The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring forced a sudden, unplanned shift to remote learning for most schools across the US and made it challenging to keep students connected to their learning and on track to reach all of their academic goals. After the spring semester, we conducted research to not only learn about the impacts of these challenges, but also to identify common themes among schools whose students were most successful during this period. The specifics were different for each school, but strong leadership and intentional, targeted actions taken by teachers were evident in all settings. Lake Park Elementary (LPE) School in Palm Beach County, Florida—led by Principal Phillip Preddy—was one such standout.
LPE earned recognition as a “Distinguished School” based on our research, placing among the top 14 percent of 9,500 schools sampled that met the criteria across each of five key categories for student connection and proficiency within i-Ready during the spring. The school has continued its success in 2020–2021 and, according to a research report on testing data from the fall, rated among nine percent of elementary schools serving mostly students from low-income zip codes nationwide that did not see a “COVID slide.” In fact, students have made progress over the past year that would be impressive in any circumstance: fourth and fifth graders outperformed last year’s learners on the spring i-Ready Diagnostic, even though the 2019–2020 assessment was administered before remote learning began.
In a recent interview on WLRN South Florida’s “The Sunshine Economy,” Preddy had an opportunity to discuss the efforts he and his faculty have made over the past year to ensure continued success. These are the four major strategies they’ve used:
Make Sure Students Have Devices and Connectivity
A majority of LPE’s students come from low-income households, with about 98 percent of the student body qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. As such, most students would typically fall on the disadvantaged end of the “digital divide.” To ensure equity in remote learning, the school needed to act.
Preddy first focused on devices by calling around to schools with more resources to find extra Chromebooks™ or other appropriate devices. Next, he and his staff concentrated on internet access, understanding that: 1) They couldn’t take this for granted, and 2) Having a computer at home without Wi-Fi is unhelpful when instruction is happening online. The school’s technical support staff made calls directly to companies to seek internet solutions for students and families.
These efforts paid off in a major way, laying the groundwork for real teaching and learning success. Up to 95 percent of students made it online to participate in classes on some days during the spring 2020 semester—a significant achievement.
Let Teachers Focus on Teaching
Because Preddy and the school’s administrative staff remained focused on getting students connected, they made sure teachers could put their energy into making sure learners were engaged. As countless educators nationwide experienced during the pandemic, online instruction is difficult enough on its own without the many added demands of managing a remote classroom. At Lake Park, teachers provided a full day of instruction for students―and with such high rates of student connectivity, students have succeeded even beyond the school’s already-high expectations.
Focus on Culture and Communication
"We have to make the six hours that [students] are in our care the best six hours of their day," Preddy said on “The Sunshine Economy.” Especially during the pandemic, with untold trauma facing children and adults alike, it is impossible to know what each student is going through. This makes it even more important to prioritize the social-emotional elements of schooling and show students that they’re cared for and valued.
Given the obstacles many students of all backgrounds have faced over the past year, it is an achievement just to show up for class. Taking that next step—from attendance to achievement—requires a little “extra,” and in this area, Preddy, his staff, and faculty have thrived.
As the school building slowly reopens, the staff and faculty at LPE have continued the culture and communication efforts by making calls to parents to explain the safety measures they’re taking and articulate the benefits of getting students back into the classroom. Now, nearly three-quarters of the students are attending in person, but making sure parents are aware of the school’s plans―and comfortable with them―continues to be an essential factor.
Students’ success is truly something to celebrate, and Lake Park’s teachers haven’t missed out on the opportunity. During the pandemic, teachers bought gift cards for ice cream sundaes, special headphones or pencils, or other inexpensive treats.
Many teachers mailed the rewards to students or had them shipped directly, but some even drove around town and left them on doorsteps. This program of rewards and recognition, which teachers funded out of their own pocket, “really motivated the students, and you could tell the love that [teachers] had for their kids,” Preddy shared.
These achievements are even more impressive considering the following context: Preddy, who had previously been an assistant principal in another Palm Beach school, was only named to his role at Lake Park two weeks prior to schools closing last March. Despite this and the many other challenges the school faced, the staff and faculty of LPE have delivered for their students by using strategies that many other schools can also adopt.
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