How one alternative high school uses virtual and home visits to support kids during school closures

Picture a high schooler who is deeply engaged in his remote learning community. He actively participates in synchronous class sessions, turns in daily assignments, uses asynchronous resources, attends student-led affinity groups, meets one-on-one with his counselor, and concludes his days with a yoga and mindfulness activity. The same student, a 16-year-old African American who helps raise his younger siblings while his parents, both frontline workers, are away, attends Open School East in Portland, Oregon, an alternative, community-based nonprofit high school for students who struggle in traditional schooling environments.

The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to “reimagine education” through remote instruction. But as Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, warns, “This is not just a matter of providing access to technology and open learning resources. It will also require maintaining effective social relationships between families, teachers and students—particularly for those students who lack the resilience, learning strategies, or engagement to learn on their own.”

In our pursuit of alternative models to support hybrid learning and technology integration, we also should integrate outreach and family engagement to support students from underserved communities. We just might find exemplars, and hope, where we would least expect them.

Holistic supports

When Open School East, like many schools nationwide, had to continue remote instruction through the start of 2020–21, its first goal was to keep students connected. Staff, students, and leaders united in a resilient effort, not allowing a global pandemic to block education. The advocacy work had to adapt, too.

As part of its fall restart plan, the school sought stakeholder input from students and families. By centering student voice, some key priorities quickly emerged: (1) promote connection, (2) preserve community, (3) protect learning, and (4) transform systemic inequity. Much of Open School East’s successful pivot to remote instruction can be attributed to an advocacy model it had in place for years.

“Many of our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) students come to us with educational trauma—with deep mistrust of schools and teachers and self-doubt about their own learning abilities. Our relationships are key levers for students to actualize their academic goals. Everything we do to transform and improve our school community, now and pre-COVID, is to build unbreakable bonds with our students,” says principal Michelle Cardenas.

In our pursuit of alternative models to support hybrid learning and technology integration, we also should integrate outreach and family engagement to support students from underserved communities.

School leadership can struggle to formally recognize teachers’ myriad responsibilities. But Open School East acknowledges and values the functions educators take on beyond teaching to support students and families, serving as de facto social workers, parents by proxy, and mentors.

Each student is assigned a formal mentor/advocate teacher as soon as the student arrives. This mentor—a teacher, counselor, or administrator—stays with the student throughout the four-year journey. Each adult has a caseload of 12 students, allowing them to learn students’ strengths, areas of growth, goals, and family background.

“Because the COVID crisis lent itself to be isolating, marginalizing and economically hitting our community and families harder than others, continuing to connect to our students was our top priority. And that takes some creativity, individualization, and dedication to meet families where there are—physically and otherwise,” says Cardenas, principal since 2019 at the 140-student alternative high school. The school educates 9th through 12th graders.

Before addressing academic achievement, Cardenas knew she had to attend to the collective trauma of families and educators. Open School East attempted to repair and rebuild missing connections and support necessary healing.

Schleicher, writing in OECD Education and Skills Today, views that as an appropriate launching point. “Learning always happens through interaction and in an environment of well-being and self-efficacy for both learners and teachers,” he says. “The success of students over the coming weeks and months, particularly for those from disadvantaged groups, critically hinges on maintaining a close relationship with their teachers. In this crisis, schools need to provide ways for teachers to remain socially close when they are physically distant.”

Home visits

From the start, home visits involving students most in need have been part of the school’s wraparound approach. In many ways, the home visits serve as a safety net to target resources and supports to students.

Expanded home visits by school personnel during the opening months of COVID-forced social distancing addressed many of the social and emotional needs of students and families and enabled the school to collect important data on students’ well-being and academic needs. The table below outlines Open School East’s best practices for social-emotional and advocacy-based home visits.

Remote visits

During times of crisis, research indicates child abuse, intimate partner violence, and substance abuse all increase. The current economic and public health conditions make it imperative to serve our families that face the greatest hardships, such as unemployment, homelessness, food insecurity, and substance abuse.

Child Trends recommends educators learn from medical and behavioral health service providers who have implemented remote telehealth services regarding the use of electronic platforms, video, texting, and online content. Because many schools cannot scale home visits with current staff and budgetary limitations, virtual home visits could be a viable substitute. Home visit programs, such as ParentChild+, adapt strategies from traditional visits as they move to virtual home visits during the COVID-19 crisis. Research-supported technological outreach strategies can include the use of video calls, texting and messaging apps, and/or providing relevant information through parenting programs or group-based settings with web participation.

Collaborative solutions

National data reported by the McKinsey consulting firm last summer suggests BIPOC students and those experiencing poverty “are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment […] devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision.” Tackling these obstacles becomes a collective effort.

“We encourage our educator advocates to begin conversations with ‘I’ve noticed this…’ and then have the student own the narrative. We ask what students need, what do their families need, what might be the appropriate supports? We gain greater student buy-in and family buy-in with a collaborative approach to problem solving,” says Cardenas.

Alternative ending

As Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, and her colleagues argued in a report on COVID-19 impact, “Reinventing school means focusing on authentic learning and equity and harnessing the knowledge of human development, learning, and effective teaching accumulated over the last century and needed for the next.”

Alternative education is broadly defined as activities or institutions that fall outside the traditional K–12 curriculum and, in most instances, are designed to serve students labeled “at risk of school failure.” But what happens when we flip the script? What if alternative education sites offer successful strategies of connecting to families that traditional systems continue to struggle reaching? What happens when we embrace the lessons we can learn and that they have lived?

Open School East’s students, most of whom would be considered historically underserved, have demonstrated outstanding engagement in remote settings during COVID closures, when otherwise we have seen few success stories. The school’s student body is nearly 70% BIPOC. More than a quarter of students have an individual education program. The majority entered the school two or three grade levels behind academically. In a beating-the-odds story, the school last June had a 91% graduation rate (higher than the state’s 80% average). In summary, we could say this alternative school is delivering an “alternative ending,” where students of color excel in the most adverse of conditions.

Success stories of this sort need the leadership of trailblazers who intentionally build a culture of community, authenticity, and empowerment. We should expand the movement—where compassion shows up as the foundational practice of education.

This article first appeared under the title “Advancing equity: Connecting students with the support of social-emotional learning during COVID-forced school closings” in the February 2021 issue of School Administrator, published by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.


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