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Small District, Big Family, Remote Learning


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Millis High Parade
Beatriz Arnillas

By L. Beatriz Arnillas, itslearning

With a 99% graduation rate, 95% reading proficiency, 90% math proficiency, and 61% of students taking AP coursework and exams, Millis High School, is in the top 10% of high schools in the US, and the top 5% for college readiness index (usnews.com).

However, even schools that had been using technology for years were taken aback by the challenges of the sudden remote learning mandate, and the Millis Public Schools were no exception. Millis has been able to prioritize and focus their efforts, giving their families the care and confidence required for learning continuity.

Holy Cow!… (breathe) Equity, Access, and Guidance

For Millis, the first and most important task was to help parents who suddenly found themselves working from home while supporting their children’s education. The district provided parent orientations, including time management, and digital literacy and citizenship.

The district repurposed funds from utilities, transportation, and supplies to deploy devices to all students, distribute hot spots for families that lacked internet, and to purchase insurance for all take-home devices. New services were added, including device break/fix, pickup, and drop-off.

Remote Learning Phase Two: Must Dos, and Can Dos Provided Helpful Guidance

The focus in Phase 2 shifted from logistics to providing instructional guidance and social-emotional well-being. The schools sent out surveys to gauge workload and struggles, and to gather suggestions. Before the pandemic, Millis had identified Power Standards (learning objectives to prioritize) in core academic areas, the arts and physical activities. The Power Standards take no more than half a day of work and help prioritize learning activities, easily identifying the “Must Dos” and the “Can Dos.” This curriculum strategy further supported both time management and student agency.

In the Millis remote learning model, principals and teachers communicate with families regularly, and every high school student is contacted individually by a teacher or mentor, at least once a week to check-in and provide emotional support. Besides being in touch with teachers, Millis students are encouraged to stay in touch with their peers via digital clubs.

Millis had a 1:1 take home in the upper levels, and 1:1 classroom-sets in the middle and elementary schools, and the entire district had seamless single sign-on services to all applications and systems via the district digital portal. The portal includes access to itslearning, the district’s Learning Management System (LMS), which all high school teachers and students use. Besides the LMS, the schools use G Suite for Education to support student productivity and collaboration. G Suite can be integrated seamlessly into itslearning.

Remote Learning Phase Three:

Educators and students knew how to use the technology when the coronavirus crisis reached the US. In addition to using itslearning to build lessons and promote flexible, active, and deeper learning, they knew how to use data to inform the process. Millis educators regularly review participation data reports in the LMS and portal to determine lesson redesign needs or re-engagement interventions. Teachers are comfortable delivering online meetings and creating instructional videos for asynchronous and iterative learning. If a student or group of students requires additional instruction, the teachers use presentation cameras in conjunction with synchronous solutions. “For these reasons, our students and teachers have not skipped a beat,” said Jennifer Starr, Millis’ Director of Digital Learning, Technology, and Innovation.

Flexible Enough for all students and families

The Millis Schools have been addressing student variability through Universal Design for Learning (UDL) and Project-Based Learning (PBL) for years. Special Education professionals coordinate with teachers to ensure that teachers use UDL principles to design learning. To these student-centered methods that include student choice, the schools added a synchronous meeting component. For students who do not want to be in group video meetings, teachers provide remote office hours, with one-on-one online meeting options, or phone.

Elementary school parents receive a weekly newsletter with daily schedules, weekly checklists, choice boards, and a video message from their school principal. Being mindful that many of the parents are working from home, the school provides work that parents of the very young can do with their children during weekends.

The Silver Lining of Remote Learning for Millis Schools

During the last two decades, educators have discussed the importance of addressing knowledge, skills, and dispositions, instead of focusing our efforts on testing and end-of-course (EOC) passing scores. These additional skills and dispositions were identified as essential to address the challenges that our students will need to solve 21st-century complex, global problems. Besides, one of the critical values of technology in education is the use of data to inform every step of the learning process. However, despite knowing that education is more than a score, we struggled to identify the measures and documentation to prove mastery. The coronavirus has brought the question of 21st-century skills, social-emotional development, authentic and student-centered learning, and data analytics to the forefront.

Having solved most of the technical and digital environment design needs before the crisis arrived, the team was able to focus on engagement, emotional connections, communication, feedback to improve learning, and transition planning. Here are some examples:

  • The High School will assess the End of Course learning as “earned credit” or “no credit.” This decision shifts the focus to outcomes-based education (OBE) instead of a score and provides students with extended deadlines to prove their competencies during the summer.
  • Educators are emotionally close to their students and parents. Some elementary teachers read a live bedtime story each weekday, and some record stories and share them with their students.
  • Teachers and students have organized book clubs, sing-along events, a Happiness Club, and workshops.
  • Besides addressing student and parent emotional and logistical needs, Millis educators collect engagement and learning data, provide personalized feedback, and support emotional and instructional needs throughout each lesson’s cycle. These efforts are bound to promote flexibility, grit, and perseverance instead of the old focus on a single score.
  • Through problem-based learning, students learn first-hand that the application of knowledge also requires skills and attitudes, such as intrinsic motivation, curiosity, teamwork, communication, collaboration, empathy, courage, compassion, and more.
  • Teachers are designing game-based learning and other active learning methods to increase student-to-student engagement.
  • The middle school planned virtual transition presentations for 5th and a virtual promotion ceremony for 8th grade students.
  • The school is celebrating the Class of 2020 Graduation in several ways, including lawn signs in every senior’s front lawn and a banner over the local highway; while the police and fire departments are holding a parade in honor of the Class of 2020. The school will also hold a physically-distanced live ceremony later this summer.

There is no question that Millis was in a better place than most districts in the US. Teachers, students, and staff were familiar with technology to facilitate better, deeper, and more authentic learning. Despite their digital readiness, implementing remote learning took tremendous effort, care, and teamwork. The Millis staff misses face-to-face interaction. “Remote is not perfect…” Superintendent Gustafson says in her Phase 3 video-message, “…we miss each other and our students very much. We are a small district, but a big family.”

What’s next? Millis leaders are waiting to hear recommendations from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to decide what to do this fall.

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