Returning to the school year in a fully remote environment provided new learning opportunities not just for students but also for educators at Atlanta Heights Charter School as they, together, are navigating new norms.
“The number one thing is to approach this year with a growth mindset,” said Alisha Fisher, principal at Atlanta Heights. Initially, their staff was highly focused on building instructional tools, however, after time passed, they began to see that there was a learning curve for families that needed to be addressed.
School leaders quickly learned that they needed to flood their parents with support, so they felt comfortable maneuvering through the technology required in this remote space. The week before school started, Atlanta Heights hosted a “Sneak a Peek” event, also known as a meet and greet, that aimed to show students what the year would look like in an exciting and fun way.
To make students feel comfortable in this online learning space, teachers also are adapting to a new normal by creating a space inside their homes where the teaching can take place. “It’s important that it still looks and feels like school even if they are teaching from their house,” said Fisher. Many of Atlanta Heights’ teachers have let their creativity shine by creating a virtual classroom and setting them up visually, so it looks like a physical classroom versus someone teaching from their home.
“It's been difficult between everything going on related to COVID-19 and social justice issues,” said Fisher. “There’s been a lot of loss but if we can take a situation that’s been bleak and discouraging and use education as an opportunity to uplift, then that’s what we are here for.”
In aiming to make stronger connections with her school community, every week Fisher sends a school newsletter called “A New World of Learning Awaits,” which provides another way to engage with parents and offer resources to help maneuver through this new learning landscape. This direct two-way connection with parents allows them to feel comfortable calling and exchanging questions or ideas with school leaders.
“Every single day we are growing, reflecting, and adjusting,” said Fisher. “For our school, because it’s new territory on un-treaded waters, we focus every day on what went well and what we can improve upon.”
The school has also shifted its weekly staff meetings to engage in a weekly Professional Learning Community, (PLC) which is dedicated to instructional technology. These are being implemented by Atlanta Heights’ teachers who are comfortable working in this new space. Fisher shared that their secret sauce is having various specialists who take ownership of new technology, including a Blocksi specialist, a Google Meet specialist, and a ClassKick specialist. From there, their individual teachers have one-to-one sessions with those specialists for office hours and planning. “This allows us to focus on developing the staff professionally, with a learning community, where we can get together to learn more and improve.”
Atlanta Heights also developed a social-emotional learning website that provides vital resources for parents and students. Resources like meditation and mindfulness have been embedded there for families and students to access whenever they need it. Their next step includes beginning to offer Wellness Wednesdays throughout the year. “We are trying to get to the heart of where our students are,” shared Fisher.
Fisher shared that she and her staff don’t know what their students’ home lives are, but their job is to support, enrich, and encourage; to build relationships first, and the instruction follows.
“We have an opportunity to revolutionize teaching and learning, despite the hardships of the pandemic,” she said. “I want school to be a retreat for our scholars. We have an opportunity to transform teaching and learning, and build relationships that build the hearts and minds of our scholars.”
So far, the students have been excited to interface with one another, Fisher shared. “The difference between now and the spring was that they had individual learning plans that were more asynchronous. Now during the live sessions, they get to interact and see each other. The social interaction is really nice because they missed one another.”
Reflecting on the first week back to school, Fisher shared that parents have been excited to watch their kids engage and have fun again. “I keep hearing fun, and laughing, and happiness,” she said. “For me, this trumps the entire instructional piece because they’ve been isolated for so long.”