The unprecedented interruption of the 2020 school year has laid bare inequities in our system, with one in five California students (over 1 million) lacking either connectivity or a device, a staggering need. The pandemic has forced schools and school districts to make on-the-fly decisions about how to continue instruction and care of students. Some schools lowered expectations for students, ending the year early for the summer or giving every student an A.
Not every school reduced standards and learning, though. There are some success stories emerging during the pandemic, especially among Oakland charter schools. We sat down to hear from leaders at AIMS K-12 College Prep District (AIMS), Community School for Creative Education (CSCE), and BayTech. Here’s what AIMS educators had to say:
AIMS closed the school year on a historical note, with its first-ever African American valedictorian. AIMS high school also held a graduation ceremony, set up like a drive-in movie theater, which was also historic.
“We had our first two African American students graduate a year early and our first African American valedictorian. That’s historic, or herstoric, rather,” said Maurice Williams, Head of AIMS College Prep High School, noting that each of these students is female. “When the kids receive their diplomas, it’s signed by an African American head of the board, an African American Superintendent, African American Head of School. That kind of puts it in a fine bow in light of everything that’s happening in our country.”
AIMS made a successful transition to distance learning, passing out 300 chromebooks to students so each had a device at home, securing hotspots and maintaining daily average attendance above 90 percent.
As at BayTech, AIMS educators found that some students did well during distance learning — with more time available during the day to do homework and schoolwork.
“Many students actually flourished in this setting,” said Peter Holmquist, Head of AIMS College Prep Middle School. “I spent some time with some teachers the last couple days, and they said it was surprising that some students actually changed and performed better.”
Christopher Ahmad, Head of AIMS College Prep Elementary School, said by replicating the daily schedule from pre-COVID, educators were able to capture some sort of normalcy. PE, Mandarin class, even lunch time followed the same schedule. But learning online also required more brain breaks for students, and online activities to break up the monotony of watching a teacher lecture through a computer screen.
“We didn’t want to have students just sit there and watch a teacher teach, we wanted to make it more interactive,” Ahmad said. “We made use of a lot of programs to make it fun, and actually a joy to be online, learning. That was one of the successes we had.”
To help students stay on track, AIMS kept up Saturday school for the entire semester. Summer school is now starting for students who need to make up credits. Williams said there is an understanding among educators that with the pandemic and protests around police brutality and social justice, students had a lot happening around them and to their families this year.
“We do know that things are happening, and we have been accommodating and course correcting,” Williams said. “We still hold high standards, and we also gave students a bit more time. Though not indefinite.”