MAKING THE RE-CONNECTION
Like scores of other Baltimore County school principals, Charlyne Maul, principal at Golden Ring Middle School, had a challenge to work through this summer.
The problem was this: Starting last March, when a coronavirus forced BCPS and other school systems to abruptly switch to online instruction, many students suddenly found themselves adrift, either unable to connect to online instruction or, for a variety of reasons, disengaged from their classes, their teachers, and their schools. Despite personal and often heroic efforts from teachers and administrators, some children remained disconnected throughout the summer.
Maul and her BCPS colleagues tackled the challenge with intensive and multi-faceted re-engagement campaigns, seeking to ensure that even the most detached student is present and ready when school resumes.
And Maul, knowing that it’s the little things that often count the most, had a common-sense secret weapon.
For two days during the height of the summer heat, Maul and a team of Golden Ring teachers and administrators, commandeered several BCPS school buses and combed the neighborhoods surrounding Golden Ring. They visited families and nearby elementary schools, handing out BCPS-supplied engagement kits supplemented by “a few things we knew students might need to start the school year such as art kits,” she said. “The kids loved the Under Armour drawstring bags!”
And, Maul said, “Since it was so hot, we made sure to have freezy pops with us,” treats that eased anxieties about a visit from the principal and boosted excitement about re-engaging with learning. “Without a doubt,” she added, “it was a great time for all!”
Golden Ring’s community canvass was just one part of the school’s re-engagement plan, which, like others, especially seeks to assist students who have had difficulty adjusting to the online instruction made necessary by COVID-19.
UNIQUE AND CREATIVE APPROACHES TO OUTREACH
Because each school and school community is unique, the plans created and implemented this summer have been singular as well. Many have involved hands-on, into-the-neighborhood personal contact with students and their families, and many have incorporated back-to-school kits for students or other enticements to raise interest and help prepare students for the return to classes.
At Vincent Farm Elementary School in White Marsh, each teacher has worked the phones in recent weeks to talk with the families of every student, gauging what they need and how best to support them. In addition, guidance counselors are calling families who have been particularly difficult to reach this summer.
But that’s not all, says Vincent Farm Principal Stephen Bender. In the school’s “Welcome Back to the Farm” program, he said, “Each grade level created a welcome video that is being sent to parents as a way to get them excited about the upcoming school year. Once the year begins, we have a plan to go into the community to distribute materials for students and families. And our final strategy is to provide grant-funded tutoring, after school hours, to help keep students engaged in the learning process.”
At Church Lane Elementary School, in Randallstown, the school’s “Launching into Learning at the Lane” campaign included four events – a “Books and a Blanket” activity targeting 115 children who enjoyed story times and take-home books, a “Leading at the Lane” for 44 Grade 5 students who have been inspired to be learning leaders during virtual instruction, a “Re-engagement Round-Up” for 30 Kindergarten students and their parents on how virtual instruction works, complete with individual coaching sessions, and an “Access Session” for students who are English learners.
Holabird Middle School scheduled an “Adventures in August” book and music festival in the school’s parking lot. Invited families each received a reserved parking spot to maintain social distancing. During the festival, the school showcased guest readers, distributed “Reconnect Kits,” presented music performances, and more. The school also hosted a virtual Family Fun Night with online games, sessions with resource providers, and COVID-19 and Reconnect Kits available for pickup at the school after the event.
Teams from Loch Raven High School rode into area neighborhoods to leave yard signs of support and place school supply bags at the front doors of selected students. Teachers, counselors, and other school staff followed up with phone calls to further identify needs and supports for families and students.
Arbutus Middle School connected with 115 students and families with a variety of academic and social-emotional supports, said Principal Michelle Feeney. They called their effort “Arbutus S.O.A.R.S.!,” for Students Of Arbutus (Middle) Re-engaging with School.
Some of the strategies used, Feeney said, included assisting students and families with goal planning, tutoring, food, internet access, mental health services, wellness techniques, technology support, stress and time management skills, and mentor connections. And, of course, “students received a back-to-school bag filled with items like journals, school supplies, and a school calendar,” Feeney added.
NOT JUST PRESENT BUT INVOLVED
The challenge at Perry Hall High School was not only reconnecting with about 70 students, but also motivating them to become more involved with remote learning and school activities.
“During the spring, we tried every which way of contacting these students and their families to encourage them to get engaged in their classes, but we did not see results,” said Allyson Norris, a Perry Hall High history teacher. “So, for our re-engagement plan, we decided to go to the students. We had pairs of teachers travel throughout the community to visit students and encourage them to become re-engaged.”
What the teams encountered encouraged them, Norris said. Not only did they present students with “Gator Ready” engagement kits, with supplies like notepads, earbuds, stylus pens, and more, they also saw connections starting to form. “We were happy to see that, even though we woke some of them up at 11 a.m., they were excited to see (us) from a safe social distance, and they saw how much we value their participation in their classes.
“Though the school year has yet to start, we are already seeing the fruits of our labor,” Norris said. “Some students have logged on to Schoology, some have joined a club or class group, and some have emailed to express their gratitude.”
The personal touch worked at Bedford Elementary School, too, according to Principal Christina Connolly. After examining how remote learning had worked for students last spring, the school created “Bedford Learns At Home” kits – resource binders with visual organizers in dry-erase sleeves for students to use during instruction.
The school also hosted an information session at the school for daycare providers, grandparents, and other caregivers who might need hands-on help with navigating the technology students in their care will use this fall.
But there was still more to do. “We recognized that building connections and excitement around the school year was important for all our students, but especially for our most disengaged students from the spring,” Connolly said.
So she and the staff did what other schools had done around the county – they hit the road with a bus tour of Bedford’s surrounding communities. And they opened their arms – metaphorically, and from a safe distance — not only to the hardest-to-reach students but to nearly every other student as well, providing a gratifying re-engagement for students and parents as well as for Connolly and her teachers.
“We greeted families and gave out supplies,” Connolly said, “and it was amazing!”