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Using Distance to Grow Closer: How One School Is Leaning on Its Student Relationships to Create Community in a Pandemic

By Beth Hawkins | April 19, 2020

Travis Heidelberg

One after another, education-related COVID-19-era headlines tell a variation on the same story: Schools are struggling to find their most underserved students and connect them with food, internet and — most tenuous — learning. With food and housing in jeopardy, robocalls are going unanswered, students are busy with child care and other responsibilities in the homes they are now confined to, and depression and anxiety levels are paralyzing.

My daughter is a member of the founding senior class at a small Minneapolis charter school where virtually every student faces steep odds to attain public education’s promise of breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. Of Venture Academy’s 350 students, 96 percent are economically disadvantaged, a third are learning English and, depending on which grade you look at — we serve middle and high school students — up to 40 percent receive special education services.

Academically, as a school, we struggle. But if there’s one thing I am confident of as a parent, and more recently as chair of the school’s volunteer board, it’s that the strong relationships many of Venture’s adults built with students pre-pandemic are now the key to keeping students engaged until school reopens — whatever that looks like.

In the days before schools in our state were ordered closed, Venture’s educators already were troubleshooting some of the digital engagement issues now dominating the headlines. What follows are interviews, edited for length and clarity, with three staff members: high school principal Heidi Smith, who talks about throwing out the rulebook; Dean of Culture Travis Heidelberg, who tapped his own experience of being failed by schools to better serve students; and Valerie MacDonald, a paraprofessional nudging and cajoling her special education students via text.

HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL HEIDI SMITH

The 74: What ran through your mind when you first heard school was likely to close, and for a long time?

Smith: To use this as a chance to reinvent. I sent an email out to my teachers saying I view this as an opportunity to change the way we do education, really putting a focus on the social-emotional piece, because we can’t just do what we did in the classrooms and expect to do it with distance in between us now.

And it’s not teaching in general; it’s crisis education. There’s no state testing. We as a school don’t really teach toward the test anyway, but that definitely takes pressure off of teachers. So really being able to grab it and look at it as an opportunity to grow and be innovative and be flexible and be OK with failing and fixing things as we go.

All the other common distracters that you would have in a school building are gone. No one is waiting for an email from me. They’re not reading all their Slacks to see what’s happening throughout the building.

Heidi Smith

Expand on the concept of crisis teaching. That’s not entirely new to your school, correct? 

For us, crisis teaching often presented itself in the behavior we were dealing with on a daily basis. We deal a lot with the repercussions of what’s happening at home, whether it was instability of guardians or food or money. All that sort of stuff just presented itself in a different way at our school.

Now, crisis teaching is, we’re right in it. We know a lot of the things that our students were going through were a result of what was happening when they weren’t in school. Even though there is distance in between us now, we’re much closer to whatever those scenarios were that were potentially creating those crisis situations for kids before.

What are some strategies you’re trying?

We deal with students with food insecurity. It’s been a ton of work, but being able to provide food, sustenance, materials — anything a family is requesting. We have volunteers on our buses texting and calling every family to make sure that we are not missing them and being able to give them as much food as we possibly can.

I think the learning piece here is, when we can be face-to-face in the building again, how are we taking those pieces that worked really well and making sure we have that available at our school? Do we have an actual food bank? Are we working on creating stronger partnerships with organizations that can help us make sure this is something that our parents can depend on, and not just based on the situation that we’re in?

You gave a great deal of thought to the first days of remote school, which started after spring break. 

As soon as we did not have students in the building, we had folks reaching out, just talking to kids. Thinking creatively down the line, how do we do some Spirit Week stuff? How do we do prom? Digital dance parties? We’re going into it with an advantage because we’ve put an emphasis on building relationships with students.

I’m giving the staff a lot of flexibility to choose what they think would be best going forward. I have pushed the emphasis on the social-emotional piece, making sure students are having multiple check-ins throughout the week via text and email, sharing out videos — anything that they can to connect with students beyond what learning is being asked of them.

Whenever we see each other again, whether it’s in May or September, our students are not going to remember the lessons and the projects and all that stuff that they’re doing online. What they’re going to remember is how you reached out to them and the questions you asked. How we build our culture is getting to know these students on a more individual level and allow them to see us as humans and build trust in us.

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What do you imagine will be the outcome of this in terms of academics?

