Friday, May 22, 2020

The Most Unusual End to a School Year Ever

We're two weeks away from the end of school.  This is most definitely the most unusual end to a school year that I have ever experienced.  By now, if we'd been in class, we'd be seeing the restlessness of students as they wrap up their studies, completing all of the objectives in their core subjects, sensing that freedom is just around the corner.  But our students have been home now for almost as long as the summer break lasts.  The E-learning will end, we will hand out awards to our students, report cards will come out and students will be ready to move to the next grade, but the environment won't change.  One of the good things that may emerge from this stay at home experience is that a much higher percentage of our students will be more than ready to start school in the fall.  I'm sure their parents will be.

Thank You Parents!

 Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6

We are very grateful for the many compliments, kind words and thank you's we have received from our parents on behalf of the work that our staff has done during this closure.  I think our teachers did an outstanding job turning things around over the course of just a couple of days and getting ready to go to E-learning.  We've made some tweaks and adjustments as needed.  We are still assessing the progress we have made but it has been well worth the effort to keep our learning progress moving forward during this time.  There is a lot of evidence to indicate we have come close to the outcomes we expected at the beginning of the school year.

We always speak about the partnership with parents that is one of the core values of a Christian school.  In online learning, it becomes a vital part of our ability to be successful in achieving the expected outcomes.  Almost all of our students are regularly participating in the E-learning experience at our school because of that parent partnership and that's not something very many schools can claim.

Commitment to a Biblical Theme

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17 NRSV

Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters,[k] 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve[l] the Lord Christ. Colossians 3:23 NRSV

Through the influence of our membership in the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI), we picked up on a theme to help carry us through this period of E-learning.  At the time, we were not expecting to be out of school for the rest of the year.  Still, we needed to send a message of encouragement and even though this was not something anyone was prepared to do, we wanted to do our best.  The theme, "Finish Strong," comes from the verses cited above in Colossians.  Our philosophy of education includes the belief that our school is a ministry, supporting the discipleship function of the church.  Our teachers are committed to the service of the Lord by serving their students and families.  So we do not look at this time away from school as a loss, we see it as an opportunity.  We are not writing it off, we are working to get as much out of it as we can.

The Effectiveness of E-Learning

A novelty when it first came out, online education was initially thought to be a wave of the future and perhaps the way that most students would receive their education in the future.  But its shortcomings came to the surface quickly.  It is an efficient means of delivering instruction, and there are those who are willing to trade off a higher level of academic achievement for the convenience and efficiency it offers.  But those who take the education of children seriously and who believe academic excellence is one of the more important expected outcomes, it is not a sustained, primary means of instruction. 

During the nine weeks we have spent in on-line learning, we have been able to introduce objectives in basic skills in language arts and mathematics on the elementary level and reach most of the expected benchmarks in core subjects for students in middle school.  We have achieved this mainly because our elementary teachers used Google Meet or Zoom for live instruction and kept track of student progress, including one-on-one sessions with students who needed additional support. We will not be able to have a complete assessment of our progress, but we can do some educated guessing.  We have our scores from last year and we can examine the progress students have made in the core subjects this year to guess where we are when the school year ends.  If we'd taken the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, I think we would be pleased with our scores.  I will send home an assessment evaluation for each of our grades before the year is over and that will have to suffice as an assessment.

And When School Opens in August...

Under the current plan, we will be able to open school in the fall.  Here are some things you need to know about what that is going to look like.

Decisions regarding steps our school takes to re-open will be based on the best factual information provided to us by sources that rely completely on the best medical information that is available.  We are accepting a very big responsibility for the safety and security of our students.  That's something we do every day, but this viral pandemic has created a new, serious risk.  It is our desire to provide a learning environment for our students with as few risks as possible and in order to do that, we need to depend on reliable information.

Since what we refer to as "normal" is now changing rapidly, I will use the term "traditional" to refer to the kind of school experience we had prior to this pandemic.  We want to provide our students with as much of their "traditional" school experience as possible.  We can do that by combining common sense to recommendations that come from the experts with what we know works in our school's learning environment.  We take this responsibility seriously.

