Located near the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia, Ware County School District (WCSD) spans across the largest county in the state. Because of its size and geography, WCSD, like so many other districts in the country, had to overcome some large hurdles in the face of state-wide school closings. Loni Hines, the principal of Memorial Drive Elementary School, sat down with us to discuss the interesting challenges faced by a Title I school in a rural, Title I district and how her teachers have risen to meet students’ needs.
WCSD currently has nine schools, 6,153 students, and 425 teachers. The district is 90.5% free/reduced lunch.
• What the virtual shift has meant for Loni’s students
• Curbing the learning loss due to closures
• How teachers have structured lessons for students
• Preparing for the return to school
For Memorial Drive Elementary, the challenges faced during the initial shift to distance learning predominantly impacted students from economically disadvantaged families.According to district surveying, only 70% of the student population had technology devices at home, and not all of those students had internet access. Some families have to travel to other locations for computer and internet access. Most families in the district have more than one enrolled child, adding another consideration to how they would best meet students’ needs.Forming the PlanInitially, the district planned on using worksheet packets to hold students over until buildings reopened. But, as reopening dates moved further and further out, leadership realized that there wasn’t an efficient way of distributing, submitting, and grading them indefinitely. Instead, Ware decided to use worksheets as the short-term solution that would last until Spring Break. At this point, the district would have time to devise and implement a more comprehensive plan.
We held a virtual principals’ meeting and decided that our ultimate goal as a district was to reduce the Reading and Math skill deficits we would see when students returned in the Fall -- not necessarily to teach new skills virtually. This is why Classworks immediately stood out to us. We already had test data for our students and could easily assign content based on their current skill gaps.
As a Google district, Ware shifted its focus to the digital tools they had available.Memorial Drive Principal Loni Hines’ first step was to meet with each grade level using Google Meet. The team strategized how to help teachers and students get acquainted with the instructional tools they would be using. Learning technology can be intimidating at first, and it was important for teachers to feel confident by the time they met with students.
The school had determined that their main objectives for students during the time of school closures would be to curb learning loss as much as possible. Now it was time to select the instructional resources that would help accomplish their goals.
1. A versatile program to meet multiple goals
For Ware, Classworks immediately solved the packet dilemma as assignments were automatically assigned to students and graded upon completion. And because the students had test data that was being used to individualize these lessons, students could work on the skills they were already struggling with.This tackled their main objective: curbing the learning loss for fall.
The biggest reason Classworks stood out so much was because of how versatile it was, and how easily we could keep the students’ momentum going from home.Our teachers could easily pull Classworks reading and math activities into their Google classrooms, making the whole process that much easier.
2. A program the students and teachers are familiar with
Memorial Drive Elementary had already been using Classworks to close learning gaps for students during the school year, so having a tool that was familiar meant little lag time between forming a plan and implementing it. And, because their school invested in training early on, teachers were well-equipped to ensure students were organized into the correct classes with ample content to work.
3. A program that makes it easy for parents
Parents play an integral role in students’ success at school. Teachers love when parents encourage and assist their students with homework, but also recognize that trying to teach a lesson on subject-verb agreement or geometric formulas can be daunting. Classworks provides resources to keep parents in the loop on their student’s progress. It also includes built-in resources and tutorials that make it easy for parents to support their students working at home.
Creating a model for teachers of what remote teaching and learning should look like fostered consistency across the school. But, Loni also recognized the unique challenges families were facing, therefore she also chose to give teachers the autonomy to make modifications as needed.
At the beginning of each week, teachers send out their class agendas. There’s a lot of consideration for what works for the students and the families, so for some students, there are packet activities in lieu of digital ones. As part of their planning, school leadership has designated pick-up locations for students to obtain their packets.
In reading, students are expected to complete 30 minutes of reading lessons, followed by30 minutes of Classworks individualized reading instruction. Students end the day with 30 minutes of an enrichment activity. For math, it’s very similar. Students spend 30 minutes working on their ‘reflex’ work, 30 minutes on Classworks individualized activities, and 30minutes for enrichment.
For the most disadvantaged students, technology or otherwise, Loni had to get creative.Even though packet pick-up locations are available, some students are still not able to obtain them. For those students, teachers assign alternative activities such as reading the newspaper, using vocabulary words in conversations, and simple math exercises using household items.
Loni and other leaders in Ware have been optimistic about the shift to distance learning, viewing this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and immerse themselves in technology-enabled teaching. With the schedule flexibility virtual teaching offers, teachers shifted their schedule to include more time reviewing each student’s work and provide meaningful feedback to parents each week. Classworks Individualized Learning dashboard streamlines this process for teachers by giving them an at-a-glance view of how students are performing on their activities, where they need more help, and when they are rushing versus spending adequate time on their assignments.
Our teachers are so great at face-to-face interactions and creating exciting, interactive lessons for students.It’s been a challenge for some to make the shift towards virtual learning, but I think most have gotten into a groove at this point.
One thing that has been especially challenging is trying to get a pulse on every student’s family. In this type of situation, anything is to be expected. Some students have relocated to other cities and communication has dropped off. Despite this, teachers have remained vigilant, pushing past the brick wall and keeping the lines of communication open and ready.
Memorial Drive teachers have found success in quick phone calls, text messages, and tools like ClassDojo to stay in touch with students and families. As part of the school’s distance learning plan, teachers make wellness checks every week to see how things are going at home for students and their families. These can be to follow up on activities or provide feedback. Even something as simple as a phone call saying “Hey! I miss you!What are you reading?” means the world to students.
One teacher, Ms. Holland, has become a master at providing virtual feedback and encouragement. She currently has the top 17 students with the highest scores at the school. Using Google Classroom, she praises student work with small notes to the entire class highlighting the work of one student. For example, “Sally did awesome on our subject-verb agreement lesson! Take a minute to congratulate your classmate!” Ms. Holland finds that this does wonders for a student’s self-esteem.
In preparation for the fall semester, Loni has reached out to their Classworks Curriculum& Instruction specialist to help get ahead of the game. Using Classworks reporting, teachers identified the top 10 skills per grade-level that students struggled with the most. In the fall, the school will prioritize providing targeted instruction to address those10 skills. In Classworks, teachers can easily search for instruction and build custom assignments for students addressing the skills and standards needed.
As an added measure, this fall the school will administer the built-in Classworks academic screener to identify where students are ready to learn to ensure each student has a learning path individualized to their specific needs. This will be crucial for quickly identifying and closing gaps after several months of interrupted learning.
Our teachers have done a good job keeping up communication throughout the year, so we have an idea of what methods work best,” says Loni. “It’s important to be adaptive and to remember that there’s no one-size fits-all solution. You won’t ever have something that works perfectly for 100% of students and teachers, but creating the buy-in is tantamount to overall success.
When considering how best to support SEL for students, a high-quality academic intervention to close learning gaps should be part of the solution. Learn how the right academic intervention not only supports student academic growth, but also helps students develop two important SEL competencies: self-awareness and self-management.