How a School System Led Through Love

During pandemic times, schools become more than just schools — they can become one of the most important places a child can feel heard and loved as they try to make sense of a world turned upside down.

Educators at Uncommon Schools quickly realized this need when all public schools shut down in March of 2020, and so they set out to create online and hybrid classrooms that reached out and connected with kids and families, while also continuing the learning.

“We spent a considerable amount of time thinking through what is the right virtual environment for our students because the connections we build are even more important at this time,” said Juliana Worrell, Chief Schools Officer, K-8, of Uncommon Schools, a network of 55 public schools in Newark and Camden, N.J., Brooklyn, Rochester and Troy, N.Y., and Boston, Mass.

“Our success is that our students still feel seen and heard and that we’re taking into account the whole child as well as their families,” she said.

That meant creating schools that students want to show up to every day — whether in person or online. Daily attendance is in the 80s and 90s percent, compared with attendance in the 90s during nonCovid times. That also meant making sure that students had the resources that they needed to be able to learn effectively from home. Teachers and staff scrambled to get Chromebooks, devices and hot spots to every single student.

Open-source lessons
In the spring of 2020, Uncommon’s remote learning platform was made open source so that schools and families across the country, and around the globe, could access lessons from Uncommon’s most experienced and skillful teachers.

This school year, all of Uncommon’s schools opened in the fall in a “hybrid” model, with about half of the students choosing to come into school for instruction. Uncommon opened even in cities where the local district had not yet opened.

Teachers and staff still continue to make thousands of calls weekly to check in with families — to see where Uncommon can help beyond school. Many families have been hard-hit by the pandemic, whether medically or financially, and not much can be accomplished when families are focused on just surviving and staying safe.

Worrell said Uncommon Schools wanted families to know that the school is there for them and has done a lot of work to connect families with the resources they might need within their local communities.

Priortizing special education
Uncommon Schools also prioritized special education students. At its schools, special education students or struggling students came to school four days a week, rather than two as other students.

During remote learning days, Uncommon developed its program around the challenges of being on a computer for several hours — ensuring that every minute is impactful and engaging and fun. Educators there scoured the country for the best technological platforms that allow teachers to watch student work in the moment even when they are in two locations.

Meanwhile, knowing that growing students, especially teenagers, need the connections with their peers, Uncommon continued to provide high school students with enrichment classes, where they were able to virtually cook together, do yoga, compete in spoken word contests and produce music.

Despite the challenges of remote and hybrid learning, Uncommon graduating high school seniors are still enrolling in top colleges for the fall of 2021, many with full scholarships.