Still, Davis School Principal Beth Benoit and Lane School Principal Rob Ackerman outlined for the School Committee Tuesday their efforts to fulfill their 2020-21 improvement plans during an unprecedented period of Covid-19 restrictions.
The outcome wasn’t universally successful. But the presentation was an opportunity for an outpouring of love and respect directed toward the schools’ leaders, teachers, and staff from all five members of the School Committee.
For example, Davis and Lane Schools: Chair Dan Brosgol asserted, are “above any school in the state. You guys did an incredible job this year. Thanks for rising to the challenge.”
The school improvement plans are modeled to correspond with district goals for the academic year, which are: “equity and diversity; collaborative professional culture; student-centered learning through a coherent, higher-order-thinking curriculum; and communication and community support.”
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad said the next three-year district plan is scheduled to be completed by the end of this school year. Meanwhile, he said, the principals have done well “to keep all of the initiatives moving in their schools.”
“It was an exhausting year but with teachers in front of the kids, it’s like the best day ever every single day they were there,” he affirmed.
“The joy has come back into the school building, and for kids still on screen to feel connected,” Davis School Principal Benoit declared. “It’s exciting to be able to envision again what school looks, feels, and sounds like.”
She lauded the approach called Responsive Classroom. “We feel that was such a critical piece of helping students and teachers through so many changes on how we operated as a school and as colleagues.” According to the Responsive Classroom website, the program is “a student-centered, social and emotional learning approach to teaching and discipline. It is comprised of a set of research, and evidence-based practices designed to create safe, joyful, and engaging classrooms and school communities for both students and teachers.”
“The work that our teachers did under so many unknowns was truly remarkable,” Benoit said. “Really using the structures of Responsive Classroom to help set up those routines and rituals and keep students’ social and emotional development at the core of what they did.”
She mentioned the structure of Morning Meeting, “engaged in a dialogue around morning message,” an opportunity for “sharing and greeting and hearing important information.” The structure of Responsive Classroom “helped sustain the community,” through “social structures that kept them engaged with each other even when wearing masks and socially distant.”
The Responsive Classroom feature called Interactive Modeling also was instrumental, she continued. “That’s how you teach kids how to learn and what the expectations are. All of the components that helped them learn, the important and core learning aspects of our curriculum, could still take place even if the structure of how learning happened looked different.”
Benoit told the committee, “We really used our quiet time this year. Kids needed that break. Wearing a mask, shifting to five days, required the building of stamina.” Quiet time after lunch and recess provides an opportunity for “choices in what would help ground them back in the next part of the day.”
Similarly, the closing meeting “allows kids to reflect on the day and set goals. That community-building piece was so important for our Davis faculty.”
Benoit reported, “We stayed focused around literacy and literacy development. We were concerned about what would we notice about student learning gaps, given the end of last year.” She added, “Even though the structure of school was different, we were using our literacy specialists in many situations. We were still able to provide targeted and specific reading intervention for students.”
Collaborative groups of teachers, “because they are well-formed, were critical components of the conversation,” Benoit said, noting that when the improvement plan was designed, “I don’t think we ever anticipated conversations would happen this way.”
Plans for changes in science standards were not realized, she continued, since “so much about it is project-based and collaborative. We didn’t have the capacity to figure out how to do that.” Also, “We did not do a lot of whole-faculty work around culturally responsive teaching. We absolutely did focus on equity and inclusion but we didn’t have the same amount of professional development.”
Plans for “the family and community component” also were diverted by the new environment. “We did little bits and pieces, but so much of our meeting with families is adjusting to structure. Adding another layer seemed to be asking a lot.”
“The teachers did a masterful job of hiding from the students how hard it was,” Conrad observed. “The teachers gave to the students their joy, their kindness and their love and held back all the difficulties. And that in itself was an amazing feat.”
Lane School Principal Ackerman said he is “really proud of the work of everyone – teachers, assistant teachers, office staff, custodians, cafeteria workers. Collaboration from day one was the only way this was going to work.” He also applauded the commitment of teachers working remotely. “We have had staff members dropping off items at houses throughout the year, going out of their way to do things just to make it easier for families.”
Together with Davis School, noted Ackerman, Lane strives to “bridge the K-5 experience.” Again relying on Responsive Classroom, “we were able to implement the key components.”
In the fall, “everyone was so worried about safety. The routines were paramount, and that involved a lot of interactive modeling—how to conduct yourself in the hall, eating lunch, bathroom passes, it was all new.”
The remote teachers had to find a way to create a “class community,” Ackerman said, and “they did great work building a community online.” Meanwhile, those teaching in person had to adapt to schedule changes. “Now everything has come together.”
Ackerman said the teachers made progress in English language arts, “but it wasn’t like a typical year. The district literacy plan has been guiding our work.” He also talked about tracking and assessing student progress in English and math. That “has helped teachers think about the data and make instructional decisions based on data.” More than 60 students competed in the math Olympiad on Zoom, he said.
Despite hybrid and remote models, Ackerman highlighted “all the work that was able to happen this year. We still have reading teachers, math teachers working with students who need support. We also have teachers talking about assessment data with parents and caregivers. Important for us to review student data in layman’s terms.”
The principal also noted efforts to enhance collaboration between general and special education teachers, and the importance of transitioning for special education students between grades 2 and 3 and grades 5 and 6.
Ackerman said there were accomplishments in the area of social and emotional learning. Counselors met with students, sometimes remotely., to help them navigate. “We really saw anxiety skyrocket with kids and parents as well.” Many teachers took courses on how to use mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety, he added.
Efforts in the category of equity, including professional development in diversity, were affected by the curtailed school experience, the principal said. Wednesdays, the traditional professional development day, became planning time because “the teachers were taking on so much. Planning really doubled.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763