The fifty minutes I spent on the phone with Dr. Jeff Szymczak, Superintendent of the Mooseheart Child City & School, reminded me of why I have made education my life.
The Mooseheart Child City & School (MCCS), located 38 miles west of Chicago, is a home for children and teens in need. Students from 28 states and four countries live in small residences that include six to twelve students with Family Teachers who provide consistent care with an emphasis on social and essential skills for a successful life. Students can go home to visit their family most any weekend. MCCS is a fully accredited PreK-12 school, and its motto is: “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve.”
Dr. Szymczak shared with me Mooseheart’s Hist-o-gram. In it, I found a record of life-long relationships and commitments. The history includes notes such as “Four sets of twins attended Mrs. Roate’s 2nd Grade Class,” picture included, the introduction of the Ornamental Concrete vocation pathway in 1913, and that Mr. Frank Deni taught it from that year until 1966. Dr. Szymczak became the Superintendent in 2013, the year of Mooseheart’s Centennial. By now, you know that Jeff Szymczak and his staff perform a labor of love.
Being always mindful of the support of Moose Lodge and other generous donors, the Mooseheart school leaders and staff are conscientious stewards. They were not amongst the first to jump into comprehensive digital solutions. Instead, they did it progressively. In 2014 the school introduced online grading. They started recording attendance online in 2015, and in 2017, Mooseheart introduced a 1:1 computing environment thanks to a donation from the Greenfield Family Foundation. In 2018-19, Mooseheart added 3-D Printing, a STEM Camp, and a Safe Surfing course to ensure students’ responsible use of technology.
Choosing a Learning Management System
In 2019, the school’s Learning Management System was going out of business, and MCCS reviewed about fifteen LMSs. In Dr. Szymczak’s words, “…itslearning was, by far, the best… this sounds almost too good to be true.” After attending the itslearning demonstration and reviewing the student data privacy and security, his staff wondered, could it really be that good? What if they don’t deliver the quality and services they presented? The Mooseheart students and teachers found out the answer sooner than expected.
MCCS closed the deal with itslearning in October of 2019 and delivered teacher and staff training in November. Teachers started preparing lessons and activities in December, and students joined them on the platform in January. Fast-forward to March 2020. When the Governor of Illinois announced that schools would close on March 17th and would remain closed through May, Mooseheart’s teachers and students were ready.
During the first phase of the implementation, the school selected a “tech-team.” These were the teachers who were interested in learning how to use the platform. The school made sure to include teachers with various backgrounds, including special education, literacy, art, elementary, middle, and high school. Some teachers focused on designing lessons, others on developing assessments. Their librarian built up the curriculum in itslearning and teachers chose to use the features with which they felt comfortable. “We used it to build capacity, did Backward Design and playlists. Some teachers uploaded resources into itslearning while others designed assessments and connected the instructional materials to the state learning standards.
Mooseheart’s remarkable adoption story is not an accident. They have great guiding support at the top and a “whatever it takes” commitment from the entire staff. Teachers who had become experts in one feature or another showed their colleagues how to use the platform effectively during daily 45 min. PLC sessions. Dr. Szymczak says, “…we learned fast because everyone knew who to go to for which tool.” And their questions about whether the itslearning support team would be responsive? “The itslearning customer success team is super responsive,” said Dr. Szymczak. Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, most of the 200 Mooseheart students and teachers went back home on March 15th. Today, only five months after implementation, 100% of the teaching and learning is done on the itslearning LMS.
During the last two weeks of March, teachers created twelve new courses and increased the number of assignments from 111 in the previous month to 334, a 284.8% increase! Students logged into itslearning 3,607 times, and teachers edited their lesson plans 2,082 times. Teachers and students are communicating actively via thousands of instant messages, a 2078% increase, and with a 400% increase in student uploaded files, the evidence of student productivity is equally impressive.
A week before our conversation, the platform data registered that MCCS’s forty-five teachers logged into the platform over 3,035 times in one week. The top two are Math teachers and the records tracked more than 935 logins between the two. Students are also very active. “We used to see 200-300 student logins per week when we used the other LMS. Today we see that number of logins in one day.”
Reinventing Teaching and Learning
When I asked Dr. Szymczak to what he credits such a high number, he replied, “We are reinventing teaching and learning. Teachers post their lessons, see what the students are doing, where they are struggling or not engaging, and log in again to give feedback or tweak their lesson design.” The two Deans of Students check the platform’s extensive reports daily to monitor student engagement. One can see who has logged in, for how long, what are they using, doing, or not doing. If a student is not engaged, the guardian gets an immediate call with specific data about what they need to do to ensure their student’s success. “Our goal is to make sure that students are writing and reading every day.” Thus, the levels of student engagement are no mystery.
So, how do they measure success? For Mooseheart, it is about outcomes. The State of Illinois has decreed that there will be only “Pass or Incomplete” reports. The adoption of an LMS that aligns actions and products to learning standards, that provides the tools to design flexible lessons and variable pacing was timely. Mooseheart’s students can continue to engage with the material until they master each lesson and course outcomes. If students don’t pass courses before the end of the school year, teachers can design Individual Learning Plans (ILPs) for them so they can complete the work during the summer. Summer courses cost between $200 -$1000, but Mooseheart students can continue learning in their LMS without cost.
During our conversation, Dr. Szymczak said, “We are so blessed to have a working relationship with a company that cares about education. I have never worked with a company that I can trust like this. We didn’t know we would rely on a platform as much as we are. Every dollar we’ve spent has paid back multi-fold. But it not just about money …itslearning was a godsend.”
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