'Expansive, robust' program focuses on learning goals
As schools around the country have shifted to online learning, one mother of a Royal Oak Community School student initially balked at the thought of continuing to pay for her son’s at-home learning.
But Victoria Gilbert says she quickly changed her tune a few weeks into the program.
Gilbert enrolled her seven-year-old son, Aspen Ziraldo, at Royal Oak this year because she says she preferred the smaller class sizes and focused attention that comes with an independent school.
When the pandemic caused schools to close and transition to online learning in March, she says she was “very frustrated” for the first week.
“I thought, I’m sitting next to my seven-year-old all day and I’m teaching him these programs, which are good, but I’m thinking that I’m paying quite a bit of money and I can’t work. I have to sit home with my kid and teach him,” Gilbert says.
When she reached out to the school to ask for a refund or credit, she says it was suggested she try to stick it out for a few weeks.
“And after a few weeks into it I realized, 'Wow, this is extremely worthwhile,' ” she says. “I compared what we were doing at Royal Oak with what they’re doing in the public school system and there was really no comparison.”
Aside from missing social interaction with other students, Gilbert says she doesn’t feel as though her son has missed out at all. She was “incredibly impressed” with the quality of programming and the availability of the faculty.
Royal Oak’s head of school, Julia Murray, says as soon as she learned schools would need to remain closed for at least two weeks after March break due to COVID-19, the planning began to create a viable online learning program.
“I contacted my staff and we kicked into high gear to try and really plan a very expansive, robust and I guess, permanent program, because my deep instinct was that it was going to be a lot longer than two weeks.”
Murray says it was important to create a program that was as close to an in-class experience as possible. Faculty discussed the needs of the 32 students enrolled at Royal Oak on a class-by-class basis, as they tried to home in on the core curriculum goals for each age group.
“One of the most important things as part of our philosophy is that we are meeting students where they are.”
The number of tasks to be completed daily was cut while lessons were made “extremely clear and extremely focused” in terms of their importance for the curriculum, she says.
“There’s no fluff or extras. It’s about getting right to the learning goals.”
Those exact goals have been carefully targeted for each age group.
“So, for example, in the early years, it’s a play-based curriculum. The most important thing is that learning is joyful and hands-on and experimental, that students are being challenged but have a lot of choices,” she says.
A mix of live learning interactions with teachers through Google Meet and online learning materials were worked into the students’ daily activities.
“Having that face-to-face connection would be important … Students were basically following the same routine that they were when they were in class,” she says.
Generally, teachers are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. They offer a break from screen time midweek, which she calls “Wellness Wednesday.” In that time, students are encouraged to get outside, sleep in, connect, “because it’s hard working online with a large learning curve.”
“We knew students would be tired from that,” she says.
The five teachers on staff have been working from home to meet the needs of each student while also finding ways to communicate effectively with parents.
“Each week, parents receive an email with the weekly schedule and the learning goals for the week for each subject. We understood that parents were being put into the position of also kind of being a teacher, so they needed to understand, in appropriate language for parents, what the goal in each subject was,” Murray says.
Gilbert says the experience helping her son learn from home made her appreciate teachers even more.
“Now I appreciate teachers even more than ever and I think all of us do. We're all playing this role of teacher right now and it's not easy. It's really challenging,” she says.
She says teachers have been available at any time during school hours, and whether her son misses a teacher or just wants to reach out, he can send a message at any time and his teacher will be available.
“They really are working full-time. It's not that I got ripped off or any of the private school kids got ripped off, we just had to look at it differently.”
The school year will finish June 12 for Royal Oak and though it’s still not certain what regulations may be in place for September, Murray says she’s confident she will be able to welcome students safely back into the classroom.
The school’s class cap of 15 students will help when it comes time to reopen, she says.
“I feel pretty confident that we're going to be in a good position to be able to open up, of course following all the procedures and protocols necessary for social distancing and safety,” she says.