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Deep Dive with Eagle Crest Charter Academy: How a Blue Ribbon School Transitioned to Remote Learning

A strong focus on building community and showing compassion has guided Eagle Crest Charter Academy, a Blue Ribbon School, through the transition to remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic. Eagle Crest’s leaders agree on allowing creativity and flexibility for their teachers, with the understanding that instruction may look different during online learning.

Teachers are encouraged to branch out and make their lessons realistic in this at-home setting, knowing that life skills can often translate into academic lessons. This approach motivates students to stay involved and engaged. Take one class, for example, that was encouraged to bake cookies with their family to practice their math and science skills.

“The overall thing for our school is that our teachers have put a great deal of time into creating relationships with our students,” said Louise Moore, principal at Eagle Crest Charter Academy. “All of that pre-work was already done. When students show up, they aren’t necessarily showing up to learn math or English, but they are showing up to make those connections and to keep those relationships with their teachers. That helped us transition well into remote learning because our students and their families want to maintain those relationships.”

From creating a grocery store shopping experience in a driveway to hosting online baking lessons, teachers are bending over backward to connect with their students. “The teaching population that we have goes above and beyond in keeping students engaged. They do everything from outdoor lessons to cooking shows,” said Moore. “There are a ton of different things going on, but at the base of it are all the relationships and the commitment that the teachers have with the students and how that’s reciprocated.”

In March, as things were beginning to close in Michigan, Sheryl Weeldreyer, dean of lower elementary at Eagle Crest, reflected that what they did in those final moments before closing made a world of difference early on.

“We had school that Friday when a lot of Kent County schools did not,” she said. “The teachers were ready and waiting to hear what they were going to do. Our leadership decided to quickly print out packets that could be sent home that day. For those first couple of weeks, we sent math and reading materials home. The teachers did a great job of staying connecting relationally, which was the main goal of their team to stay connected with students.”

The transition was more natural for the middle school teachers and students, who in many cases were already utilizing online learning material in their daily routine. Teachers began relying on collaborating with one another to encourage relationship building. Many started YouTube channels to connect with students and nearly everyone started sending daily or weekly updates to keep families engaged.

“As we started to realize this was going to be a longer situation, we started using Google Classroom, and teachers began reaching out to one another and sharing ideas,” said Carmen Chowning, dean of upper elementary at Eagle Crest.

One challenge in the middle school classes includes students being shy to show their face on camera. During a time when it is so vital to maintain relationships, teachers are getting creative in urging their students to try to get past that hurdle. “I am slowly getting them to show their faces,” said Kourtney Wolters, sixth-grade teacher at Eagle Crest.

Utilizing various interactive programs, such as Bitmoji, a web application that allows users to create personalized avatars, or Goose Chase, an interactive online scavenger hunt, teachers are branching out to increase engagement with their students. “I still feel super connected with them,” said Wolters.

While their focus remains on academics, Eagle Crest’s leaders and staff have allowed a shift to support the well-being of their school community.

“One of the biggest and most important things our staff did is hone in on the emotional needs of students at this point in time,” said Steve Deur, middle school dean at Eagle Crest. “This event is trauma that our families are going through; that we as a staff are going through. We’ve looked into balancing the needs of our families and our own personal lives as well.”

Teachers are focusing highly on the social and emotional side of education throughout this process because that is fulfilling the needs of the students and their families.

“We have had very positive participation numbers,” said Dena Merrill, seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher at Eagle Crest. “Students seem to really enjoy every opportunity we offer in social and relationship building. While academics are important, we have really strived to maintain our social community as well.”

Teachers have also worked with interventionalists at the school to find creative ways to aid parents and families in remote learning. For younger students, one challenge is the students’ ability to read directions or navigate the online learning environment. A large focus has been on filling in the blanks where parents may not be able to support their child’s learning.

“A lot of my communication has been focused on helping the parent become the teacher because right now I can’t be the teacher,” said Allison Jonker, second-grade teacher at Eagle Crest. “I’ve focused on how I can help mom or dad focus on teaching these second-grade skills.”

Taking all challenges in stride, teachers and staff are doing everything in their power to finish the school year off as normally as possible. From virtual spirit weeks to online graduation ceremonies, teachers are focusing on creating solid memories for students who are advancing to high school next year. Recently, Eagle Crest’s staff created custom yard signs for all eighth-grade students to commemorate their promotion to high school.

“I am proud to be a member of the Eagle Crest community,” said Weeldreyer. “Every person has gone above and beyond to impact our kids’ lives. It’s just been incredible.”