The experience I want students to grasp from this is that there are creative ways to be able to learn. We all get trained from years and years of being in school that learning is supposed to look a very specific way. We don’t realize it could look many different ways. It can look like a conversation about a video they watched, or interviewing people in the household you’re stuck with now about where they grew up, what school looked like for them. Being able to have choice in how you display that learning can be transformational in terms of enjoying the academic side of things more than they normally would.

This experience can be the most transformational for teachers. They have an opportunity right now to be creative, be innovative and know that there is not an evaluation at the end of it. There isn’t anybody who is going to fault them for a method or an activity or a project that failed. This is the opportunity to try something new and learn from it.

Education is an extremely slow-moving machine. We have the opportunity right now to potentially change that. Being able to be creative and innovative are habits that are going to benefit us every day when we’re back in a classroom.

DEAN OF CULTURE TRAVIS HEIDELBERG

The 74: Tell us what your job is like in less unusual times.

Heidelberg: Troubleshooting barriers inside the building with people in an authentic way. Social and emotional learning, whether that’s on a one-to-one basis or by teaching classes or during a teaching moment with a student who’s going against community standards and capacity building.

Travis Heidelberg

The old-school way is to deal punishment that hurts so much that they don’t do it anymore. But really, they haven’t learned anything. They’re just not doing it so they won’t feel bad. And that doesn’t work for marginalized people. It just compounds the problem.

We work with teachers on general approaches, how to use scaffolding to set up some things in classrooms to be culturally appropriate. We have weekly meetings with every department in the building. We talk about what we’re seeing with respect to ways that we could tailor our approach as a team to better respond to the living organism that is our student.

From a student perspective, we do a lot with mediation. If you, a kid, don’t know what to do with something, you come and talk to the team. If you come to us, there’s no judgment. We’ll give you support, whether it’s a social work referral, a mediation with the teacher, just working out a problem, talking through things.

You’re literally beaming into people’s homes, which is a place where many families historically don’t trust schools.

So that’s a personal question for me. My dad was from Gary, Indiana. He grew up very much stressed out by schools and never had a positive connection. There was a lot of distrust for systems, especially for marginalized people. My dad was a product of that.

So I was raised in a household that had a lot of distrust for schools. Like, if a teacher would have knocked at my door or something like that, my dad would be like, “Man, don’t have those people come up to my house.”

When I think about the opportunity to be in people’s houses, I want them to see something that’s approachable, something that breaks up what you normally think of a school to be. It has to be something that is representative of how we truly feel about what we value.

Traditionally, people think of behavior as something that occurs in a classroom or hallway, addressed on the spot with consequences. How do you expect that to come up digitally?

You’ve got to blow that up, think way higher than that. People behave a certain way because the behavior has a function. These kids, they’re going to be frustrated online. There’s going to be things that come up. If it’s something that’s not good for someone else in the community, what’s the function for that behavior?

There’s going to be some lower-level work that needs to be done with editing for online. There’s already some kids who’ve been using language that’s not OK. The age-old keyboard-warrior vibe is going to be there, that feeling that it’s a lot less personal so you say more. I’m checking people because those words really hurt, and making sure that people understand that we still have a standard for how we treat each other.

When you heard that the closure was coming, what was your first thought?

Mental health. No one’s been through this before. Think about the toll this puts on us as adults. You can imagine students that don’t have mental scaffolding to understand situations like this. It’s something that’s so disruptive in someone’s life right now. For somebody who doesn’t have stable routines or even access to them in their environment — and then to know that you’re going to be in there all the time and you’re going to get work thrown at you?

Looking at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, can we make a platform where kids get love and belonging. Places for things to be shouted out, “Hey, this is what so-and-so’s doing.” A place for kids to share positive things and be received. They can hear that everybody’s going through this. We really want a place where we can provide a lens, a place for hope.

If we’re going to do the online for real, we have to make sure that everybody has the strongest foundation.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

One of the biggest things for me is young people exploring the process themselves in healthy ways. That’s something that I didn’t really have in schools, especially growing up and stuff. I went to Minneapolis Public Schools. My parents split up. I went to what would be considered low-income schools. We moved a lot. I got a lot of insight from that.

And then, in sixth grade, I got brought into Blake [a private school in a Minneapolis suburb]. They offered me a scholarship. I was the first kid of color in my grade. I was a fish out of water. It was the worst experience of my life. It was so isolating. I dealt with racist stuff all day. I was like, “Damn. The community that you’re in, it affects you so much.”

I went back to Minneapolis. I graduated. Nobody ever talked to me about my future. I had good grades. I got a good score on my SATs, so I got accepted into some colleges. But I just didn’t have the executive function skills or whatever you want to call it. I fell out of school quickly. I worked a lot of jobs in random places.

