GAMBIT: Snapshots from School Reopening at Collegiate Academies

September 1, 2020

On September 1st, Gambit published this sponsored piece by New Schools for New Orleans.

Snapshots from School Reopening: Collegiate Academies 

Collegiate Schools: #OpportunityCantWait 

Photo credit: Cierra Sutton, G.W. Carver ‘18

All across our city, schools and charter networks are meeting the challenge of this moment with optimism and determination. Collegiate Academies (CA) has been rolling out their plans for the year with the hashtag #OpportunityCan’tWait. They know that even if school cannot start in person, there is no time to waste in helping their students get the high-quality education they deserve. 

With five high schools and two secondary education programs across New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Collegiate Academies serves over 3,500 students and 1,700 alumni. CA’s high schools in New Orleans are Abramson Sci Academy, Livingston Collegiate Academy, George Washington Carver High School, and Rosenwald Collegiate Academy. 

We spoke with three CA team members about the network’s plans for the start of this school year. Dominque Howse, CAs Senior Director of Communications, Soraya Verjee, CAs Chief of Talent, and Andrea Bond, Chief Academic Officer, joined together to share their reflections. They talked about their focus on engaging their community, making sure each child had the technology they needed, providing high quality instruction, taking care of their teams, and their motto of “all means all.”  

Involving Students, Parents, and Teachers  

Planning for this year was a community effort.

Collegiate Academies involves their families, students, and teachers in decision making, and planning for this year was no exception. They knew a democratic approach to problem-solving for this school year was critical. They invited all families, teachers and students to share their insights through committees, surveys, and virtual meetings held to foster collaboration.  

“We heard from students, school level teams, parents and network leadership about what does and doesn’t work,” says Howse. “Not only was it important for us to hear about their technological, academic, cultural and socioemotional needs, but explore ways to interweave those desires and needs into our planning.” 

They also launched steering committees that will continue into the school year. The teacher steering committee vetted everything from the attendance policy to the online learning platform students would use. The parent steering committee weighed in on the best way to be in touch with CA’s families.

As a follow-up to the work that took place throughout the summer, CA designed and shaped “Virtual Family Forums,” 60-minute online Zoom sessions for families that shared health and safety updates; academic expectations; virtual attendance policies; examples of distance-learning classrooms; information about school scheduling and technology; and offered the chance for “Q&A” with CA teams and school leaders. 

A Computer for Every Student 

Every student at Collegiate Academies schools will have their own laptop, for “one to one” computing, and CA has ordered hotspots to support all families that need internet access.  

Photo credit: Cierra Sutton, G.W. Carver ‘18

The “classroom” for CA’s students right now is Zoom. To open up that classroom door, schools handed out laptops to every child and have ordered WiFi hotspots for every family that needs one. Students will use Zoom as well as two other educational applications, Canvas and Nearpod, to connect with their teachers and peers.  

“When we are aligning ourselves with our vision, mission and commitment; or when we say “All Means All” we are making sure all students have access to the hardware and software they need to connect, learn and grow,” Dominque Howse explains.

“This technology does not only connect students to their classes, but also prepares them for a 21st century global economy and for college and career readiness,” says Andrea Bond. 

High Quality Curriculum and Instruction

Collegiate Academies has more than tripled the number of courses with high-quality curriculum shared across their network, so more teachers have access to strong materials. They can collaborate and build off of existing content instead of “reinventing the wheel.”  

Photo credit: Cierra Sutton, G.W. Carver ‘18

“We know that high quality curriculum is critical to drive equity and high quality learning,” explains Bond. 

In prior years, eight of CA’s core subjects had adopted their own high-quality curriculum shared across the network. This allowed teachers to collaborate with the same materials and focus on teaching, building relationships, and innovating for their particular students. 

Over the summer, CA expanded to having twenty-six shared curricula. They used the state’s highest-rated “Tier 1” curriculum or used materials from rigorously vetted sources. In cases where there is yet to be a published high-quality Tier 1 curriculum, their teachers worked together, leveraging the state standards to design them. All of the curricula are now shared with teachers so they can customize them for their classes and students.  

CA’s teachers will use these curricula no matter their classroom context. For now, while school is virtual, the structure of the day varies by campus, but every student will take four classes, with full class (synchronous) instruction and individual (asynchronous) learning time. There are also set-aside blocks for things like social emotional learning and advisory. 

“We are proud of the way in which we’re approaching distance learning,” Howse says. “There is a dense amount of training, conversations, and innovations happening. Without a doubt, this team is doing whatever it takes to make sure the needs of all students are met, even amidst COVID-19.” 

Taking Care of Teachers and Teams 

For the start of the school year, all CA teachers will be working from home as students learn remotely. CA is also rolling out increased mental health supports for its staff. 

CA team members meet over Zoom to learn social media strategies in preparation for distance teaching and learning

As schools begin this year remotely for students, Collegiate Academies made the choice to have their teachers work virtually, too. 

“At the start of the year,” says Howse, “teachers and support staff will work remotely delivering equitable and effective instruction. We know our teams can do their best work when they feel safe, supported and positioned to excel.” 

While CA takes care of its teachers physically in this way, they are also working to take care of the mental and emotional health of all of their team members. 

“Erin LaBostrie, our Director of Human Resources, surveyed our staff to understand the challenges our folks have faced in accessing mental health services,” says Soraya Verjee.

In response, CA in the coming weeks is rolling out content to teach employees how to use their new benefits app to connect to therapists and counselors (as well as other healthcare providers). The app, HealthJoy, allows team members to “chat” with a representative regarding their needs and get a list of options in their network that fit their criteria. For example, staff can use the chat to request therapists by specific criteria, like those who see clients after school hours or those who reflect specific identities.

CA is also launching monthly wellness roundup newsletters, has assembled a group of employees throughout the network to advance wellness initiatives, and continues to offer every employee three free tele-therapy sessions through their Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

***

With so much pain and uncertainty in the world around us, CA’s students and staff are driven, hopeful, and determined. Teachers are launching into their virtual lessons. Students are logging onto Zoom, excited to learn and connect with their peers. Student government has even begun to hold meetings. Together, CA’s community is positive, creative, and committed to starting this school year off strong. 

 

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