We will have some practices and procedures that are different, following the advice and guidelines we have received.  There are some obvious things that will change.  For example, we have installed hand sanitizer dispensers everywhere with no-touch feature.  Just put your hand underneath.  We're fortunate that many of our classrooms have sinks.  We will do the social distancing, check temperatures, have gloves and wear masks and use our common sense to put practices into place from the recommendations and guidelines.  We take our responsibility to keep our students safe every day very seriously.  We want school to be a place where you would be comfortable sending your children.

E-Learning is an option that will continue in a modified form.  Now that we've had some experience, our staff will be trained in providing e-learning in the event that there is another long-term closure, or that we have students who must be quarantined because they've been in close contact with someone diagnosed with Covid-19.  We will have the ability to offer e-learning even for short-term absences.  Right now, it's something no one wants to think about.  We are also considering having an E-learning option for families who want to educate their children at home.  Right now the obstacles to that are the costs associated with doing it full time (right now apps and internet time are free but that won't last!) and whether we can offer the same quality academic experience that students get in our classrooms.  ISBE hasn't authorized it beyond temporary use yet.

So, we will get through this most unusual ending to the school year and we are most definitely looking forward to the first day of school...






Saturday, May 9, 2020

Christian School Philosophy and Online Learning

See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not percieve it?  I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.  The wild animals honor me , the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland to give drink to my people, my chosen, the people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.  Isaiah 43:19-21

A recent webinar presenter made the comment that what has happened to education in America since the middle of March is really not online education, it is "educational triage."  I like that phrase.

The fact of the matter is that there are few schools that were prepared to make a sudden transition from providing education in a classroom to suddenly having to use whatever tools they can find at their disposal to continue to keep their students on track to complete the expected benchmarks by the end of the school year.  So in many ways, what we are doing is, indeed, "triage."

Online education has been around long enough now for its advantages and disadvantages to be clearly known.  While research is still being done, it has widespread use at the college level with students who have a higher level of self-discipline and maturity necessary to make it work for them.  Even at that level, there are still questions remaining about the quality and effectiveness of the instruction.  In elementary and secondary school, there are multiple factors that must come together in order for students to succeed in achieving the expected outcomes.  A high level of parental involvement is required.  Students also must still develop basic skills apart from dependence on technology in order to succeed.  But now, at least temporarily, almost all American students have been pushed into online education of some sort or another. 

It seems easy enough for a teacher to simply switch over from the classroom to a video app and just "teach."  But it's not.  The ease of conversion to online education is as much of a myth as the once-popular notion that it would one day become the primary means for delivering school instruction because it is less expensive to operate, doesn't require the maintenance of buildings that are expensive to operate and the environment is whatever venue a student chooses in which to learn. 

It is a fact that some students are capable of learning up to their potential in an online educational setting.  It is also a fact that the vast majority of students are not, for almost as many reasons as there are students.  The situation we are in at the moment is how to take what has been handed to us and make it work long enough to get us through this pandemic.  That may be just the nine or ten weeks since schools closed March 16 or it may be until there is viable testing, treatment and a vaccination against COVID-19.  And that will only last until the next pandemic comes along. 

An Essential Human Element
Direct, live instruction is the "gold standard" in on-line education. Technology opens the door for a lot of possibilities, but most online educators will tell you that there is nothing that can replace live, face to face interaction with a teacher.  Within the teacher-student relationship are dynamics that make learning possible.  There are some intangible elements of a student's brain development and emotional and social maturity that just won't happen if their only interaction in their educational experience is with a machine.

The amount of time that can be spent in a class setting using a video streaming app varies with the age and grade level of the students.  It is similar to the amount of time a teacher would spend in direct instructional time in a classroom.  It averages about 90 minutes of math, language arts, phonics and reading instruction per day for elementary students to about 15 minutes a day in each core subject for secondary students.  The difference is that guided and independent practice, which also takes place during classroom time, now takes place after the students have logged out of zoom or meet.

The Main Thing
The scope and sequence of the curriculum in a Christian school is based on belief in the existence of God and use of a pedagogy which incorporates what God has revealed about the nature of human intellect, behavior and free will.

