Schools Turned to Outdoor Learning for Safe, Equitable Instruction in 2020. They Don‘t Have to Go Back.

2020 will be recorded in the history books as a year of deep tragedies, inequities and heartache. We hope it will also be remembered as the year education broke free of the four walls of our school buildings and embraced the healthy, fresh air outside. This year, the fields of outdoor learning and green schoolyards … Read more

Struggling With Substance Use Recovery — and High School — in a Pandemic

At Archway Academy in Houston, which serves 50 high school students who are in recovery from substance use disorder, counseling sessions are essentially on-demand. Students can ask for support any time they feel a panic attack coming on, or if they feel overwhelmed or angry. Coupled with a tight-knit sense of community, it’s what makes the school successful, says Executive Director Sasha Coles. That’s why, after COVID-19 shifted academics online, Coles and her staff hit the road. When students called, counselors drove to their homes and held sessions on driveways and porches. Even with the masks and social distancing, it was a better therapy alternative for some students than Zoom. “I don’t think we understood, at least at the beginning, how not being able to deliver services in person would change really important dynamics at our school, the magical parts of the school, the community,” she says. “I have kids calling me falling apart, and so I’m trying to coordinate with parents, ‘How do we meet the needs of your kids when it comes to their mental health?’”Recovery high schools are specially equipped to help students remain sober. Alongside typical academic classes and extracurricular activities, they provide peer support groups, licensed counselors, drug testing and other accountability measures. A Vanderbilt University study of recovery high schools published in 2017 found that 62 percent of students met the criteria for an alcohol abuse diagnosis and 93 percent met the criteria for a substance dependence diagnosis. That tracks with what Andrew Warren, a recovery coach, sees when students enter Archway Academy. Marijuana and alcohol are the most common substances for which they are in recovery, though a small number have used intravenous drugs or painkillers. Depression and anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions they face, he says. By and large, researchers found these schools were effective. On average, students’ reported significantly less use of drugs and alcohol when researchers checked in with them six months later, according to the study. They reported about nine days of marijuana over the previous 90 days, compared with 55 days of marijuana use prior to beginning treatment. Use of alcohol and other drugs dropped to about three days or fewer over the preceding 90 days. And students attending recovery high schools were more likely to stay sober and attend school compared with a control group of students with substance use disorders who attended other schools.But COVID-19 has significantly upended the model—posing a unique hurdle to recovery high schools, whose students were dealing with crises even before the pandemic. “There are occasions where we’ll have a kid with some good sustained recovery, but normally we get calls because the parents have tried everything they can think of,” Coles says, “and we become the place that is their last-ditch effort.”Balancing service and safetyRecovery schools are currently split into about even thirds when it comes to their delivery model. Some are fully in-person, others are hybrid or remote, says Roger Oser, chair of the Association of Recovery Schools. The organization’s membership is made up of 43 schools across the country that support students in 9th through 12th grade who are in recovery from substance or alcohol use. He is also principal of William J. Ostiguy High School, one of five recovery schools in Massachusetts, which is part of a public-private partnership affiliated with Boston Public Schools. Oser says his campus has used all three models at different stages of the pandemic. It was most recently fully remote. “We’re all trying to balance the need to provide in-person services with safety. That equation is different depending on what part of the country you’re in,” he says. Our population is a priority population to be in-person, so that’s the challenge. What can we do in our location situation to get kids in the building safely?”Prior to the pandemic, Oser says his campus and recovery schools nationwide were looking into remote learning as a solution for students who could not be on campus due to distance or treatment. “We have a student population that has interrupted experiences sometimes due to relapse or other reasons, so the more ability we have to connect to students remotely increases our capacity,” he says. “Obviously we wouldn’t want it to be driven by COVID, but we were already looking at different models.”While some students are doing fine remotely, Oser worries about those experiencing isolation. “In the best of times, people isolate for different reasons: not wanting to deal with people, covering up their use. Being