Learning In The Age of COVID: From Chaos Comes Opportunity to Build Community
By Stephen Magagnini

Article The Sacramento ObserverSeptember 18, 2020

(WORDINBLACK.COM) – On Sunday, Sept. 12, the NY Times Magazine called 2020 “The Lost Year” for students across America and their families dealing with remote learning and the social, psychological and cognitive challenges it presents.

Elesia Morris, who’s sent her five children to St. Hope’s predominantly Black
charter schools, works with Emare Morris, 11, while 9th grader E’Myiah Morris, 13, left, and 8th grader Eric Morris hunker down for remote learning

But since COVID-19 pulled the plug on live, in-school learning last spring, two predominantly Black charter school systems in Sacramento have turned negatives into positives, chaos into community.

They’ve made it clear that without sustained parental involvement, the horse won’t run, the plane won’t fly. When it comes to remote learning, Fortune School of Education and St. Hope Public Schools are making sure no child, parent, guardian or grandparent is left behind. In addition to free meals, the school systems are providing free Chromebooks, wifi hotspots, low-cost Internet, headsets, tech support, teaching assistants and behavioral and psychological counselors. They are also providing well-trained teachers who have learned to be patient with themselves as well as their scholars and families.

For generations, African Americans often felt that the education deck was stacked against them — inferior schools, higher rates of discipline and suspensions, fewer resources, teachers that seemed not to understand or believe in them. 

Dr. Margaret Fortune says while classrooms and hallways, like the ones at Tecoy Porter College Prep, are empty during the pandemic, Fortune School has used technology to extend its sense of community to more people. (OBSERVER photo by RAY JOHNSON)

“Black students remain the lowest performing subgroup in California other than special needs students,” said Dr. Margaret Fortune, founder and CEO of eight predominantly Black K-12 charter schools in Sacramento serving 1,904 students and another in San Bernardino serving 395. “We’re 65 percent  African American and 26 percent Latino and mixed race — most of them low income.”

St. Hope Schools serves a similar population at PS7 elementary and middle schools and Sacramento Charter High School in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood: more than 1,000 predominantly African American students, the majority low-income, said Chief of Schools Kari Wehrly.  Both Fortune and St. Hope helped their teachers, students and families adjust to on-line learning in a matter of weeks.

At first, “we had our teachers filming their instruction every single day, posting the video, and students had all day to complete their lessons,” Ms. Wehrly said. 

Dr. Fortune, too, saw video learning as a way to showcase her best teachers and share their lessons system wide.  But both charter systems have come to realize that teachers and students need to meet in cyberspace in real time. 

“Students were telling us they needed more structure, and families said they don’t want to be home-school teachers, so now our classes run live from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily,” Ms. Wehrly said.

“A good experience in school now is not a normal experience; learning from your kitchen table is not normal,” said Dr. Fortune, whose schools require their scholars to sign in remotely by 7:45 a.m. in their school uniforms for a half day of live instruction four days a week – the rest of the time is spent on self-paced learning that relies on on-line programs such as MobyMax and Reading Eggs.

Both charters report that thanks to the demands of distance learning, there’s more parental engagement than ever. 

“It’s not uncommon for us to have 100 parents on a Zoom call with the principal to teach them how to use the curriculum,” Dr. Fortune said. “We don’t expect you to become an overnight tech expert.”

When Fortune Schools announced it was time to pick up free Chromebooks, “there were lines of cars around the corner – these are low-income Black folks,” Dr. Fortune said. “We also provide three meals a day. For some of our students, school is their refuge from troubles at home and now they don’t have that refuge.” In addition to teachers in virtual classrooms, technicians, counselors and special ed teachers often drop in to keep an eye on students who may be in trouble, Dr. Fortune said.

For students whose parents work and can’t be home to guide them,  the Oak Park Community Center is open all day to receive kids from a variety of schools. “The community center staff tell me the Fortune (School) kids are on time in their uniforms and don’t need to be coached,” Dr. Fortune said.

Some families rely on older siblings to keep everyone on task. St. Hope parent Elesia Morris, a home health nurse from Elk Grove, has left her 13-year-old daughter E’Myiah, a 9th grader at St. Hope’s Sacramento High School, in charge of her younger brothers at PS7, Emare, 11, and Eric 13. 

“She’s always been bossy, she said ‘it’s been in my DNA since I was three’,” Ms. Morris said. “At first they told her, ‘You’re not our mom,’ but now they’re so used to her waking them up since my husband and I are at work, they go to her for help with everything.”

Ms. Morris, whose two oldest sons graduated Sacramento High School and went on to Berkeley and UCLA, said her three younger kids were thrilled when they learned they no longer had to get up at 5 a.m., be out the door at 6:45 a.m. and into the car for a traffic-clogged 14-mile drive to school. 

“Since they don’t have to go to school that early and don’t have basketball practice, they don’t have to go to bed that early, either,” she said.

For grandparents who may not use the Internet, “It’s really about getting the kids and the teacher together,” said Ms. Morris. “I believe my kids are learning just as much. My 6th grader’s teacher called and said he was kind of struggling with Spanish, and we were able to log into office hours.”

The same goes for attendance – both charters quickly follow up with families whose scholars aren’t logged in to class.

The key to engagement is to keep school fun and interesting. “We had over 600 people view our virtual yoga class – some of our parents are more engaged now than they were in person,” Dr. Fortune said. 

Meanwhile, students have learned to be more self-reliant and self-disciplined than ever because they can monitor their progress working through their online curriculum. “This is more like college,” Ms. Wehrly said. “Nothing replaces getting to see your students in person every day and pulling them aside if you need to, and students get bored at home and are craving to be back in person with their peers. It requires a level of resilience – how do you persevere and create your own routine? What does self-care look like?”

About the only time they see their teachers and classmates in person is at drive-through events to pick up meals, materials or homework packets. One kindergartener saw her teacher and wanted to give her a hug.

Until students can be in class together, the use of Facebook Live “to communicate and celebrate is creating a positive dynamic which we’ve never had before,” Dr. Fortune said. “When we held our kindergarten, 5th and 8th grade graduation ceremonies, instead of 100 parents we had 11,000 people from all over the country, and even got a shout out from comedian Tracy Morgan. It’s a level of celebrating the individual scholar that goes beyond the four walls of the multipurpose room, and our parents are communicating with parents from all over the country. 

“We’ve gone beyond our initial goal of keeping our school community together in a healthy and joyful way and now are adding to our academic rigor, so kids don’t fall into COVID-19 learning gaps.”