Then an opportunity came up from my brother-in-law to come to Venture. They were like, “We need some paraprofessionals.” He knew I loved working with kids. I wasn’t sure. But he was like, “No, you’ll be great.” I tried it and I was like, “Oh my god. I love this.”

I went back to school to be a teacher. Now I’m working on my master’s degree. It’s an honor to be in the position I am and to have the Venture family.

SPECIAL EDUCATION PARAPROFESSIONAL VALERIE MACDONALD

The 74: Tell us a little about yourself and your job. How, pre-pandemic, did you support students?

MacDonald: I have an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a master’s degree in history. I worked in some libraries and museums before this. It’s been interesting to go from a collegiate atmosphere to Venture.

This year, I am working in the resource room for 11th- and 12th-grade students that receive special education services. The part that I like the most is learning new things and being curious. As a paraprofessional, you get an especially good opportunity to work with students one-on-one and help fire them up a little bit, because they don’t necessarily want to be there at all times.

Valerie MacDonald

I check in with them and we go over their assignment and any questions that they have about how to get started. Then I usually let them work for a little bit and keep checking in to make sure they’re making progress. I do a lot of reading with students, if reading is a problem.

One of the big hurdles for our special education department is literacy. A lot of our students are below their grade level of reading. We have a lot of students that are economically disadvantaged, students of color. We also have a lot of students that do not speak English as their first language. Couple that with a reading or a processing disability; that makes it even harder.

Until recently, you sat side by side with these students, who would come to you at pretty much any point in the day with any quandary, and you would get inventive.

Yes. I’m trying to focus specifically on, how can I make sure that you can access this? With e-learning, we’re getting different stuff. Not as much thick texts. We had an article about the bombing of Hiroshima, for instance. I found an alternative article through Newsela that had a lower reading level so some students would have an easier time reading it by themselves.

Paraprofessionals now have the ability to modify documents. In that same [Hiroshima] project, there were testimonies from people that survived. We couldn’t really find something different for those, so I recorded myself reading them.

When you first heard school was going remote, what were your thoughts?

Concerns about how well we would be able to communicate with the students, because a lot of the other stuff I try to work on is helping check email and [getting into] Google Drive. Access stuff can be hard. So my first thought was, “We’re going to have to get good at this real fast.”

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Our school is providing students with Chromebooks and internet access. However, our students are not great about checking emails. We’ve been trying to push texting because they’re much more responsive. I know some of our programs have Facebook chats; they have one every day for their group of people to come in and meet.

I am throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. That’s my philosophy right now. Let’s just try it all; what do you like?

Are you catching people at times when they would be engaged with classes? Are you catching them whenever they’re plugging in? How’s that working?

I will reach out to students from 9:00 to 9:30, when their day is supposed to be beginning. But yesterday I sent out a survey, and from the responses I’ve got back so far, noon to 4:00 seems to be their window. Which goes along with when I hear back. Whether I text at 9:00, it’s probably noon before I get something back.

Are we thinking this is teenage sleeping habits?

I know from the students we’ve talked to, some are up playing video games. Some have siblings they’re taking care of. It’s sleep patterns, yeah. The schedule they’ve given is a guideline to help students that need it. So that made me feel better about, if noon is when you text me back, great, then we’ll work on the stuff that you need to do.

There’s a big behavioral component to what you do, correct? How are you able to address that in a digital environment?

Among the paras, we all have a group of students we are checking in with on a personal level: “This is not about schoolwork — how are you?” Trying to maintain those connections. At least for me, then it will allow me to ease into, “OK, did you know that we have this assignment? How are you feeling about it?” And trying to talk about feelings.

As we got more into e-learning, I realized it is also important for me to check in with students that come to the resource room every day, because there are some. Even though we’re not in that space anymore, I need to make sure that I am still connecting with those students because they’re getting something out of being in the resource room.

Have you hit challenges you haven’t solved for yet?

Student buy-in. When you can be doing anything you want, why should you be doing work with your teacher? Texting is more personal than an email. Email is where I will send you the documents, what you need to do your work, but I can reach out to you and try to have a conversation with you via text. And that seems to be a better way to get things done.

When in-person school comes back, what would you like to be different?

I would like to keep this hopefully strengthened online communication. Being able to check your email and respond to things in a professional and expedient way is important, and I would really like it if those skills could continue to grow in our students.

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