Showing Up for All Scholars: How We Built a Distance Learning Plan to Support Diverse Learners

Effectively serving diverse learners – specifically, scholars with disabilities and English learners — has always been complex, yet rewarding work. It requires educators to interpret laws, as well as national and state guidance that guard scholars’ rights to a free and appropriate education. I got into this work with the belief that all scholars deserve a great education. As a former English learner myself, I know personally that the student gaps are real and urgent.

Providing services to diverse learners during the pandemic raised important issues of equity for our scholars and ensured we were adhering to important laws designed to protect our scholars. Faced with a lack of clear guidance and no playbook to draw upon, our team got to work quickly knowing we could not sit idle for our scholars who needed the most support to access an excellent education.

Right away, we knew that RePublic’s overall distance learning plan needed to be paired with a support plan that specifically considered the needs of our diverse learners. Our scholars represent a range of backgrounds, from our youngest scholars in kindergarten to ready-to-graduate high school seniors spread across two states. With families facing new circumstances and stressors as a result of the pandemic, our plans also needed to incorporate our families’ needs in this new normal. Parents are now full-time caretakers for their scholars, playing the role of educator at home while managing work responsibilities. With this in mind, we built a plan with two key components.

The first component of our plan was individual support, which meant relying on our student supports teachers to meet with our diverse learners in small-groups, 1:1 online, or by phone. This gave our team the chance to assess what our scholars would have received during normal school operations. These types of support matter because they provide a smaller setting for scholars to ask questions or get clarification on the content taught in their virtual classes. This space also allows for our teachers to support student learning and to check-in on our scholars’ well-being. Additionally, our partnership with related service providers continued virtually to support scholars needing speech or occupational therapy services.

The second component of our plan was instructional accessibility through accommodations and scaffolds that work in a distance learning environment. Accommodations and scaffolds bridge any academic gaps between the scholars and their lessons. They are even more important in the distance learning setting as scholars now spend a bulk of their instructional day working independently. Because of this, our five middle schools collaboratively developed read alouds, guided notes, and other supports to improve student access to instruction while making more time available for teacher-led 1:1 and small group support. Even when we could not be physically with our scholars, we made sure they had what they needed to continue learning.

While we knew this was a strong plan, none of this work is possible without the dedication of our student supports teachers across all seven schools. These teachers flexibly scheduled sessions that worked best for our scholars’ families, found ways to bring paper-based curriculum to online, and innovatively created opportunities for scholars. For example, our elementary school’s student supports team at Smilow Collegiate found that sessions scheduled around parent schedules led to higher attendance rate, as parents helped scholars log-in and stay engaged. At Nashville Academy of Computer Science, one of our teachers brought a reading intervention program online for her group of scholars who needed support with foundational reading skills. An EL teacher at Liberty Collegiate Academy created weekly instructional activities that incorporated language development skills for scholars with limited to intermediate English proficiency. The student supports team at Reimagine Prep collaborated with general education teachers to expand the amount of individualized support available to scholars throughout the week.

Additionally, our student supports teachers worked strategically to ensure our scholars had support extending beyond our online work. An EL teacher at Nashville Prep raised funds to buy books for her scholars so that they can continue to read at home. The student supports team at RePublic High School worked with parents to create individualized student schedules and resources that parents could use at home for their scholars who were struggling with the transition from school to distance learning. Our student supports teachers are trailblazers leading the way in these uncertain times to support in any way they can for our diverse learners.

Through the work by our student supports teams, we have also discovered new things that we couldn’t have imagined before.

  • We have built a sense of community through distance learning. The work of supporting diverse learners has always involved many parties, but in a distance learning environment, parental partnership is even more important. At Smilow Prep, we have a group of scholars who attend their virtual sessions with their parents to ensure they have as much support as possible. In collaboration with teachers, parents provide instructional support by reinforcing teachers’ directions, writing down scholars’ verbal responses, and keeping scholars engaged during the session. By doing this together, teachers are modeling what effective individualized support looks like and parents are reinforcing teachers’ instructional strategies.
  • Our scholars are great self-advocates. At Republic High School, some scholars found the sessions so valuable they started to advocate the importance of attending the virtual sessions with their friends. Some have texted and called, but one particular 10th grade student has messaged his friend to show up to their session through an online video game platform.

We are in uncharted territory where school may not look the same coming back from closure. We will continue to adapt to changes as we learn more information. To be clear, our plan is not perfect and we know there is room for improvement. This experience has got me to think outside the box about how to serve student needs during this unprecedented time. The most important lesson we learned from this experience is to bring our best thinking forward and figuring out how to make things possible for our diverse learners. I am reminded of a quote from Wendy Tucker, Senior Director of Policy from NCSECS, early on in the pandemic: “This time of crisis is not the time to roll back civil rights. It’s the time to roll up your sleeves and figure out how to make things work!” Her sentiment is the one we are choosing to focus on because despite current circumstances, we must show up for all of our scholars.

Christine Yang is the Director of Student Supports at Republic High School. She is looking forward to the day when she can see RHS scholars and staff in person and not online.

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