Family Members Collaborate with Innovative Mountain School Districts

Rural eastern Kentucky school districts have utilized the innovative learning practices and digital teaching platforms they have used for years to jump start the “Non-Traditional Instruction” (NTI) programming necessary when school in person classes were forced to shut down in mid-March because of COVI19.

School officials state that it was not just their students who were learning because of the pandemic. And that unexpected positives have developed during the virus crisis. 

“While this has been one of the most challenging times that we have seen in our careers, watching our staff, parents and students rise to the challenge has made it also one of the most exciting times we have seen,” explains Lee County Superintendent, Sarah Wasson.  “Our parents and other guardians have stepped up and not only have they become teachers themselves, but they have also been so supportive of the district in everything that we have worked to do.  And, our kids have stepped up and accepted their new normal and they are thriving.”  As one of our board members put it, “They are doing what we have taught them in school to do.” 

Harlan County Superintendent, Brent Roark, echoed this observation, “I am totally amazed at our parents, grandparents and guardians. They have been extremely understanding, supportive and gone above and beyond for us and their children. I especially commend those who have been on the front-line providing services during the pandemic and then coming home and taking on the added role of helping to educate them.”

Jeanne Ann Lee, director of the Harlan district-wide instruction programs, said an impressive thing she has witnessed with the interactions between teachers and students is they’ve shared who they are as a person, sharing family, pets and their homes with their students while teleconferencing.

“Teachers relaxed their classroom persona and it has given their students an up close and personal view of who they are outside the actual classroom, Lee adds. “Students are truly seeing their teachers as real people who have some of the same likes that they have. They also seem to find some comfort and not afraid to ask for help or for replacement lessons, etc. from behind the computer screen. It has been a perfect relationship builder.”

The availability of technology and the trained use of technology has helped the rural, mountain districts be effective in NTI. Seventeen of the districts received technology funding, and professional learning in instruction as a part of the $30 million federal Race to the Top grant awarded to the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative and spread over six years.

In some respects, because of the grant, districts like Owsley have been ahead of many other state districts in NTI…, in fact, they were a leader years ago. Lincoln Spence, the principal at Owsley Co. Jr./Sr. High School states, “It has been the theme of our staff to not only rely on digital learning programs but rather use them as support for teacher-created, personalized instruction.  Our teachers use Google Classroom to lead discussions, provide instructional videos (many times of themselves covering topics), and lead them through the instructional process as close to “in-person” teaching as possible. In addition to the daily Zooms with teachers (each grade-level team offers support for students with a daily schedule), several teachers/aides offer additional Zoom “Office Hours” to offer individual assistance.

Owsley Elementary Principal Sylvia Havicus adds, “We have a veteran district when it comes to Non-Traditional Instruction, so when the call came to close their doors the staff went right to work. The district is already 1:1 for devices so they leaned toward programs they knew students were already familiar with. These assignments plus instructions are housed in each grade’s Gooogle Classroom. Utilizing Zoom, teachers meet in weekly staff meetings and PLCs to discuss progress monitoring, identify pockets of students that need extra assistance and plan home visits for those out of reach of bus meal routes and without internet service.”

“They quickly put out tutorials for parents to use Zoom to build capacity an ensure parents could actively participate in this new challenge of educational partnership. Counselors even provide services via Zoom for students who are anxious or already received services. Each grade level offers office hours online so students and parents can drop in with questions, on top of the bi-weekly class zoom meetings to keep everyone connected and on task. As a community Owsley is lucky to have high-speed internet service to over 90% of our students and PRTC joined the initiative by offering families without two months of free service. “it’s been a full community effort to make sure our kids can still excel”, says Havicus. “We are grateful for everyone’s time and energy to educate and feed the whole child” 

 “Our teachers also recently collaborated on a school-wide project, which had each student create a “Virtual COVID-19 Time Capsule” via Google Sites, Spence adds. Students included elements across all contents, even electives, into their respective projects. It was a very successful project, which our students enjoyed, as it was project-based, and relevant to the current world. This project, along with several other impressive projects/lessons, has provided students with the opportunity to continue a quality education during these challenging times.”

While COVID-19 is the catalyst for many districts in Kentucky embracing remote learning, Johnson County School District has been active in the Non-Traditional Instruction Initiative since the 2014-2015 school year. Johnson County Superintendent, Thom Cochran said teachers across the district have taken advantage of the 1:1 ratio in 8th-12th grade by sending devices home with all students. Students on the elementary level were able to check out Chromebooks from their teachers, reducing the need for paper packets by 14%. For students with no internet access, Johnson County has made the delivery of packets a priority, along with addressing the nutritional needs of all students as other districts are doing. Lunches are provided at several pickup locations across the district, and daily bus routes deliver meals to those in need of additional services.

Johnson County teachers have risen to the challenge of utilizing Project-Based Learning with a cross-curricular approach, Cochran reports.  Whether it is conducting live experiments via Google Meets or using apps such as EasyTeach to act as virtual whiteboards, teachers in the district have found unconventional ways to overcome instructional challenges due to COVID-19.

Cochran in praise of his staff explained, “Not only do they welcome innovation, but teachers such as Andraya Preston at Johnson County Middle School believe it’s crucial to be cognizant of real-world events. On the week of March 9th-13th, Mrs. Preston, a 7th-grade Reading teacher in Team Gold, implemented Article Analysis groups. The topic was COVID19, and by Friday the students had enough background to understand when Governor Beshear called for the closure of all Kentucky schools due to the Coronavirus. The students in Team Gold continued to research the virus online and compared the advice of different authors, one of whom favored flattening the curve, while the other emphasized the importance of the economy.

