Bluff Creek Elementary

Bluff Creek Elementary in Chanhassen was full of teachers and learners Feb. 1 as students in grades kindergarten through fifth were all in the building together for the first time since November. Pictured top left, clockwise, are Beckie Bogart discussing a project with a student; Lori Peralez, Media Specialist; Brandi Hall walking students through an assignment; and Brad Landgrebe working one-on-one with a student from a physical distance.

One of the first challenges Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams championed upon her arrival to Eastern Carver County Schools in July 2020 was asking principals throughout the district to identify the students who struggled the most with distance learning at the end of the 2019-20 school year.

They used the summer months to prepare a Distance Learning 2.0 plan to close the gap; to lend the support and increase engagement to the students that needed it the most.

As students head back into classrooms, first in elementary buildings, followed by middle and high schools, a Jan. 25 School Board meeting was a time for reflection, and a time for celebration, for the work being done. And work that will continue to be done throughout this school year into the summer and into the 2021-22 calendar.

“I really want to applaud our principals and their leadership teams for taking the time to hold on and know each and every student is, and the needs that were presented in front of them with distance learning,” said District 112 Assistant Superintendent Erin Rathke.

Rathke acknowledged that with the ups and downs of changing learning models, additional students have been added to the original list. In most buildings, roughly 20% of students need additional support.

Instructional leaders are consistently looking at engagement of all students, whether in-person, hybrid, or in distance learning; monitoring data closely to provide support for students; and providing champions for students.

Rathke said when schools reimagined what staff would be doing this school year, many took on additional responsibilities, such as checking in on students, “a touch point” from the school building on a consistent basis.

“With our focus forward plans, it is a living document that is helping us achieve school improvement where we are looking at growth and progress in monitoring students. We continue as an organization to be data driven, looking at the growth of each and every student,” Rathke said.

‘TRULY A TEAM EFFORT’

The words of Joan MacDonald, Bluff Creek Elementary principal, who was joined by Administrative Dean Jane Best for the school board presentation.

When the pandemic forced schools into distance learning in November, MacDonald and her staff identified 139 students out of 537 as those that were gifted, and not being challenged enough; those with instructional needs that required remediation; or those with attendance or engagement issues.

Casting a net, everyone from teachers to support staff, secretaries, paraprofessionals, Reading Corp volunteers, nurses and specialists, were on board. Each of those identified students were attached to a staff member, Best said.

Sometimes it was a phone call. Sometimes it was a tutor session. Sometimes it was dropping off a swag bag at homes to celebrate achievement.

MacDonald described a physical education teacher working in 1-on-1 groups with kindergarteners on letter identification. A classroom music teacher collaborating with second, third and fourth graders on math problem solving activities.

Phone calls supported attendance and engagement, while individual virtual check-ins through Google Meet encouraged students to participate. The staff also set-up daily wake-up calls for some students, or helping to set-up Chromebook alarms for class reminders.

A girls group at Bluff Creek Elementary, featuring fifth graders, met online with Chanhassen High School students to replace the void left from not having that daily social interaction in-person.

MacDonald also commended the community center at Riverview Terrace in Chaska for its after-school tutoring program. “They did a phenomenal job catching the students we were not able to reach throughout the day,” she said.

MacDonald said the work isn’t done now that students are returning to buildings.

“Participating in Google Meets during distance learning gave us an insightful and spectacular glimpse into the lives of our individual students,” MacDonald said. “For us, it has created an increased urgency to continue the work with our students as we return to learn.”

Fred Berg, school board member and longtime educator in District 112, said it is his hope these programs continue, even after the pandemic.

“I’ve seen a lot of really good programs that after two years you say whatever happened to that. This is something I really think we need to work hard at making sure it continues. Whether we get back together all normal, or whatever, this is an excellent way to reach kids,” he said.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this being done in our district to this depth, and degree. I’m just really excited about this program,” Berg added.

DISTRICT WIDE

Sayles-Adams shared these initiatives are happening throughout the district, though they may look differently depending on each building.

Nate Gibbs, first-year principal at Chaska Middle School West, said the theme for the school year within his building was “kindness-empathy-respect.”

“The commitment to these values are building a culture of engagement and support at West that is reflected on how we show up for our students, and is reflected in how our students show up for us,” he said.

His challenge for the West staff was building something better for students this past fall versus what was done on the fly in spring 2020.

Staff emphasized three points: relationships matter, a focus on engagement and assessment of learning. Through these, Gibbs said he has heard from families as well as other middle school building leaders the growing connection with families.

Gibbs said between 80 to 120 students are called every day by a group of staff with a personal invitation to attend class — attendance reports are run every hour.

Additionally, grade reports are available weekly for families to see where kids are at. For teachers, this highlights students that are in need of additional support.

Gibbs said West uses the High Five system. Each advisory teacher chose five students to cultivate “a close and supportive relationship with those students.”

He also pointed out the work of paraprofessionals, who meet with students sometimes late into evenings, or on weekends. Wednesdays are a time for math parties through Google Meet for tutoring and support.

“They are giving a high level of support that I have to honor and highlight,” Gibbs said.

Feedback from families details that regular communication from teachers is being accomplished, while there is a pretty clear snapshot of what’s being expected, and what’s being covered in class.

“It’s an important time to learn our student’s story and their family’s story. Our work is ongoing. It’s by no means perfected, but I am incredibly proud of the persistence, the dedication, the commitment our staff have demonstrated,” Gibbs said.

SUCCESSFUL TRANSITION

Looking back at Distance Learning 2.0, Sayles-Adams said the work of principals and leadership teams in each building, identifying new roles, providing professional instruction to support staff, was an effort that led to a successful transition from in-person and hybrid learning models.

“We learned that first we must know our students, then we must know what they know, and then we must know how we can help them,” MacDonald said. “I believe the work we’ve done in this short time has helped us to do that.

“People come into this field because they care about kids, they want to watch them succeed. When you get a little glimpse into what their life is like when they’re not with us, we’ve talked about the passion for reaching kids, making sure everyone has an opportunity to succeed; I believe that is what is driving our teachers, our staffs to champion this,” MacDonald added.

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