Distance-Learning Success: How a Mississippi Elementary School Maintained Teacher–Family Community

By: | 09/30/2020
Categories: Distance Learning, Leadership

Barbara Lucas had only been the principal of Edna M. Scott Elementary School (EMSE) for a few weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her school to move to distance learning.

She and EMSE’s other educators had to scramble to ensure their 321 K–5 students had the resources they needed to learn at home. This was no small task, considering that their district (Leland School District in Leland, Mississippi) is 100 percent Title I—and many of its students live in rural areas without Wi-Fi access.

Despite socioeconomic and logistical challenges, data from i-Ready Personalized Instruction—the Curriculum Associates online lesson program used by EMSE—shows that students stayed online and learning throughout spring 2020. EMSE had an 83 percent connectivity rate and an 83 percent passing rate—meaning that 83 percent of students were online, completing i-Ready lessons, and earning, on average, an 83 percent passing rate per lesson.

A huge component of EMSE’s success is that educators were able to maintain the family-like feel of its community, even when students weren’t in the classrooms. During a recent interview, Lucas and a handful of EMSE teachers shared how they stay connected. Even if your school doesn’t use i-Ready or other Curriculum Associates programs, you’ll find the below strategies useful.

Friendly Competition

“You basically took the stars in the hallway and put them on Facebook.”
—Kourtney Winters, fifth grade English language arts teacher

The EMSE hallways are still decorated with displays celebrating students’ progress in online lessons. Before the sudden move to distance learning, Assistant Principal Jessica Trader explained, students loved to walk down the hallway and “see all the stars” they and their peers earned for lessons passed. The displays inspired friendly competition and got students involved in tracking their growth.

EMSE teachers kept this competitive spirit alive by assuring students that the change to learning from home didn’t mean expectations had changed. They needed to keep meeting their weekly personalized learning quotas and passing lessons. “They were into it because they could keep track of how many lessons they passed,” explained Flora Thomas, a second grade teacher. “They could compare and see who passed the most lessons—who was in the lead.”

Educators celebrated students who had performed notably well with presentations they uploaded to the EMSE Facebook® page. Soon, enthusiastic family members were calling teachers and asking when they would see their children’s names displayed.

Communication Tracking

“We missed seeing [our students], and they wanted to see us, too.”
—Flora Thomas

Educators use an online platform called School Status to collect data from communications with families. This tool was particularly helpful because it enabled educators to track incoming and outgoing communications as well as text, call, and/or email and send mass messages to families.

If your school doesn’t have a program that will automatically track communications, consider documenting this information in a spreadsheet or exploring free options. The nonprofit media and technology information organization Common Sense Education® has reviews of apps and websites (e.g., Remind, ClassDojo, and ClassTag) that can be used to structure family–teacher communication. Reviews feature both paid and free platforms, and most include a privacy rating based upon an evaluation of the tool’s data safety and privacy practices.

Family Connection

“It's mostly about connecting—once you make that connection with our parents and they know we have the best interest of their child at heart.”
—Kourtney Winters

Given EMSE’s small size, it’s not surprising that educators know their students and students’ families well. What is surprising is all the ways educators were willing to go beyond what might be considered normal to reach students' families when and where they could.

  • Teachers scheduled time for virtual classes as well as time to speak with students as a group or one on one.
  • Some teachers met with families and students together. Others held separate sessions because families and students were talking over one another—they had that many questions.
  • Teachers checked students’ online lesson progress and sent families updates every week.

Technology Issues

“. . . we don't want to leave a child behind.”
—Barbara Lucas

Leland School District was able to issue each student a Chromebook™ laptop at the onset of distance learning. However, they’re still working to expand internet access across the district.

Leland is a small town of approximately 4,100 residents, and EMSE students who live “in the country” don’t have access to Wi-Fi at home. Lucas explained that they’re still waiting on funds from the Mississippi Department of Education to buy hotspots for rural students. In spring 2020, the Leland community stepped in to help students get online:

  • Students came to the EMSE parking lot to use the school Wi-Fi.
  • Lucas invited the English Learners teacher to meet with one to two students at a time in a classroom so they wouldn’t fall behind.
  • Internet providers gave families free Wi-Fi access for a set period of time.
  • Area businesses offered free Wi-Fi access.

EMSE is among several schools that overcame digital-divide challenges in spring 2020 to achieve impressive and admirable learning results. Our profiles of other digital-divide success schools also contain helpful strategies that all educators can borrow for the 2020–2021 school year.

What Next?

Looking for more communication ideas? Curriculum Associates has collected a bunch of resources for educators and families on our Teaching and Learning in 2020 site. Educators will find materials that are helpful even if they do not use Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready program.


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