The Blog: The Gift of Children

Editor’s note: This is the most recent installment of our new blog. We will be asking for insights from people from across the community who have something to say about their experiences, the ongoing state of affairs, or their lives that will speak to our current time together. Today we hear from Cindy Green, Assistant Superintendent, Kalamazoo Public Schools. If you would like to contribute please let us know. — Kathy Jennings, Managing Editor, Southwest Michigan's Second Wave

So, whoever envisioned this day in our lifetime? The school projects our students wrote about health issues such as cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, HIV/Aids, influenza, and the Black Plague were events in other times or places. They seem like monumental events, but not so real. So much has changed from those time periods. Our amazing medical care and gifted scientists have “fixed” so much from the past. How could a time like this exist again?

Yet, we are now in that place in history where we are living with the coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19. This is unbelievable in many ways and in other ways certainly a “wake-up” call for all of us. Everyone is impacted by the virus which has leveled the playing field in some ways.

Children are our greatest treasure. They come into this world with such energy and enthusiasm. They yearn to experience life in so many ways. Their growing up years are full of windows of opportunity for learning. School is a place where children learn, play, read, and socialize. School is a safe place where children know that their teachers are consistent and care. I love watching children of all ages in school. Often, I will visit schools just to watch the eyes of children learning a new concept, working with other children to solve a math problem, or interacting with high school students to get their ideas.  

In Kalamazoo Public Schools, the gift of the Kalamazoo Promise is provided to students who attend and graduate. It is an opportunity for post-secondary education with free tuition provided. There are many options available and the gift is a life-time advantage as an adult. There is hope for all of our students.

During this pandemic time period, changes are happening fast. The fact that there were three weeks without any school then a week of spring break is not good. Last school year, we lost 12 days due to snow and now this happens. This is such an unbelievable amount of time lost for student learning. 

Now, this ends the fourth week of working to learn, connect, and teach. The district worked with a variety of stakeholders in a very short period of time to develop a working document called the “KPS Continuity of Learning Plan.”  This plan provides a framework to support students and staff during this time period. 

The plan provides ongoing professional development for staff members. This includes learning Google Classroom, Google Meet, and other software programs aimed at providing tools for teaching and learning. Teachers provide synchronous lessons (direct online teaching with students present from their homes and asynchronous lessons (pre-recorded lessons that are stored in the Google Classroom for students to use at any time they want). 

All teachers hold office hours during the week so students and families can go online, call, text, or email for questions. High school teachers hold their synchronous classes at times of their choice with several students joining in at the designated time. Pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers hold three synchronous lessons a week for 15-40 minutes each time depending on the age level and the ability to hold the attention of students. Middle school teachers hold 30-45 minute synchronous lessons according to their teaching periods two times a week. 

This entire set up is different. It is new for everyone. While some teachers certainly have been using technology and engaging students in this method they previously have not used it for every day. Teachers have families to contend with at the same time they are teaching. Younger children walk onto the scene of a meeting or synchronous lesson. Dogs bark, babies cry, and doorbells ring. Can you imagine this world?

One of the greatest challenges is the equity issue. Families with means have technology. There is at least one computer in the home and it is connected to the Internet. Often, there is an iPad, laptop, Surface Pro, or Chromebook in the family for secondary students. But students with limited means, do not have devices or access. For the most part, there is a level playing field during the school year as schools provide what is needed for students. Now, the inequities are multiplied. 

The district is working very hard to get Chromebooks in the hands of students who need them. The older Chromebooks that would be moved to a shelf were given to high school students to keep. Schupan and Sons Company gave us 200 Chromebooks to give away. With the need close to 45 percent of our student population, the district started loaning Chromebooks to all other students. 

After having teachers make direct contact with families and surveys, the lack of access to the Internet still exists. Several community agencies have stepped up to problem-solve this issue. Representatives from the Kalamazoo Promise, City of Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Public Library, Western Michigan University, Communities In Schools of Kalamazoo, KydNet, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and the district continue to meet and problem-solve this issue. We are close to finding some solutions which will help for the future. More to come soon I hope! 

The connectivity challenge is more than just technology. People need people and most children learn from watching, interacting directly, being around peers, paying attention to the non-verbal language of adults and students, and being together. It is so important that we connect to our students and keep them close.

The social-emotional and mental health needs of our students are critical. Do you remember a special adult at school that watched over you, gave you support, encouraged you, or listened? Sometimes this is the bus driver, office assistant, activity helper, paraprofessional or campus safety officer. Often, it is a teacher who went the extra mile. Children are our future and we need them connected more than ever. This is a new day and a new way to learn. The changes will be in place for the next emergency, which in our case might mean fewer snow days with no learning! 

Cindy Green is Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Services for Kalamazoo Public Schools. The Teaching and Learning Department is dedicated to the mission of Kalamazoo Public Schools to nurture the dreams of all students and empower all students to contribute to a better world.
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