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Reimagining Education

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Flexibility helps private schools provide rapid response to pandemic

Educational experiences across Missouri have never been as diverse or unequal as they have been during the coronavirus pandemic this spring.

Many school districts have had difficulties providing continued learning, figuring out how to switch to emergency online learning, or even just providing worksheets to students with no internet access.

But while district schools have floundered, private schools across Missouri have led the way when it comes to reimagining education during this time of crisis. Their smaller size and close-knit communities have made it easier for them to quickly deploy distance and e-learning solutions to their students and have been engaged and responsive to parent concerns.

“There has been a great transition by our schools by our teachers going from in-person education to changing very quickly to delivering education in an online format and at-home format,” said Alan Freeman, who is the president of the Missouri chapter for the Council of American Private Education (MO-CAPE). “What never did change though, was the care and concern and the love expressed to the students.”

In fact, many private schools were able to offer a fully online or at-home learning experience within just days of having to shut down as a result of the pandemic, according to Freeman.

“Our schools that serve underprivileged populations of students reached out immediately to make sure that basic needs were being met, that students have the food that they need, that families have the supplies that they need,” agreed MO-CAPE Executive Director Nicolette Gibson. “Teachers are reaching out and making sure that they stay connected with their students. I’ve also been really excited to see how much teletherapy has been available to our students. Our counselors are making themselves available to families to give that support to our students.”

Education that is responsive to student needs

When Max Vikhter, the new Head of School at Christian Fellowship School in Columbia, joined the school in March he immediately had to start planning for how the school would respond to the growing coronavirus pandemic.

He quickly set up a Google Sites page for the school and had teachers start to figure out how they would keep learning going when the school had to shut its door for the pandemic.

“I made sure that that website was built in advance so that the students could look at it(before they started learning from home),” he said. “Just by seeing it, knowing it exists if they’re at home sitting or wondering ‘what should I be doing right now’ they know that there’s a place they should be going.”

He said getting a stable plan in place before the crisis was key to his school’s success compared to what happened in the Columbia Public Schools.

“They made multiple attempts to launch and reconfigure remote learning,” he said, noting that Christian Fellowship School was able to communicate with parents directly to find out what they wanted and make small tweaks to the already successful system. “In the public schools they had to basically stop and completely reconfigure and then when that happened then there was mixed communication from the teachers and what the district was communicating to families.”

Vikhter knew that just creating a platform for learning was not going to be enough to provide a high-quality education.

“We’re prioritizing engagement so that the students have things that they can work on that are going to hook them as opposed to something that could just be busy work,” he said. “I would argue that our students are gaining experiences online through remote learning that they wouldn’t even be getting in a normal school year at the public school.”

Preparing students for the future

At Summit Christian Academy in Lee’s Summit the transition to remote learning has not only provided consistent continued learning, but it has also helped students get ready for success later in their academic career.

SCA Academic Dean Dr. Kimberly Gill said the school had created a three-tiered system with different learning platforms for different grade levels.

For lower-grade levels, the school is using Google Hangouts to hold class at the same time that they would during normal circumstances and make sure that students are still fully engaged.

Students in fourth grade through sixth grade are getting their classwork through Google Classroom, and from seventh grade on students are using the Canvas platform.

“That’s an online delivery system that many, many colleges actually use,” said Dr. Gill. “So by junior high, parents now are super excited that their kids are functioning really like college students and learning to time management.”

Dr. Gill said her school is also engaging with the community and asking community leaders to do special readings for their students while also working to make sure that school is giving back to the community through volunteer efforts during the pandemic.

Success comes from focusing on the student over the system

“Our schools are located in urban areas and suburban areas and rural areas,” said Gibson. “We have large schools and small schools and it seems like the one common theme throughout is everybody’s ability to be flexible and learn new things.”

Part of that comes from smaller school communities being able to quickly pivot to new needs, but the success of private schools across the state largely stems from their focus on the students and the needs of the parents instead of a focus on the school system.

“Private schools really pride themselves on partnership,” said Dr. Gill. “We understand that parents are the primary educator.”

That resulted in many private schools reaching out to parents and modifying what they were offering to meet the needs of the students.

“We’re working really one-on-one with families,” said Dr. Gill.

“This is something our schools excel at — personalized learning,” said Freeman. “Knowing each child, knowing the needs, and caring for those needs.”

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