Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) administrators are seeking feedback from families as they shape a new full-time virtual school option that will be available to all students in the district.
"During this pilot year, we encourage parents to tell us what they would like to see," says Kier Ingraham, K-8 online learning administrator for YCS. "If they join us now, parents will be helping to develop and create this new opportunity for our students."
Online schooling alternatives have been available for area high school students for many years, but remote learning wasn't an option for K-8 pupils until the COVID-19 pandemic. That will change permanently with the launch of the Ypsilanti Connected Community Schools (YCCS) program this autumn.
Ingraham says YCS decided to launch the new full-time online learning program to provide another option to families and students. They'll be using the lessons staff learned from remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
YCS K-8 online learning administrator Kier Ingraham.
Ingraham says parent feedback suggested it was hard for students to move back and forth from online to in-person instruction during the pandemic, and that their children needed more consistency.
Some teachers initially struggled with translating the traditional classroom to online learning during the pandemic. However, that improved as the school district gave teachers flexibility to use whatever techniques were best for their pupils. Further, they discovered that remote schooling often improved relationships with the pupils' families.
"We had a lot of feedback from parents in regard to the support and connection they felt with the teacher. They liked that they had a say in what was going on with their child's [education]," Ingraham says.
That input from both sides led the YCS administration to begin working on a full-time, year-round remote schooling option for K-8 students.
While parent input will shape the program, YCS staff have a general idea of how the program will work. Official hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and certified master teachers will teach the classes.
Pupils can expect personalized learning plans and opportunities to pursue community service and group projects as part of the curriculum. Additionally, YCCS will have access to several classrooms in the district's Achieving College and Career Education (ACCE) building at 1076 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsilanti Township. That allows students in the virtual program to meet face-to-face at various times through each quarter. Staff are taking the summer to build out a kitchen area, lounge, and science lab for socialization and hands-on projects at the ACCE building.
Ingraham names student choice and voice, parent voice, small-group live instruction, and access to district activities like sports and after-school clubs as a few of the benefits of the new YCCS option. She says homeschooling families who want their kids to have access to sports and other extracurricular activities are also welcome to sign up for YCCS.
Both advanced students and special ed students have been thriving with online learning, and YCS staff expect them to take advantage of the new remote learning program. Keely Ann Miller is a teacher consultant with YCS who teaches special education students. She says that "from the special ed perspective, remote learning has been absolutely great."
The ACCE building on Ecorse Road.
"It can be difficult for parents to come to school after work hours for the individual educational plan (IEP) meetings for students, but virtually, they were able to get on," Miller says. "A full 100% of parents turned out for all my IEPs, and that was a great plus for me."
She says many special ed students were more comfortable and engaged working from home.
"They were working online with more confidence, and I felt I had more participation from students working in that online atmosphere," Miller says.
Miller says teaching via Zoom was fine, but the district is going to start using Zoom for Class, which has more features and allows more flexibility for teachers. She's also excited about the fact that there's a brick-and-mortar space for YCCS. She plans to use it two or three times per quarter to host small group projects, meet parents for face-to-face conferences, or administer state-mandated testing.
Cindy Smith, who has taught elementary school science in the past at YCS, will teach math at the middle school level through the YCCS program. She says being able to tailor instruction to individual students was a big bonus of teaching online. She adds that when she's teaching a lesson in a traditional classroom, she knows some students "get it," some don't, and others just act like they get it.
But with online learning, she says it's "much easier to tell who got it" by using the online game-based learning platform Kahoot!
The games are designed to rank users by how fast they answer questions. But Smith says she doesn't care how fast the pupils answer as long as they get the answer right.
"It's a quick form of assessment, and I immediately knew who got it and who didn't, and I can figure out who to spend a little extra time with," Smith says.
She was also able to help students with math by offering them three different online programs, depending on their needs. She says that was especially helpful for kids who were working behind grade level.
ACCE principal Jonathan Royce.
While Miller finds the online classroom a good fit for special ed students, Smith says it's also good for kids who are often classified as gifted and talented.
"Online, those are some of the students who can really excel," she says. "If they get their work done in 15 minutes, why do they have to sit there for the next hour waiting for those not as advanced to finish?"
She says students on both ends, working below and above grade level, are likely to benefit from the online classroom, but so are kids in the middle who might have ADHD or other behavioral issues.
"I had two kids who hung off the bottom of their bunk beds through my class most days," Smith says. "But as long as they're paying attention to me, I didn't care. You can move around. Just make sure you're focused on me."
Smith says flexibility and individualization of learning plans for all students is going to be one of the biggest advantages of the YCCS program, and "parent involvement is going to be huge as we move forward with this."
"For me, the most important thing is giving parents and students a choice," she says.
Interested parents are invited to come to ice cream socials at the playground at 1076 Ecorse Rd. to meet the teachers and learn more about the program. One ice cream social has already taken place. Three more will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. on July 22, July 29, and Aug. 12.
Anyone with additional questions may call the YCS main phone line at (734) 221-1221 or email Ingraham at email@example.com
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.