“Prior to Johnson County’s scheduled Spring Break, the Team Gold students were challenged to create a culminating project illustrating how their lives were impacted by the COVID19 pandemic,” Cochran stated. “Like the staff of Johnson County Schools, the students rose to the occasion, showing snapshots of pets and family life, footage of stocked up pantries, and interviews of parents working from home in their Life in a Pandemic multimedia projects.”

Dr. Jennifer Carroll, the professional learning lead for KVEC, says the networked relationship that KVEC districts have worked together to form and sustain is helping support them during this pandemic and emergency non-traditional instruction. “KVEC Instructional Supervisors have voiced how beneficial the technology support KVEC provided through the Race to the Top District (RTT-D) grant provided an infrastructure for remote teaching and learning.  KVEC Principals have met via Zoom weekly to share successes and help each other develop solutions to challenges that schools have never had to deal with before, including how to teach students with disabilities, how to provide remote instruction when a computer and/or internet is not available, how to assess student learning and other challenges. KVEC Counselors have met to discuss strategies for providing Counseling services to students in a remote environment. KVEC Instructional Supervisors are meeting regularly to discuss academic re-entry for students and the professional learning required of educators.”

Jackson Independent Technology Director Jeff Coots praised the value of the KVEC consortia and the RTT grant. “We have been preparing for the digital movement over the past 5 to 6 years. Our district, administration, staff, and students started down a path that would CHANGE education forever. Through this program, our plans were to build a network infrastructure that would support a 1 to 1 program for students at our school. But this was only the beginning, we knew that for this to work we would have to focus on PD that helped our teachers to become more than a teacher in our school, but a leader in our district. Through professional development opportunities that were available from ARI for teachers and staff, our staff has ground more knowledge in content. At the same time, our district also saw the need for our school to become part of the state’s NTI program. To accomplish this task, we felt that our staff also needed to become more knowledgeable about our digital resources and how to use them effectively. Our district summer PD focused on getting all school teachers Google certified before the first year of NTI and that training has been one of the most powerful that we have had that has made it so much easier for us to move toward COVID-19 NTI.”

 Coots added that a key element of the RTT grant was the funding provided to over 900 teacher $1,000 innovation grants to try new strategies in the classroom and share the results with other educators. Most of the grants concerned the use of technology.  It has challenged teachers to deal with issues that they have had in their class and think of solutions and then apply them. With them having applied for over the years, they have faced many challenges and been very successful and when this COVID-19 issue arose, so did the Innovators in our district.”

Wolfe County Superintendent Kenny Bell is very pleased with the dedication and work of his teachers and staff to continue learning for their students while in person instruction was forced to close. Bell cited several innovative strategies including in business math in which students filled out a job application, answered 30 interview questions, and then participated in mock interviews. The online class began with a bell ringer and ended with an exit ticket to gage learning for the next day.

Using an example, Bell said that prior to NTI Days, students were given instructions on how to reach instructor Mrs. Barnett who created a classroom on Facebook titled Mrs. Barnetts’ NTI instruction. Students were given the NTI work along with ways to contact Mrs. Barnett via email, text, message, and zoom conference meeting. Students have access to a google classroom where they submit their work and communicate.

Mrs. Barnett was available from the hours of 8:00 am to 4:00 pm. She created conducted classroom settings at the following times. Algebra 11-11:30 am, Integrated 11:30-12:00, and Geometry 2:30-3:30. During this time, she was able to work one-on-one with students, or in small groups. Barnett was able to answer questions related to the assignment, put grades in IC, called parents, graded students’ submissions as they entered them on google classroom, and taught students Google classroom and videos. Students were paired into groups, took notes, and participated in live activities. Communication was provided through a group on Facebook, private messages, text messages, zoom conference calls, and phone calls.

Floyd County Superintendent Danny Adkins kept guardians, students, the district and community informed through effective social media about their work while in class instruction had ceased.

Lee Superintendent Wasson said the staff “embraced the challenge that we will not see our students anymore this year and working to ensure that we provide meaningful learning and support to our students through this challenging time. Teachers stepped out of their box to adapt to a new way of learning and monitoring progress. Our food service staff stepped up and begin to prepare meals for a growing number of students every day. Our bus drivers stepped up and began to deliver meals to families in need. And, our leadership has stepped up to try to make the end of the year activities special for our kids.”

Like other school districts in the state, the Harlan County District has continued to provide meals to students at home. These include deliveries of lunch and breakfast for the next morning on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Approximately 7,000 meals are delivered per day, with this being about 3,500 each for breakfast and lunch.

Zoom and Google have been favorites of teachers, Roark explains. These have been utilized to deliver online instruction as well as just to allow direct communication to and from students. Harlan teachers have made concentrated efforts to reach those students who may not have access to technology at home. These actions have included distributing laptops or Chrome books to students. Paper packets are delivered. Packets are also available on the district’s website. Students across the district have utilized the lunch buses to return assignments, scholarship applications, return library books, textbooks and much more.

The arts in Harlan have continued using technology. The choir has virtual rehearsals. Drama has continued to work on their musical The Little Mermaid. Instead of stopping, they have continued to have their virtual rehearsals and are planning for their performance soon. Virtual classes are held one on one in music theory students. They are working on original compositions.

School-based health clinics are offering telehealth visits in Harlan and in other districts.

The KVEC school districts also use its digital platform for online teaching resources.

School officials have seen an even greater appreciation for the work of our teachers and parents, grandparents, siblings and other guardians who have collaborated to further the education of the student at home.

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