigor, we’re striving for DoK Levels 3 and 4, we’re bringing in the career piece, and we’re going to do all that through project based learning."
The elementary school had a little experience with the notion of project based learning tailored to career exploration and the two secondary schools had none.
Dr. Eller was introduced to Defined Learning’s approach to project based learning through an event for Chief Academic Officers in Chicago. "I was able to see it [Defined Learning] in action and absolutely fell in love with it. I brought it back to the district. We hosted a few webinars showing it to administrators and teachers. I can love something, but if they don’t buy into it, it’s a moot point. We gave them the opportunity to practice and play within it, to really explore the format."
Originally Chickasaw City Schools anticipated Defined Learning would fit its Career Tech education, but introduced it for grades 4-8 as well, plus ALDCA, the virtual school. "When we roll something out in our brick and mortar schools, we try to do the same at ALDCA so it’s seamless. It was really our middle school teachers who truly grasped it and implemented it," she said. In the initial onboarding year with Defined Learning, teachers facilitated one project. For the 2020-21 school year, they’ll lead students through a project per quarter.
Dr. Eller remarked that individual teachers have the autonomy to customize their projects to fit within their curriculum and individual standards by subject matter. "There’s ownership there," she said.
And what did students think?
"The students loved it—really loved it. Students who normally would not be engaged or don’t do well in group settings just really blossomed in the midst of doing these [Defined Learning] projects. That was really neat to see and it was neat for the teachers to see were the ones coming back to us with feedback and said, wow. These kids—this is what they want to do. Literally, they can’t wait for the next project."
What the Pandemic Teaches Students
At its core, project based learning is designed to equip students with skills necessary for life. Education continues to adapt to the needs of the world and takes an active approach to engaging and empowering students. This helps develop young people into the capable and confident workforce of tomorrow.
If anything, the way the pandemic affected everything gave students first-hand experience in being nimble and learning how to employ critical thinking skills. Learning to adapt to the challenges of the real world. Where the gap has widened for inclusion purposes, project based learning offers a viable alternative.
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