| The Providence Journal
CENTRAL FALLS — While other school districts struggled to make remote learning work, The Learning Community has turned an educational crisis into an opportunity to deepen its communication with families and fix problems as they arise.
From day one, the K-8 charter school has put parents at the heart of any discussion about how students should learn online. And the 600-student school, long known for its superior academic achievement, has revised schedules in response to families’ complaints.
“This fall was absolutely a big improvement from last spring,” said Kiaira Colindres, who has two children, 9 and 12, in the charter school. “Distance learning has been difficult for everyone. The Learning Community has provided us with so many resources and with constant communication. They made it as painless as possible.”
But state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said The Learning Community was short-changing its students, noting that the Central Falls public schools and another local charter school, Segue Institut are offering a hybrid model.
“We really carefully, seriously, considered which direction to go in,” said the charter’s co-director, Meg O’Leary. “Our team felt we could either do high-quality remote learning or high-quality in-person but we couldn’t do both well. That’s what teachers are struggling with [in other districts]. It feels like an impossible challenge because it is.”
With 45% of its population tested, Central Falls has a COVID positivity rate of 21%, almost double that of Providence.
Although Gov. Gina Raimondo has repeatedly stressed the importance of in-person learning, when schools reopened in September, Providence and Central Falls were the only districts that the state did not clear for full in-person classes.
The Learning Community, which serves some the neediest students, began the fall semester with a schoolwide Zoom meeting to reconnect with families who might have felt cut off by the sudden pivot to distance learning in March.
Then, every teacher talked with every one of their students, a total of 22 children for each elementary class.
Whether it’s a quick text or a phone call, teachers are in almost daily contact with their students. That’s critical in a remote learning environment, where it is easy for children to tune out or fall behind. Formal conversations are scheduled every two weeks.
The goal is to stay in touch with families and pinpoint problems – whether it’s a broken Chromebook or trouble with the rent – before they become insurmountable, said Hayley Greene, a fifth-grade teacher.
Because routines are critical, every class begins with the morning meeting, just as it did before COVID-19. It’s an opportunity for teachers to read the mood of the classroom.
“During the morning meeting, we’re all together on Zoom,” Greene said. “This is where we do the majority of our community-building. We might play a game or talk about the elections.”
In pre-COVID times, parents were welcomed into the school, whether it was to a grab a morning coffee at the parent café or to browse the free library, which has titles in English and Spanish.
The challenge now is to find an online space where families feel welcome.
“We don’t place limits on what we want to hear from our parents,” social worker Kelly Baras said. “We want to know about them. We believe learning is deeply personal. Children bring their whole lives to the classroom.”
If something isn’t working, The Learning Community is not afraid to make changes.
When teachers in the early elementary grades said they couldn’t teach 22 students at once, the school broke the classes into two smaller groups. To make sure children are getting enough facetime with adults, special education teachers and other specialists will “meet” with students individually, or in even smaller groups.
At first, middle school students spent a half day in front of their teachers. But teachers said it wasn’t enough. The Learning Community listened. Next week, middle school students will have almost twice as much time with teachers in a virtual classroom.
“The key is listening,” O’Leary said.
Colindres, the parent of two, said that at the beginning of the semester, her son’s instruction didn’t begin until noon, which encouraged him to sleep late and fritter away the morning. When she asked about moving him to a morning schedule, the school listened.
“That’s one of the things I appreciate the most,” Colindres said. “The constant communication.”
This fall, the school created a “wellness” check-in on Google for students in the upper grades, something it didn’t have in the spring.
“I had one message where the child said, ‘I’m doing better with my depression,’” Baras said. “When I asked who she could talk to, she said, ‘I can talk to my mom, my dad and Miss Kelly.’”
COVID has further stressed a community already struggling with joblessness, poverty and immigration issues. With so much going on, O’Leary said the school is doing around-the-clock case management and tele-counseling.
“My social workers ask teachers, ‘Who are you the most concerned about this week? Who hasn’t shown up to school this week?’” O’Leary said. “Maybe they can’t get to the grocery store or they are out of money. We can get groceries for them.”
The Learning Community has raised $10,000 for these sorts of emergencies.
Sometimes, it’s the small gestures that bring together a community. In fifth grade, students write a poem every fall called the “I am from” poem. This year, the fifth-graders combined their favorite lines and wrote one collective poem. Then they filmed it and sent it out to all of their families.
“I feel like everyone really wants the same thing – to be back in the classroom,” Greene said “I think we are finding ways to make our virtual classroom have the same strong sense of community.”
Linda Borg covers education for the Journal.