Distance-Learning Success: How One Florida School’s Extraordinary Efforts Led to Positive Assessment Results

By: | 08/31/2020
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

The Takeaway

  • West Homestead K–8 Center’s distance-learning success resulted largely from:
    • The school’s culture and expectations remaining consistent, even when students were away from the building
    • Educators’ relentless efforts to communicate with and engage families
  • Communication began with phone calls but sometimes escalated to home visits.
  • Educators used multiple ways of connecting with families (e.g., Zoom™, home visits, texting, etc.) so they could meet families wherever they were.
  • The school provided devices, hotspots, and technology support.
  • Educators put great effort into connecting with and supporting students with disabilities and their families.

Approximately 800 schools administered an i-Ready Diagnostic at home in spring 2020. West Homestead K–8 Center in Homestead, Florida, was one of the few schools out of that 800 that got “clean data” from their Diagnostic. Clean data, in this context, means data that Curriculum Associates researchers found to be in line with results and growth patterns from the past year.

West Homestead, which is part of the Miami-Dade County Public School District, also stood out to researchers because of how reliably its students used i-Ready Personalized Instruction, Curriculum Associates’ standards-based online lessons program, during distance learning. The quick move from learning in classrooms to learning at kitchen tables and bedroom desks did not impact West Homestead’s i-Ready usage. Since the beginning of at-home learning, 95 percent of West Homestead students were logging on and using i-Ready Personalized Instruction regularly.

How did West Homestead do it?

  1. Educators worked hard to transfer the schools’ “data-hungry,” high-expectation culture to at-home learning.
  2. Educators were absolutely committed to connecting with families and students and used a variety of methods to establish and maintain communication channels.

“It just takes commitment,” said Principal Dr. Earl Burth. “If your school is not willing to commit, you're not going to reach the kids.”

Consistent School Culture

West Homestead’s data-centered, high-expectation culture was in place long before the COVID-19 pandemic forced educators to move to distance learning. In fact, high expectations were so thoroughly integrated into students’ daily activities that when it came time to switch to distance learning, educators were able to say, “Do what you’ve been doing, but do it at home.”

During distance learning, teachers continued having data chats with students and encouraged them to keep owning their data. They also kept alive the tradition of celebrating students who’d performed well on lessons or met learning milestones. Teachers mailed achievement certificates to students. Some teachers went so far as to drop donuts off at students’ homes in recognition of particularly large accomplishments.

“We tried to keep things as even as possible,” Assistant Principal Isabel Hernandez said. “Enough was changing for the students. We didn't want to add new things or new expectations.”

"We adjusted to not being physically together, but we didn't change our expectations."
Isabel Hernandez, Assistant Principal

Tools and Support for Educators

Burth gives credit for West Homestead’s strong distance learning and spring Diagnostic results completely to his school’s assistant principals and teachers. “I was a teacher, and it's important that they understand that they are very much appreciated for their work.” Acknowledgment was just one way that West Homestead leaders supported teachers in spring 2020.

  • Communication Apps: Teachers who did not feel comfortable going to students’ homes because of COVID-19 didn’t have to. These teachers used other means to connect with families, including videoconferencing software, online communication platforms, etc.

  • Accountability: Teachers were expected to check in on students and to check in with families if they noticed a student wasn’t participating in online lessons or discussions. “Reaching out, communicating, calling—just a phone call can make all the difference,” Hernandez explained. Teachers could always escalate communication to an administrator if they couldn’t make a connection.

  • Information Sharing: Educators updated an internal spreadsheet with student contact information. If a teacher was having trouble reaching one of their students, they could see if the student had a sibling with a different phone number to try.

  • Community: Teachers helped one another. For example, they continued to have grade-level meetings via Zoom (as well as “vertical” multi-grade level meetings), shared ideas on team communication websites, and connected quickly through texting and online chats.

Persistent Family Outreach

Everyone, from office staff to school leaders, participated in the enormous project of connecting with students and their families. Once West Homestead moved to distance learning, educators needed to confirm that students had the tools they needed to continue learning at home, and that students and families understood the expectation that distance learning would be just as rigorous as classroom learning.

  • Teachers started outreach by making phone calls to students’ homes. If they didn’t connect with anyone after several attempts, they elevated responsibility for making that connection to the assistant principals.

  • If the assistant principals weren’t able to reach a family, that family went on a home visit list.

  • West Homestead had three teams of educators who made home visits—Burth himself often donned a face mask and participated. These home visits were not punishments—far from it. Even if a student had been dodging their teacher or hadn’t met their weekly i-Ready Personalized Instruction numbers since the start of distance learning, educators weren’t knocking on their door to deliver in-person reprimands. Home visits were educators’ last means of connecting with students. They were check-ins: Were students doing well mentally and physically? Did students have the tools they needed to do their work? Did the household need a hotspot? Did the family understand what teachers expected from their children?

