Lessons from a Small School: Keeping Kids Engaged — and Meeting Their Dizzying Array of Needs — Calls for Strong Relationships

By Beth Hawkins | March 8, 2022

Special Report: This is one in a series of articles, galleries and interviews looking back at two years of COVID-related learning disruptions, taking stock at what’s been lost — and where we go from here. Follow our coverage, and see our full archive of testimonials, right here

On Day 700 of COVID’s education crisis, the Minneapolis charter school board I serve on met. As we do every month, we looked at a handful of measures of how students are doing. On the heels of a fall during which kids had started to relax and academics were ticking up, Omicron had caused absolute chaos — and it showed. The variant finally was beginning its retreat, however, and attendance was rebounding quickly from January’s anemic levels.

Unlike several surrounding districts, Venture Academy did not close during the surge. Three-fourths of our teachers said they wanted to remain open for in-person classes. To accommodate adults and students who could not work on site, all lessons were posted online. Anybody who was able to participate could. 

We tested and traced. A teacher took it upon himself to call every student with multiple absences to learn whether the young person in question needed temporary slack or was starting down the slope of disengagement. 

Keeping students involved with school during the pandemic has been a consistent challenge. Before COVID, 58 percent of students met the state’s goal of being in class 90 percent of the time or more. Last year, which was split between remote and in-person learning, a third of kids hit that mark and two-thirds attended at least 70 percent of the time.

During the Omicron surge, just 40 percent of students attended consistently. Teachers have created a number of strategies for getting back to — and hopefully exceeding — pre-pandemic attendance rates, depending on the reasons why students struggle to participate in school.

There is a lot going on in our kids’ lives. More than 90 percent of our students live in poverty. Almost a third receive special education services, and 36 percent are learning English. The ways in which COVID’s many impacts have compounded their barriers boggles. 

Between labor shortages and Omicron’s incredible infectiousness, teachers and teen parents alike lost their child care. Families already surviving on the margins lost wages. Lots of people who were not sick themselves were overwhelmed keeping things together for their loved ones. Kids were busy caregiving and bread-winning.

Another surge was demoralizing, no question. But staff members have been troubleshooting for the entirety of the pandemic. Issued March 11, 2020, the governor’s first COVID-19 instructions to schools were to stay open but socially distance, which at first seemed impossible. A group of teachers armed with a tape measure concluded the only way to afford everyone 6 feet of space was to move to a schedule with students attending in person on alternating days. The other days, they could learn online from home. 

Because many of our families lack internet, we bought devices with cell connections or hotspots and distributed them to any student who needed one. Days later, when the state closed all schools completely, we had a jump start on distance learning.

State education officials asked schools to feed students, to keep paying hourly-wage employees and to continue to pay bus companies and other vendors so they, in turn, could retain their workers. While neighboring districts set up central distribution sites for food boxes, our staff shifted gears, with some cooking their own families’ specialties for students and some riding the buses we kept on contract to deliver meals, technology and impromptu sidewalk tutoring sessions.

Others kept student clubs going via group texts or made goofy videos with kids for digital assemblies. The buses brought goodie bags for a virtual prom. They transported remarkably poignant, individualized graduation ceremonies to front yards and neighborhood parks. 

When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, the problem-solving rose to a new level. Hundreds of fires hollowed out the neighborhoods where our kids lived. We still bused food home, but we also opened a supply pantry in what had been the lunchroom. There, families could get food, diapers, cleaning supplies and clothes. As soon as the state allowed, we invited small numbers of students into the building for intensive tutoring or tailored instruction, such as special education strategies.

More recently, despite bus shortages, we have transported students to school from the exurbs where many ended up after the year and a half of violence that followed our civil unrest. We wanted them in the building alongside adults with whom they had strong relationships. 

“They’re building community in the school at a time when community is hard anywhere,” one of my fellow board members remarked. “So much educator creativity.”

Indeed. Teachers often say, “Maslow before Bloom.” Meaning that the late psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” — things like safety, belonging and esteem — must be met before students can be expected to take up the “taxonomy of educational objectives” — knowledge, application, analysis and so forth — described by psychologist Benjamin Bloom.

Education wonks have long gotten lost in chicken-and-egg arguments about adversity and academic achievement gaps. But when teachers and others choose to work in a high-needs environment — especially one with a lot of flexibility — they get very good at sussing out the needs of the individual young person in front of them and coming up with a way to meet them. 

Two recent surveys offer a pair of interesting data points. First, in a January poll, the National Parents Union found that a whopping 71 percent of families surveyed feared that if their child’s school closed because of Omicron, it would not reopen this academic year. Nearly as many, 69 percent, reported continued concerns about their child falling behind, while 64 percent were worried about a child’s mental health.

Second, researchers at Tulane University found that teachers during the pandemic experienced trauma and mental health issues at rates similar to or higher than those of health care workers. The top stressor they named was feeling inadequate to address student learning loss. 

Does it seem to you, as it does to me, like these findings add up to a failure of imagination? Of will power?

Families are both desperate for the connectedness school can provide and fearful that endless adult squabbles have burned up oxygen that might otherwise fuel a conversation about coming back from this crisis. And there are teachers who feel utterly alone in shouldering the weight of the entire world.

Within weeks of the first school shutdowns, researchers began estimating their effects on students and making suggestions as to how educators and policymakers could identify children’s academic and emotional needs and make big, structural changes to enable radically different ways of meeting them. During the two years this publication and others have spent reporting on those recommendations, progress within most large school systems has been sluggish at best

The week the pandemic arrived, I had coffee with a retired school superintendent I admire. I was trying to grow into my relatively new role of charter school board chair, and I wanted advice. We were unmasked, of course, and close together in our ignorance of COVID’s true perils, but he did a flawless job not touching his face as we talked. 

I had concerns about school improvement, accountability and governance, but my coffee date kept talking about problem solving. It’s a muscle, he said, to be developed. I was listening, but I didn’t really hear him.

Now, 700 days later, it’s increasingly clear that any true remedy will require both a broader societal response to inequity and a longer time frame. It would be amazing if, as those larger, more enduring strategies were crafted, we made sure that at every turn, our responses were both relational and academic. 

Last winter, when case counts were sky high and school was still remote, Venture’s student absences began to spike and the number of incomplete or failed assignments jumped. Demoralized, staff called for a break: a mentorship day. There were online games, contests and rallies, but interspersed with virtual one-on-one catch-up sessions where an adult — teachers, administrators and even front office staff — helped students with missing work.

It was so successful, they did it again. And then again. Over the course of eight days, 4,000 assignments were completed, and grade-point averages rose dramatically. Teachers felt like they were making a difference. Students saw something other than checklists of failure. Social distance encompassed social connection.

Bloom and Maslow, it turns out, are perfectly matched. 

Lead Image: Venture Academy Head of School Mike Warner opened school doors for families in need. (Mike Warner)

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