Advice from an online educator

Jason Bransford sees a silver lining in how the COVID-19 crisis is affecting Idaho’s K-12 system.

The pandemic’s impacts on learning remain untold, acknowledged Bransford, CEO of Idaho’s Gem Innovation Schools. But the crisis gives educators a chance to connect with kids in new ways, especially online.

Jason Bransford

Idaho schools are ramping up efforts to instruct kids remotely amid the pandemic:

One reality hanging over the push: Students in Idaho’s virtual schools regularly perform well below their brick-and-morter peers on an array of academic achievement  indicators.

Yet Bransford’s Gem Prep Online has defied the odds in several areas in recent years. He offered tips for educators planning rapid-fire transitions to the digital learning world.

“I’m already seeing some amazing things happen” Bransford told EdNews. “Hopefully, some of these things can help.”

Gem Prep’s track record

Gem Prep Online recently outperformed state averages in several academic measures:

  • ISAT scores: 65 percent of the school’s students reached proficiency on the English language arts portion of the Idaho Standards Achievement Test last year, according to State Department of Education numbers. The state average was 55 percent. Gem Prep Online trailed the state average in math, with 40 percent of students reaching proficiency. The state average was 44 percent.
  • College entrance exams: Gem Prep Online students outperformed state averages on the math portion of the 2018 SAT, with an average score of 507. The state average: 480. The school’s students also outperformed the state average on the evidence-based reading and writing portion of the college-entrance exam: 549 to 496.
  • College go-on rates: 56 percent of the schools students went on to college in 2018. The state average was 45 percent.

Click here for a broader look at how Gem Prep Online stacks up to schools across Idaho.

Branford’s advice

Bransford advised educators and leaders to consider four phases when taking instruction online:

The “ramp-up” phase. Bransford stressed two words for the first phase: take time.

This includes at least one week to ramp up the focus by training teachers on the process. Schools should also use this period to figure out who needs digital devices, get resources to students and parents, address home-internet situations and other complexities.

Bransford also encouraged educators to adjust their realities. Gem Prep Online makes it mandatory for kids to have at least one adult available during the day to help kids learn.

That’s a luxury many families don’t have during a pandemic.

“You may not have many adults helping, so you need to change your expectations,” he told EdNews.

Easing in. After launching, educators should take another week or two to ease in to their programs.

This starts by making sure teachers and students are comfortable interacting with each other remotely and avoiding heavier content early on. Teachers should start with some overly simple assignments to ensure effective two-way communication.

“Ask them about a home pet or desirable pet,” Bransford said.

If communication channels are solid, teachers should introduce learning content, but only  lightly in the first weeks. Bransford suggested nothing more than two 30-minute learning sessions a day early on. These should also be broken up when possible to make it easier on students and families not used to online learning.

Teachers should limit homework to an hour or two in this phase, Bransford said. “The first two weeks is most difficult on families when they start online. They might be excited but realize how hard it is during this period. Allow them to get into a routine.”

Adjusting to the new normal. This phase assumes that schools will be shut down for rest of year and includes getting into the longterm routine of distance education.

Needs will vary for districts and charters, Bransford stressed, but he suggested ramping up instruction from the first week but limiting it to 3 or 4 hrs a day — especially for households without an adult or where parents work.

“It’s really hard for parents who have been working all day to get a kid through 5-6 hours of schoolwork when they get home,” Bransford said.

Bransford stressed two more words for this phase: Be realistic.

Educators should also continue to space sessions wherever possible.

“Maybe morning will be for English language arts and afternoon for math,” he said. “Don’t do it all in one swipe, and try to consider the home life of kids in your district.”

Transitioning back. Educators should also think about the transition back to brick-and-mortar settings.

“If you give students and families weeks at home, you have to plan for a transition back,” Bransford said.

That includes possibly resetting a school’s culture, and remembering that students will likely struggle when they do return.

“Some kids will fall behind,” Bransford said. “Some will have to make things up.”

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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