remote makes that so much easier,” he says. “You can still be showing up, but not. And it makes it harder to detect what’s going on.”Being remote has driven his staff to make their virtual interactions with the school’s students as engaging as possible. Each day begins with a community check-in and one-on-ones between students and a case manager. “It’s much more intentional virtually because if someone doesn’t show up for a day, we don’t want that to go by [unremarked]. There has to be a place where that’s noticed and followed up on,” he says. Reopening the support systemColes says the transition to online schooling at her Houston campus, which partners with the Southwest Schools charter district, was smooth. But there wasn’t a way to replicate the human element of mental health services on a screen. Important parts of communication were lost. She couldn’t read students’ body language or give them a hug. While there were no worrying dips in academic performance, students at home were experiencing more anger outbursts and relapses in depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. More kids were running away, Coles says, and having a harder time getting medication refilled because doctors’ offices were closed.“What we learned from March to August was that in the mental health aspect of the school, we were not seeing the normal outcomes that we would due to the isolation,” she says. “Quite frankly, too much time with their families was not good for anybody. It felt like complete chaos.”While most public Texas schools reopened in mid-October, Archway Academy opened its doors again in September. The small school was divided into learning pods of no more than 10 students who stayed in the same socially distanced classroom, supervised by a faculty or staff member, and had their classes delivered via Zoom. Warren, who is an alumnus of the school in addition to being a recovery coach, says getting students back near their support system was important for two significant reasons. “Young people just crave that social life, and what you find with people who have substance use disorders is that it couples with mental health disorders,” he says, “so anyone who has depression or anxiety needs support or needs a social life.”During a normal school year, part of building community among students would include group activities involving close proximity. That could include tug-of-war one day or a trust exercise the next. “Activities like that aren’t really doable when there’s an airborne virus,” he says. “There’s a lot to be said about a staff member and student sitting down in a hallway and letting them cry and be there for them.”When the school closed and went remote in March, Warren says there was a portion of his students who were fine. They were motivated to stay on top of their studies, and meeting with him over Zoom was sufficient. But that wasn’t the case for everyone. “During our daily Zoom meetings, you could tell, ‘This person isn’t feeling connected. This person isn’t getting enough.’ We had students who enrolled with us in early March and didn’t have a chance to see what our community could really do,” he says. “We ended up going to these students’ houses and sitting on a driveway and just talking to them. Two or three times per week if necessary, bring them goodies and interact with the families and the kids. That was special when you had someone willing to drive out, sit in the driveway and just be there.”David Claunch, a math and science teacher at the academy, shares a connection with students in that he’s been in recovery for 17 years. If a student has an issue that’s preventing them from focusing in class, help from a counselor is right down the hall. “And they come back ready for academic work,” he says. Claunch taught remotely while he quarantined for two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 following Thanksgiving break. While he didn’t miss a day of school over Zoom, he was glad to be back in the classroom. “It’s really easy for them to nod and say, ‘Yes I understood,’ versus looking at a screen. You pick up so much more body language in person than you do on Zoom,” he says. Coles says that the number of staff and students who had to quarantine following Thanksgiving has her worried. If coronavirus forced the school to return to fully virtual learning, delivery of mental health services would remain a challenge. “We are continuing to toss around creative ideas for how we could do a better job of that while still keeping an eye on health and safety,” she says. Beyond all the changes to schooling, Coles says this year has left her to reflect on how educators can take better care of themselves as they jump from one emergency to the next. Each morning before checking her text messages, she takes a deep breath. “We’re a school that spends a lot of our time and energy focused on the health of the kids, and surviving the last year of school has reinforced in me why the self-care of the grownups is so important,” she says. “We barrel through the school year and breathe in the summer, and that can’t happen. We will become mentally and physically ill because this is too much to carry.”