For the word of God is living and active.  Sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Hebrews 4:12, ESV 

The acquisition of basic intellectual skills is directly associated with brain development so our pedagogy is designed to help students develop skills that become "learning pathways".  I remember one of my education professors in college saying that the best thing you can do for your students is to facilitate their ability to take what they have learned and put it to use in a practical way so that they can earn a living and interact with society and so they can connect with the Holy Spirit and keep growing in their relationship with God.  "Give them a Bible, a pencil and a piece of paper and tell them to go figure it out," he said.  And they will, if you've given them the skills they need to read, interpret, discern and think critically, and to express themselves verbally and through written communication. 

Research has discovered a real thing called "technology fatigue" in children who spend an inordinate amount of time on electronic devices.  This real thing actually hinders the learning process because it interferes with brain development in areas involving written expression and communication, being able to focus attention for more than just a few minutes at a time and affects decision-making and critical thinking skills or, as we sometimes refer to it, "common sense."  It also slows down and affects emotional and social development and leads to the inability to relate to peers, poor social skills and immature behavior.  Many online schools have discovered that requiring students to complete a percentage of their assignments the "old fashioned way," using "pencil and paper" strategies, gets them off the device and leads to the development of the expected skills.  Who'd have thought, huh?  ;-)

Temporary, But...  
Prior to this pandemic, we'd heard talk about these kinds of possibilities but few schools ever had to prepare for long term absences.  In Chicago, we might have a week or maybe 10 days we'd miss due to a major blizzard or week of polar vortex, but this was a new experience.  At MCA, we had some advantages which have helped us get through this time perhaps a little better off than we might have been otherwise, or in comparison to many other schools for which this has been a monumental burden, just because of their size.

  • We have a strong instructional program that plans to achieve mastery of about 85% of the expected benchmarks prior to the end of the third quarter.  
  • We don't just check off a list of tasks completed.  We want our students to aim a high goals and achieve them and mastering the necessary skills is more important than getting to the end of the textbook.  
  • As a private, non-public, Christian school, we've been given a lot of independence to do what we see is necessary for our students rather than having to follow a lot of protocols and directives from people who know nothing about our school, its students or its mission and purpose.  
  • We started quickly, have adapted to our perceived needs along the way and we have engaged parents who have made the education of their children a priority.  So we can look at this as an opportunity rather than write off the school year.  
During this pandemic, MCA has been developing a plan for long-term online and distance learning in the event we ever face a situation like this in the future.  We also have developed, and in place, a plan for returning to school in an environment that aims to keep students and parents safe from the transmission of this pandemic.  

It is our privilege to serve you, by which we are blessed by the Holy Spirit. 




Friday, May 1, 2020

The Kingdom Educator:"Step Up and Support Your Child's Christian School" from April 7, 2020

