How One DC Charter Network is Delivering Pre-K During COVID-19

Blog Post
Sept. 17, 2020

This school year is kicking off like no other. In many places across the country and for students across the grade span, it’s starting in front of a computer screen. But, what does distance learning mean for our youngest learners? To help answer that question, I spoke with Jamie Miles, Chief of Schools, and Natasha Parrilla, Director of Communications & Early Learning Initiatives, at AppleTree. In Washington, DC, there are 11 AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School campuses serving three- and four-year-olds.

When schools closed last March, the transition was challenging for teachers, students, and families. AppleTree teachers had to think differently and quickly about teaching and family engagement. Patricia Tunnerman, a teacher at the Oklahoma Avenue Campus, said that she had to adapt the materials she typically uses for lessons. Instead of counting bears, for instance, she shifted to items families were more likely to have on hand, things like recycled bottle caps and paper towel rolls that could be turned into trees, logs, and shape stamps. Tunnerman also guided families on setting up a home classroom that supported academic, social, and emotional skills. She hosted Zoom dance parties that brought her students together again.

Aligning with the decision of DC Public Schools, AppleTree Preschools started the year virtually and will remain that way for at least the first quarter. More than 1,000 children were registered for pre-K with AppleTree. What follows is my interview with Miles and Parrila. It has been edited for clarity and length.

What went into AppleTree’s preparation for the 2020-2021 school year?

Over the summer, AppleTree launched small working groups to develop plans to address health and safety protocols, academics, family engagement, teacher development, and technology. AppleTree planned for a both 100% distance and hybrid model. We administered family surveys and will be hosting small family focus groups. We wanted to hear from our families and devise a plan to meet the needs of as many families as possible. We recognized a need for increased alignment and collaboration with other local schools to prevent families with multiple students from juggling numerous school schedules and potentially having to work outside of the home.

AppleTree leadership also took time to meet with every school-based staff member to learn more about their experiences implementing AppleTree's "first attempt at distance learning plans." Sixty percent of our staff have children of their own so there has been a lot to consider. Below are some of the things we learned would be important as we planned for the new school year:

  • adhering to all CDC guidelines and put additional safety protocols in place to reassure families when we’re able to return to in-person learning;
  • implementing systems and processes that will help us meet future accountability measures while being sensitive to our families' individual needs;
  • finding ways to continue to meet the social-emotional needs of all stakeholders;
  • determining the components of our regular day that we think are essential and developing a plan to ensure they can be implemented in person or via distance learning while also fulfilling the best practices we know to be true for young learners;
  • finding creative ways to keep families and students engaged;
  • providing all families with personal devices to use at home;
  • supporting families by providing them or working with them to secure the necessary resources to facilitate learning at home with their students;
  • utilizing the same learning platform or learning management system network-wide and training our teachers and families on how to use them; and
  • continuing to listen, remain flexible, and adaptable.

How is AppleTree supporting children's learning this fall?

AppleTree’s number one priority during COVID-19 is ensuring that students and families are cared for, and that their basic needs are met during this unprecedented time. This includes making weekly "family connection" calls to check on families, providing meal/grocery deliveries, and directing families to mental health resources. Through a partnership with Georgetown University, we created parent-facing videos on parenting strategies to use at home with students. Since the spring and continuing through the summer and fall, AppleTree has hosted virtual family yoga, Zumba, and facilitated Family Cafes. Family Cafes are a safe space for families to come together to discuss the challenges and successes of parenting.

In collaboration with AppleTree’s Instructional Quality team, we created a recommended schedule for families. Families who are seeking structure and want their home school schedule to mimic their traditional day can implement the agenda in its entirety. Families who need or want less structure can choose what components of the day they would like to implement. We have adapted our curriculum, Every Child Ready, to meet the current needs and developed a resource platform, AppleTree’s Distance Learning page.

Resources include everything from social-emotional lessons, letter review, math activities, pdf books, STEM lessons, and other activities families could use with students. We’re encouraging families to upload pictures of their children learning. Our teachers are also recording lessons, facilitating one-on-one and small group lessons, and hosting class meetings from their at-home classrooms.

We’ve also partnered with Noggin and Sparkler to create an innovative program that complements our curriculum and supports at home learning with fun learning games and activities that incorporate the Nick Jr. characters that children love. Our families get both apps for free: on Noggin, children play in a special learning hub with ebooks, games, and videos, and on Sparkler parents can find character-inspired activities to play together, storybook read alouds, and coaching and support.

At the beginning of the year, we made supplies and materials available to families. This included books, crayons, scissors, construction paper, and hands-on activities for STEM learning. If families were not able to pick these up at one of our meet and greet events, we have been working with our social workers to get needed materials to them.

In the spring, we distributed technology to families who requested it and enabled them to keep the devices through the summer to continue accessing resources and activities. For this new school year, we’ve distributed additional devices as well as hot spots for our families who need broadband internet access.

Even with all of the resources and activities provided by teachers, distance learning is new and challenging for families, especially those where caregivers need to work or who have multiple children at home. How is AppleTree supporting parents in working with their children?

Teachers are discovering the best way to support parents is by listening to their concerns and struggles. In the spring, Dana Boston, a preschool teacher at Parklands@THEARC campus, realized, “it’s almost like being a counselor to parents. They have never taught before, and they don’t know what to do. They need teachers to listen to them and support them with engaging their child in learning while simultaneously working from home or dealing with the basic needs of the household”. These are the reasons why parents are asking for more independent learning activities. AppleTree is supporting this by providing tablets to all families for children to have access to free interactive learning activities, videos of teachers reading aloud, and morning meetings. We hope this will be a support to students learning and for parents to balance education at home.

What is most important for teachers to be doing with their students right now, and how is AppleTree supporting teachers?

Teachers are reinforcing social-emotional learning with children by being trauma-informed. Over the summer, we provided professional development in a number of areas including: trauma, trauma-informed classrooms, and teacher well-being. Megan Berkowitz, LICSW - Positive Behavior Support Manager, has been leading the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (ECMHC), which offers content-specific support to teachers about learning practices and how to support specific students to increase social-emotional learning and well-being. Teachers understand there needs to be a connection that gives children safety and community. Although they are not in a traditional classroom setting, they can still engage with the teacher through distance learning.

Being flexible and providing yourself with grace is vital at this time. The school staff has worked collaboratively to be thoughtful to families' needs, which we believe is important for this challenging work. Open communication is essential to provide the best education for our children.

Edited on 9/25/2020 at 7:00 a.m. to include Sparkler as a partner with AppleTree to provide free at-home learning content to families.

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