Now Is the Time to Redefine Learning — Not Recreate Traditional School Online

It’s a common refrain among the change-resistant: “We’ve always done it this way.” But in a difficult year, where charting the unknown has become a daily occurrence, it’s a tough argument for a school to make. We’ve never done things this way—meaning it may be the perfect opportunity to do them differently. In our work with schools and districts from across diverse geographies and demographics, the Institute for Teaching and Leading has seen first-hand the incredible hard work of leadership teams and educators to adjust to this new and ever-changing landscape. Our organization works with schools and districts across the country to create more student-centered learning experiences, which gives us a unique view to the changes that are, and are not, happening at scale. While the possibilities for flexible, innovative learning models are myriad, stories from across the country make it clear that as a nation, we are largely missing this opportunity. The vast majority of emergent virtual and hybrid learning models appear to be “stuck at substitution”—that is, they seek to recreate or translate the brick-and-mortar school experience into the cloud without stopping to ask which aspects of those models may not truly serve students in the time of COVID-19 or beyond. What’s Changed?Some of the ways in which the pandemic has shifted the education landscape are less obvious than closed schools, socially distanced classrooms or masked recess periods. Working families are now juggling conflicting priorities. If they are working from home, parents may still not be available to help their children with coursework during the school day; if they are working outside the home, students are often attending class from a grandparent or other caregiver’s house. In some cases, high school students may be tasked with overseeing the care and schooling of their younger siblings as well as their own, and in homes where adults have lost jobs or had hours cut due to COVID, older children are often working during the traditional school day to support the family. Offering only a virtual version of the traditional classroom and bell schedule is no longer sufficient to serve students or families across these diverse situations and needs. We need to rethink how, where and when we are delivering instruction and making learning accessible. Moving Past SubstitutionWhen we say “stuck at substitution,” some readers may recognize the SAMR model of education technology integration. The SAMR framework describes four different levels of technology use, from Substitution to Augmentation, Modification and Redefinition (SAMR). At its most basic level, education technology can be used to simply substitute: to replace traditional methods of teaching and learning with ones that are digitally mediated, but are still based on the same basic structure and pedagogy. For example, a digital worksheet is still a worksheet in the same way a traditional six-period bell schedule done via Zoom or Google Meets is still a basic substitution of the physical classroom setting for the virtual one. Common Sense MediaAt the next level, edtech can be used for augmentation, to bring some other affordance or benefit to the teaching and learning experience—for example, when that worksheet becomes a shared Google Doc that allows for collaboration and increased critical thinking. The essential task remains the same, but the technology adds a new aspect to the work. Most schools and districts that we see are augmenting the virtual learning model by using technology to offer an enhanced experience. They might, for example, use Jamboard, Padlet or Kahoot to allow students to demonstrate mathematical thinking, to visually share ideas or to practice vocabulary concepts in a cloud-based setting, while retaining the basic bell schedule and relying primarily on live, video call instruction.At the modification level, students and teachers use technology in a way that changes the traditional student task. In other words, it allows the learner to create an authentic product or to demonstrate mastery in a way that isn’t confined to paper and pencil. Similarly, at the modification level, schools and districts reevaluate how they use time and resources. That might mean creating solutions that fit the needs of struggling students and families rather than relying on the ability of those same families to continue engaging in a model that was not built with a pandemic in mind. Most of the examples that appear in the section below fall into this category. When technology is truly reimagining the task at hand, then we say that it is leading to redefinition—a totally new and different way of interacting with instructional material, building understanding or demonstrating mastery. In this case, it often comes down to fundamental changes to the very structure of virtual and hybrid learning models. Redefinition means thinking beyond existing paradigms and schedules that are built for an on-campus experience. It is the opportunity to imagine entirely new ways of teaching and learning—for example, attendance policies that emphasize engagement versus seat time, blended learning models that leverage technology for anywhere, anytime learning, and instructional design that allows increased student choice and participation. The How, Where and When of Student EngagementSome schools and districts are already exploring what can happen when they take the technological foundation they have already built and leverage it to better serve their learning communities, by modifying and/or redefining how, where and when they are delivering instruction and engaging with students and families. Here are just a few examples we’ve seen.Realizing early on that “regular” school days no longer worked for all learners and their families, Northern Cass School District #97 in North Dakota began conducting evening class sessions to allow for greater flexibility for working students and their caregivers. As an added bonus, they discovered it also helped teachers who were struggling to support their own children in hybrid or virtual learning while teaching on a full-time schedule.
In northern New Mexico, Taos Academy Charter School, where one of us, Elizabeth LeBlanc, serves as the director of teaching and learning, uses a flexible schedule to conduct one-on-one and small group work in the afternoons and to offer on-demand support through Homework Hotlines in the morning. Every student’s individual weekly schedule is designed for that learner’s needs, strengths and challenges.

Westminster Public Schools in suburban Colorado is offering students greater voice and choice by incorporating more open-ended explorations and student-driven projects into their curriculum. They are working with students through their competency-based system, which prioritizes content mastery and self-paced work, to redefine learning tasks for increased engagement.
Live-streaming has offered an additional layer of support and engagement in Pennsylvania’s Northern Lehigh School District during hybrid learning; on their off-campus days, students can attend the live-streamed class synchronously or can view the recording later for key content if they need support in their coursework.
In rural Milton Area School District in Pennsylvania, students work asynchronously (or self-paced) one day of the week to allow teachers to conduct family outreach, re-engage absent learners and hold remediation and academic support sessions as needed.
At YES (Yuba Environmental Science) Charter Academy in California, going virtual has not stopped their hand-on learning as their teachers structure STEM exploration activities that students can do with everyday objects; during the instructional blocks, educational assistants meet with small, flexible learning groups to address targeted needs in reading and math.
Right now, many schools, districts, educators, and students are surviving, but not thriving in this variable world of education during COVID-19. The examples above, however, show that this does not have to be the case, and that innovative thinking may be more important than ever before in helping us meet the needs of students both during and after the pandemic.

Could This Montessori Learning Company Be the Airbnb of Education?