This article was originally published in the blog, The Kingdom Educatior  It can be found at http://kingdomeducation.wordpress.com.  It has been posted here with permission.  
As this pandemic crisis has gripped the country, closed schools and businesses everywhere and pushed people inside their homes, there are few corners of any community that have been left untouched.  Even churches have had to go to the internet to provide worship opportunities for their congregations.  There are a lot of changes which we all hope will be temporary, though instead of bApeing overwhelmed by it all, we need to look for new opportunities that we didn’t notice before.  When we are overwhelmed, well, that’s what faith is for.
I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace.  In the world you face persecution.  But take courage.  I have conquered the world!  John 16:33 NRSV
The observations we are making here may be general, but knowing Christian schools like we do, and being familiar with many school leaders in many states, we feel confident that what you read here will apply to your child’s Christian school.
Most Christian schools operate on limited resources and are largely dependent on tuition and fees and all of that annoying fundraising to pay their bills and provide for their students.  They also depend on teachers, administrators and staff with a mature Christian faith who see their schools as ministries and their work as a spiritual calling so they make a personal sacrifice when it comes to salaries and benefits, earning on average just a little over half of what their public school counterparts make in similar positions.  They are motivated by the desire to see children grow and mature in their Christian faith and become kingdom leaders.  
The Christian school your children attend is not just an educational institution, it is a ministry that follows the pattern of discipleship laid out in scripture.  Because its basic educational philosophy acknowledges the existence of God as the creator of the universe, it also acknowledges that what God has revealed about himself and his nature in the Bible also reveals characteristics and aspects of his human creation that form the foundation of learning.
Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow, it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  Hebrews 4:12, NRSV
Let’s just be honest here.  Is there something more important to you in the growth and development of your child than their spiritual well-being?   Do you really want to place them in a school where the educational philosophy doesn’t acknowledge the existence of God and where the prevailing social atmosphere resists those who do?
You’re also not sacrificing academic achievement when you put your child in a Christian school.  The classrooms may not be fully equipped with all the technological bells and whistles that money can buy but there’s a massive amount of research which shows those bells and whistles aren’t moving the needle on improving learning.  There’s also a massive amount of research to show that students in Christian schools succeed in achieving accelerated benchmarks and objectives compared to state and national standards and tend to do significantly–yes, I will use that term–significantly better than their peers in the public school system over the thirteen to fifteen years they spend in school, from Pre-kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade.  Ask your child’s Christian school to pull out their test scores and other assessments and measurements of academic achievement, no matter what school or where, and you’ll see it.
Local church ministries and international missions ministries would look considerably different today if not for the personnel within them who are the “products” of Christian schools.  But that’s not the only reason they exist, and not the only place they have influence or where they serve.  From the list of Christian school graduates I know personally, I can point to individuals serving in local, state and in the federal government, including several members of Congress and the Senate and their staff members, including the Chief of Staff to the Senate Majority Leader.  The Executive Vice-President of Technology services for a major Eastern US bank is a Christian school graduate who was under 30 years of age when he was hired.  A Harvard graduate who committed to serve with Teach for America, the majority partner in the firm of the legal counsel for the state of Maryland, a county supervisor in Nevada.  The point is that attending a Christian school doesn’t limit opportunities for students.
So what am I getting at here?  
The current crisis in which we find ourselves is going to have a negative impact on Christian schools across the country, including the one your child attends.  Some parents are already in financial difficulty, and continuing to pay tuition might be out of the question for some families for an extended period of time.  Most Christian schools are marginal enough that a downturn in enrollment, even a small one, may force downsizing, loss of services offered or in some cases, closure.  Schools that aim to provide an education to students for the purpose of Kingdom advancement are in a spiritual battle with an enemy whose aim is to shut them down.  This crisis may bring about factors beyond the control of the schools that endanger their continued existence.
Fortunately, we have a powerful God who sustains and encourages us.  And within the ranks of each school are those families who understand what a blessing it is to have their children in a Christian school and who understand the potential outcome.  You are the army that God has already put in place to help your Christian school stay strong.  You need to step up and help.  Your help shouldn’t be conditional on your personal preferences.  It should be motivated by love and by the recognition of what your child’s Christian school is working to achieve as its mission and purpose and the future impact it will have on students not yet even born.  So step up!
  1.  Schools have been hit hard during re-enrollment and recruitment season.  March, April and May are the months when most new students enroll and when schools have current students re-enroll.  If you are still working and you have the means, there’s no reason to delay.  Go ahead and re-enroll.  Yes, without even knowing about your child’s school, I’ll tell you that it is a better option for them than anything any public school can offer.  So put those bucks down and help out.
  2. Surely you hang out with people in your church who have children, or neighbors or relatives that do.  Become one of your school’s chief recruitment officers.  Word of mouth is the leading way to new student enrollment.  You’re enjoying a benefit and a blessing that you may take for granted.  Don’t do that.  Share it with others.
  3. If you are having difficulties, I can say with confidence that your school will work with you.  One of the sure signs that your school considers its work a ministry and not a business is that the last thing they want to do is disrupt your child’s education at a time when you’re family income is uncertain, through no fault of your own.  Not even knowing who or where they are, I can confidently say that you don’t have to worry about the rest of your child’s school year.  They’ll take care of you.
  4. If God has blessed you, remember that others are suffering and dealing with uncertainty.  Can you help?  Ask if your school has a tuition assistance fund available to help others who are furloughed, laid off or simply had their job eliminated.  Many Christian schools are also helping by pooling resources and providing food assistance and other supplies.  Well, isn’t that what you’d expect?
  5. Make sure your child is participating in whatever online or e-learning experience your school is offering.  Encourage your teachers, they have had to make a difficult adjustment in the way they teach and they are putting in more work than usual to make this happen for you.  Nothing does more to encourage someone else than a note of appreciation and acknowledgement of the work they are putting in on behalf of your children.
  6. Include your school in your daily prayer time.  Put them on whatever prayer list  you can, your church, home group, Bible study, someone else’s church.
Do this now.  Today.