  • Hernandez described how some teachers went “above and beyond” expectations to get i-Ready completion certifications to students when they finished the Diagnostic. Teachers sent certificates through email or mail, and, for students who made really impressive strides, dropped off donuts and certificates at their homes.

Multiple Communication Options

Seventy-one percent of the West Homestead student population is Hispanic, and, according to the United States Census, nearly 66 percent of Homestead citizens above the age of five years old speak a language other than English at home.

Language and literacy barriers (approximately 31 percent*  of Homestead’s citizens who are 25 years or older do not have high school degrees) meant that West Homestead educators had to think beyond writing and talking in order to communicate with many of their students’ families.

  • Educators used images and videos to communicate with parents and guardians who couldn’t read or write or spoke languages other than English or Spanish. West Homestead kept the videos very short and focused on simple how-to explanations—for example, how to turn on your computer and log in to 

  • Administrators enlisted English teachers to communicate with Spanish-speaking families.

  • Teachers used Google Voice™, a free telephone service, to text with families.

  • West Homestead hosted a series of virtual open houses, during which teachers covered i-Ready lesson expectations (e.g., the amount of time students spent on the program and the number of lessons they passed) and the at-home spring Diagnostic.

  • West Homestead leaders knew from past experience that their community members weren’t keen on formalities and that families would arrive at school unexpectedly. As Burth explained, “Our parents don't adhere to appointment times. They just show up.” Burth and his colleagues built impromptu visits into their distance-learning strategies. They added marks to the sidewalks by the school building so waiting family members stayed six feet apart while in line to speak with an administrator. School leaders kept long hours and took little time off so they could be available to families who stopped by to see them.

  • Educators knew they could rely on word-of-mouth to reach many members of the Homestead community. Whenever a family member came to the school for any reason, Hernandez explained, at the end of the visit they’d be asked to remind their neighbors, coworkers, and friends that they, too, needed to connect with the school.

West Homestead Communication Apps

  • Zoom: a popular videoconferencing app

  • Google Voice: a free web-based telephone service

  • Microsoft Teams®: a communications and collaboration platform

  • Video-Making Software: used to create short videos for families and students

Extra Support for Students with Disabilities/Exceptional Student Education (ESE)

The West Homestead ESE personnel created a Microsoft Team communication site for ESE support. Families with students with disabilities began joining the team site, so it also became a place where educators could post information and answers to questions.

West Homestead disseminated a lot of information about the spring Diagnostic to families with ESE students, but they were still prepared to respond to and help students while they were taking the Diagnostic. Hernandez shared a story about a student with disabilities who came to the school unannounced with her very frustrated mom. The student didn’t have internet at home, she didn’t understand how to log in to start her assessment, and she was just as frustrated as her mom. Hernandez couldn’t bring the student in the school building because of COVID-19 restrictions, so she and the student sat on the ground a safe distance apart. Then, while the student’s mother waited in her car, Hernandez helped her complete 30 minutes of the Diagnostic.

Technology Support

  • West Homestead educators had access to an array of communication tools, which enabled them to “meet families where they were.”

  • When students needed help with their devices and software, they were able to bring their laptops to the West Homestead IT staff for troubleshooting and repairs. The IT team ended up fixing a personal laptop here and there, but they did so willingly. As long as a student was using the device for learning, they’d make sure It was up and running.

  • West Homestead staff distributed nearly 100 hotspots, but there were still students without reliable internet access. Many of these students had family members drive them to school, because even though the school building itself was closed, they could get a reliable Wi-Fi signal from outside the building. Students sat on the ground, perched their laptops on their knees inside cars, and settled into shady nooks that offered protection from the Florida sun to get through the assessment.

“Believe it or not, kids literally came here to take their tests because of the expectation, because of the expectation ‘I have to do this,’” said Burth. West Homestead leaders and teachers expected students to take the assessment seriously, but even Burth seemed surprised and moved by his students’ dedication. “[For a student] to actually come and sit and take the test—that is something that gave me goosebumps . . . just to see the buy-in from the student who would be willing to come and sit and use the Wi-Fi here at school.”

Additional Distance-Learning Resources

Looking for more ideas about engaging families in distance learning and at-home assessments? You’ll find free resources on i-Ready Central®. Educators will find that most materials are helpful even if they do not use Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready program.


Zoom™ is a licensed trademark of Zoom Video Communications, Inc.
Google Voice™ is a distinct brand feature of Google, LLC.
Microsoft Teams® is a registered trademark of Microsoft Corporation.

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