Q: Nearly every state in the country ordered schools closed last spring, and tens of millions of public-school students will continue learning online this fall. The question on the minds of many Americans is, how can we promote remote learning that actually works for all students?
The public charter school you run in Washington, D.C., halted in-person instruction in March. How did your school handle the shutdown and shift to virtual learning?
Mashea Ashton, CEO and principal, Digital Pioneers Academy: Our mission is to develop the next generation of innovators. This year we’ll have 326 sixth- through eighth-grade scholars. 98% of them are Black and 2% are Latino, and 97% of them live in wards 7 and 8 in southeast Washington, D.C. We are the first computer science middle school in all of D.C., meaning that prior to the pandemic, all of our scholars took 45 minutes of computer science every single day.
When the pandemic hit, honestly — it was relatively easy for us to transition to online learning. I sent my team home for a week over spring break, and then we put together a ten-week remote learning plan. We had 81% daily average student attendance over those ten weeks. Our team has been running remote online school since March 26, including a six-week summer school session. So we’re ready to be 100% remote starting August 31.
Q. Education officials in Washington, D.C., have said that schools will remain closed for in-person instruction through at least November 6. Do you feel that’s the right decision?
MA: I’m not a health expert. I’m going to follow the city’s guidelines. I’m assuming they have more data about how to keep the whole community safe and alive. Our kids really do need the emotional connection to their teammates and to their teachers that they get in school, so I’m mourning the loss of that. But given what the data says, we don’t really know enough about this virus and its impact on kids and adults. And so it’s got to be safety first — that’s just a brutal fact and reality. With that said, I do think it is critically important that we adopt the mindset that kids can still learn in remote school. We can’t say, “Okay, well, now we’re remote and we’re not in person and kids can’t learn, so therefore, this year is a loss.” To me that’s not right.
Q. What are the biggest risks for students the longer they’re out of school and forced to learn remotely?
MA: The pandemic has had an impact on everyone’s emotional well-being, but it’s even greater on students in families who live in the most under-resourced communities. It’s the stress of the unknown. Just as an example, we have one parent, a single dad, who has two kids at our school. The stress of being home, living in a small place, has been very hard for his kids. They had some mental health challenges before, but this has exacerbated some of the depression and the isolation from not having a regular place to go and to release some of that energy. What school provides is that safe place where you can get a meal, where you can interact with your peers, where you can interact with teachers who care and who love you. The absence of that is the greatest risk.
Q. What strategies did you use to make the transition to virtual learning? How were you able to get teachers and students to adapt?
MA: The best practice in remote learning is to keep it simple. So we focused on English Language Arts (ELA) and math. That was the number one priority. And at my school, everyone was a teacher. You either led a math group or led a reading group. We had to deploy resources in a way that was going to have the biggest impact on our students and their families.
Second, we wanted to maintain our community. I knew that if we were not touching base with our scholars every single day, then we couldn’t support them in their basic needs.
Third, we started off with a minimum of three hours of live Zoom lessons. Now, some will say, well, gosh, how are you able to do that? Our kids and our teachers were already used to using the technology. We’re a “one-to-one” school: all kids have access to their own Chromebook, 100% of the time, during the day. So when this happened, we knew that every child would have a Chromebook. Then we had to make sure they all had Wi-Fi. In our initial survey we found about 80% to 85% of our families had access to reliable Wi-Fi. There are free programs like [Comcast’s] Internet Essentials — we walked every family through the process of how to apply and get approved. That got us to about 90%. And then we bought 35 hotspots, and we distributed those to families. And that got us to about 95% of our families having access to reliable Wi-Fi.
Q. What kind of messaging and education did you provide for families who suddenly had to manage their kids’ schoolwork?
A. The biggest challenge for parents was their frustration with the technology. We set up a five-person technology helpline that you could call every single day to solve your problems related to technology. We had four additional people who were essentially tech support for scholars and for parents. Within about two weeks, every tech-related issue was no longer an issue.
We started a weekly newsletter to parents with everything that they needed to know in terms of the technology and resources that were available. Every three weeks we held community meetings where we would update them on progress, things that we were learning, things that we needed their help on. We surveyed them several times over this period to really make sure we knew what was working and what was not working. If there was any lesson learned, it’s the importance of really over-communicating, training and engaging parents and scholars early on.
Q. As you look to the new school year, what are the instructional strategies that clearly worked, and what didn’t? Are there things that maybe you tried, but you’re going to scrap this fall?