Montessori learning has 100 years of refinement and validation behind it. Yet, fewer than one percent of students worldwide are in what Ray Girn, CEO of Higher Ground Education, would consider an “authentic, high-fidelity Montessori program.” I think that there is an opportunity to achieve what ride-sharing apps or Airbnb have achieved: show the world another way of doing education at a sufficient scale.“Our goal is to build the systems of scale that allow for uncompromisingly good Montessori education that’s accessible to the children of the world,” explains Girn.Higher Ground’s global Montessori ecosystem includes 75 schools, a virtual school, a system for finding local Montessori-trained nannies and resources to support new parents and homeschoolers. All designed to take Montessori learning from fragmented to mainstream and modernized, the ultimate goal is to bring Montessori education to far more parents and children.The pandemic could have halted that work, but Girn and his team leaned in, finding ways to support families and continue to grow Higher Ground. EdSurge talked with Girn to understand how acquisitions and adaptations, combined with unwavering support and sage advice from investors, helped them thrive during a challenging season.EdSurge: What’s your vision for Higher Ground, and how is technology helping you get there?Girn: Our goal is to build the systems of scale that make uncompromisingly good Montessori education accessible to the world’s children. That means identifying why so few children are in authentic Montessori programs and creating paths to change that.Because ours is an alternative ecosystem, and we develop meaningful skills, I think that there is an opportunity to achieve what ride-sharing apps or Airbnb have achieved: show the world another way of doing education at a sufficient scale. In doing so, we hope to inspire and empower the many others working towards meaningful education reform.I don’t see us single-handedly changing education, but I think we have a real opportunity to be part of the pioneering few who launch that change and help it ultimately take hold.Guidepost Magnificent Miles (Credit: Higher Ground Education)Ray GirnWhat role does technology play in your growth, particularly right now?Our whole approach from infancy through high school is deeply technology-enabled. We are actively making the most of the opportunities to leverage technologies that exist across the educational domain.Ray Girn’s Book Recommendations
We’re about to launch a digital platform for new and expectant parents, called Guidepost Family Framework. It’s filled with resources for how to parent for independence, bringing an integrated approach to the basics like sleeping, napping and feeding, and then more and more as children get older. Then there’s Guidepost at Home, where we digitally train and place Montessori-trained nannies and share learning materials for homeschooling.Our virtual program is core to our operations—particularly during the pandemic. As of August, we have 10 school partners, including public schools, accessing and using our digital curriculum online.Guidepost El Dorado (Credit: Higher Ground Education)Have acquisitions supported your scaling efforts as well? Yes, we acquired CozyKin late last year because their platform helps us match families to nannies and nanny shares. Before that, we acquired Montessorium, which is an app-based developer as well. I don’t see us single-handedly changing education, but I think we have a real opportunity to be part of the pioneering few who launch that change and help it ultimately take hold.The need for adaptable programming was increasing before COVID-19. Now it’s mandatory. The idea is, if you want to hire a nanny, home school, do virtual school, attend a physical school, or even set up a micro-school for two months while you’re traveling, we’re creating a program where people can move from one to the other and in any part of the world. In many ways, technology is what facilitates that.Has the pandemic altered the way you handle workforce training?Workforce training is one of many examples where COVID-19 is accelerating the trajectory that we were already on. If you look at Montessori, or even just education, human capital is the single most important driver. The teacher and the school leader, that’s where the rubber meets the road.From the beginning, we’ve been thinking about training digitally. How do we make it more accessible, more on the job, and do it everywhere? I think Montessori isn’t 10x, 20x, 50x bigger primarily because doing it right requires nuanced training and mentoring, and that just hasn’t been done at scale yet.We see technology as a big driver in training. We’re largely virtual, and that’s accelerated because of COVID-19. We have a federally-recognized certificate from infancy through adolescence in Montessori practice. We use 3-D headsets to have this immersive experience of being in a classroom and doing micro observations, then you go into a Socratic seminar and discuss what you’ve observed. We’re trying to help educators internalize these principles, so what you learn becomes part of who you are when you’re in the classroom. How have investors supported your growth, particularly now during the pandemic?Learn More About Higher Ground
There was a lot of uncertainty in the spring. What you need from investors, as an entrepreneur, is conviction when you’re feeling doubt and also doubt when you possibly have too much conviction. Peak State Ventures, one of our early investors, has shown that and demonstrated tremendous confidence in our mission and vision. Their trust didn’t waver at a time when, particularly in April, it wasn’t clear where the world was headed.Beyond that, they’ve exercised the dual virtue of being helpful in terms of introductions and access to their network, supportive critiques, but also poking holes in plans and sharpening our approach. They also recognize that we, like our students, have to find our own way, and I’ve appreciated that.