Each morning, Yolanda Anguiano receives a text message asking if her two kids, who attend Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep in San Jose, have what they need to stay safe and continue learning while their school is closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
For schools like Fuerza, shifting to online classrooms was a relatively quick endeavor because the TK-5 charter school already had technology in place. At home, ensuring a supportive learning environment for students is more of a challenge. Fuerza and a handful of other charter schools across the state are responding by connecting families to resources they need so students can participate in class at home, from internet discounts to legal support.
In the switch to distance learning, many California schools have struggled to purchase devices for students, get teachers up to speed with online teaching and contact parents of students who aren’t participating in distance learning. But at Rocketship and some other charter schools, students were already completing digital assignments daily and teachers were routinely reaching out to parents through texts and home visits.
During the first week of distance learning, Anguiano’s oldest son Abraham, who is in fourth grade, was unable to turn on the laptop provided by his school, and the family didn’t have an extra working computer to give him. The next day, Anguiano had a new charger for her son’s laptop and was ready to go after replying to the morning text message, notifying staff that the device wasn’t working.
Most days, Anguiano said her kids have what they need. But the transition to distance learning has been difficult for the whole family. On top of managing two kids and her own office work, which is now mostly remote, her husband, along with thousands of other workers throughout California, was recently laid off from his construction job.
To help families with similar struggles, Rocketship, a charter management organization with 13 schools in California, initiated a new program at each campus called the Care Corps, a team of staff who reach out to every family every day during the shelter-in-place order to ask if they need support.
“Some say, ‘I’m an essential worker and I’m concerned that I will bring something home to my family,” said Christina Vasquez, the business operations manager at Rocketship Fuerza. “Sometimes they just need someone outside of the home to talk to.”
Over the years, Rocketship has received praise for its implementation of technology and personalized learning, a teaching style that tailors instruction to the student’s needs, such as using software that adapts to a student’s learning pace. It’s also received a fair amount of criticism stemming from research raising alarms about excessive screen time and digital privacy.
Students at Rocketship take classes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and the humanities, as well as work in a learning lab on coding skills and other computer-based assignments.
Approaches to technology began evolving at Rocketship before the global pandemic. The learning lab, which has been criticized for giving kids too much screen time, now includes a mix of computer training and hands-on engineering and art lessons, said Juan Mateos, principal of Fuerza Community Prep.
Charter schools are authorized by school boards, county offices of education or the State Board of Education, but are run by independent organizations and free from most state regulations that apply to districts. That flexibility has given some charter schools like Rocketship the ability to pay for and implement technology differently than trying to insert it into an existing school system, said John Rogers, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
“If you haven’t invested in other sorts of structures, there’s more flexibly to move to invest funds in different ways if you’re just starting off,” he said, referring to traditional school models that could be slower to adapt if they have been in place for many years.
Other traditional public schools and charter schools across California are similarly trying to provide resources for families beyond devices. Aspire Public Schools, a charter organization with 36 schools in California, recently put out a request for donations to pay for technology, food and other resources families may ask for.
Aspire claims more than 80% of its students live at or below the poverty line, and estimates that it would take about $2 million to “meaningfully mitigate the potentially devastating impact of this crisis on all our families in need,” according to a statement sent in an email.
Summit Learning, a personalized learning program that spun out of the Summit charter school network, has been criticized for minimizing the role of teachers by relying heavily on adaptive software for instruction. But a recent Hechinger Report article found the program also emphasizes screen-free class time and helped a California high school make the transition to distance learning because parents and students were already comfortable communicating and working on the platform.
“The availability of technology is important, but it’s secondary to the thoughtful engagement of adults participating alongside young people,” said Rogers, who is also the director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.
While some schools have made pre-recorded video lessons so students don’t have to participate at a set time, officials at Fuerza Community Prep decided to try to mimic the school day as much as possible in a virtual setting. Students start their day with a schoolwide welcome on Facebook Live at 8 a.m. Students then move through 45-minute class blocks in STEM, humanities and a study hall period.
Staff keep webcams rolling for students who want to spend their lunch break with a teacher, followed by a “movement break” to get kids up and moving during the day, before students return to more flexible class periods with pre-recorded video lessons and a final live meeting to wrap up the day at 3 p.m.
On campus, each student at Fuerza has access to two free meals, a Chromebook and high-speed internet. But the rapid shift to distance learning has exposed the deficiencies in many students’ learning environment at home, school officials said. About 82% of students at Fuerza are low-income, according to data from the California Department of Education. Many of those families struggle to afford internet service, computers and basic necessities like groceries.
“Financial resources is one of the biggest needs for our families right now,” said Vasquez, who leads the Care Corps team at Fuerza. “Some work under the table, and some don’t. Same goes with rent, a lot of parents need help but they rent rooms and that’s a different situation from most families.”
Andrea Loza, a third-grade STEM teacher at Fuerza Community Prep, recently had about half of her class show up to a recent live lesson on division and word problems.
“It’s hard knowing how to help them out, especially students who don’t have reliable internet at home,” Loza said. “That’s my biggest struggle.”
She’s been reaching out to parents, too. What she has found is that even students who have Chromebooks and internet access at home might miss class. Some have spotty internet service, others have parents who are essential workers and don’t log in when their parents aren’t home.
After sending a text message to every family in the morning, the Fuerza Care Corps team reaches out again in the afternoon to those who didn’t respond. Responses were slow in March as schools began closing. But participation has steadily increased, Vasquez said, and the team has made contact with every family multiple times.
Each child’s situation is different, Vasquez said. In addition to making sure students have the devices and internet they need to get online, connecting with families is the school’s key strategy to keeping students learning during the shelter-in-place order.
“These parents who are reaching out don’t have much right now,” she said. “But they are fighting for everything they can get.”
Each evening, Anguiano charges up her two kids’ laptops and reviews a color-coded schedule for the next day, stacked with class time, breaks to pick up lunch from the school’s grab-and-go meal station and one-on-one meetings for her older son, who is a special education student and receives speech and occupational therapy and participates in adaptive P.E.
Anguiano’s top concern now is simply to help her kids keep learning and prevent any regression while campuses are closed.
“Learning loss is my biggest concern, that they can’t retain the progress they had through the year, which was tremendous,” Anguiano said. “When it’s summer time, they usually experience that over time. So I’m afraid that will happen at a bigger rate.”