MA: What worked was a regular schedule where scholars had to get up in the morning, put on their uniforms, and attend homeroom and their classes, just like they had a regular schedule. That was absolutely essential to our success. We also said attendance to remote school was required. It wasn’t optional. That was very hard when families had kids in multiple schools that didn’t all require attendance and didn’t require kids to do work. You had parents who had one kid who’s required to log into these three Zoom lessons, and you got another kid who was doing asynchronous learning, and that made it hard for accountability and support. And so I was really excited to hear the city say, remote learning attendance and remote learning are required. That’s now a city-wide expectation.
Something we’re going to focus on more is really serving students with special education needs as well as meeting the social-emotional needs of our students and families. We’ve never had a full-time social worker and now we’ve hired two, who will not just lead social-emotional learning lessons for the whole school but also do small group and individual counseling for kids and families who need it. We are doing digital “home visits” for all of our scholars, even for our returning families, to set expectations and see how they’re doing. We are going to do more small-group instruction and tutoring and provide office hours support for students with special needs.
Q. How do you evaluate and assess students’ progress in a remote-learning environment?
MA: It’s pretty tricky, but you still can have assessments. We still administer online quizzes and exams through an online platform called Edulastic. Is the data as reliable as if it were in physical school? I would say no. And that’s because kids are distracted at home. They may not have had the quiet learning environment. They may have had disruption in their Wi- Fi. The key will be getting our scholars to really focus and put in their best effort. There were scholars who I know could do so much better; you could tell they just clicked through the assessments. In some cases, we’d go back to them and say, “Do it again,” because we could see that they weren’t putting in the maximum effort.
Q. Before founding Digital Pioneers Academy in 2018, you spent much of your career working on educational policy, promoting the expansion of charter schools. Why did you decide to start your own school?
MA: I saw a tremendous need and I saw a huge gap. I read one article saying there are 1 million high-paying, high-demand jobs in computer science. There’s clearly this supply of talent in southeast Washington, D.C. and in urban areas across the country, where kids are digitally native. Why are we not giving them that opportunity to pursue these high-paying, high demand jobs? The parents in these communities want their kids to go to college because they think it will give them opportunities. Our kids and families need jobs — real jobs that break the cycle of poverty. So when I saw this opportunity to close both the education gap and the opportunity gap, it just became, like, why not?
I had a successful career in New York City overseeing charter schools in the Bloomberg administration, and in Cory Booker’s administration in Newark overseeing the Newark Charter School Fund. I was also a part of many conversations around the lack of people of color leading in the charter school movement. And I really thought if I don’t do this — someone who’s had all of the resources, all the professional training and networks, who’s worked for some of the highest-performing, high-impact individuals in education across the country — then why would anyone do this?
At the same time, I knew from all my years in education reform that this could not be done to a community. It had to be done with a community. Before starting our school, we surveyed 200 parents in the area and asked them, do you want a school in the neighborhood-focused on computer science? And 91% of them said yes. So we knew we were responding to a specific need. Even as an African-American who has deep connections and relationships in southeast Washington, D.C., I couldn’t just come in and say, Okay, we’re plopping down this school. That doesn’t work anywhere. Doing this in partnership with the community, parents and stakeholders is the only way to be an entrepreneur and school leader, in D.C. or anywhere else.
Q. You’re a parent of nine-year-old twins. What advice do you have for parents trying to manage remote learning this fall?
MA: Parents really need to make sure that scholars are on a regular schedule, whether they are working from home or if they have to go out for work. The mindset has to be “school’s back in session.”
The second thing is making sure that kids have a place to do their work that’s not their bedroom. It needs to be a dedicated space where they can work, where they might even have a bin of their school supplies and their Chromebook, and that it’s not interchangeable. If you have a Chromebook over here and you’re reading over here, it’s hard to be organized for school learning. So my biggest advice is that parents dedicate a space and supplies to be in one place.
And then — this is probably the hardest —making sure that there is time for movement and mindfulness, because four or five hours of Zoom a day is a lot. Have a schedule where kids actually do get out, even if it’s for a brief moment, to just step away from that work and then go back. If there is one thing that I am worried about, it’s kids being, like, super-connected to their devices during this time. Having some disconnected, non-device time is critical for families and students.
Q. So let’s return to the problem at hand: How can remote learning work for all students? What’s the answer?
MA: Maintain a regular schedule of live instruction.
Keep it simple to start, and then build up.
Over-communicate and train parents on all of the technology so they can be partners.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.