When COVID-19 hit in the spring, Greg White, Class of 1981, had to figure out how to feed and protect his students — and he had to figure it out quickly. As President & CEO of LEARN Charter School Network, Greg is responsible for over 4,000 students in a network of 10 schools in the Chicagoland area, 98 percent of whom are minority and 88 percent low income. LEARN Charter Schools are located in the most underinvested neighborhoods in the state, with a high percentage of students receiving free or discounted lunches. Their programs, and even physical buildings, are a place of stability for families, offering services beyond the academic, including social and mental health services.
To start, Greg’s team arranged for free deliveries of meals to families’ homes — 10 days worth of food at a time. A delivery service was crucial because most parents and guardians are essential workers; they couldn’t run out in the middle of the day to pick up groceries, even at a height of the nation-wide lockdown, and transportation options were limited. (And it’s important to note that now, many months later, LEARN’s food vendor has delivered more than 600,000 meals and counting.)
To help with other immediate needs, Greg and his team quickly launched the LEARN Family Fund — a fund available to families in the form of prepaid gift cards to promptly and easily provide basic-need support. “These families are on the front lines and have been greatly impacted; we provide support as we have resources to help them,” says Greg. “We try to make sure families have good options.”
Next, LEARN turned its attention to maintaining academic momentum: How would teachers modify the active programs for virtual learning versus in-class learning? Each student needed a Chromebook with access to WiFi. While it was extremely difficult to procure 2,000 additional Chromebooks (at the time there was a worldwide shortage), the LEARN team worked hard to ensure each family had a computer (4,000 in total). But Chromebooks were not the complete solution, and LEARN also began distributing hotspots so scholars had access to Wifi.
With systems in place to attend to the safety, food and social-emotional needs of students, Greg’s team worked over the summer to develop academic programs for the new reality of virtual learning. While LEARN Charter Schools are operating predominantly virtually right now, students who need the most support were able to come back to school in small classes. This group included Pre-K and early primary children, students who are diverse learners, and those who were struggling or who did not have a safe place at home conducive to learning. Teachers returned on a completely voluntary basis; before students returned, parents participated in a two-week orientation so that they could learn how best to support their children. They tacked troubleshooting computer issues, and how to work Google Classroom, for example, relieving some anxiety about at-home learning.
With such devastation in these communities, across every facet of people’s lives, it’s difficult to look to the future of education, but Greg sees this as an opportunity to make changes. Virtual learning requires that teachers and administrators take a proactive approach, asking families frequently if they need help, and figuring out how to help. “We have a closer relationship with families now, which is good. It’s easier to connect — let’s do a Zoom call! — and we are in their homes, everyday. We also do regularly scheduled wellness checks and we track who has been contacted.”
Greg also hopes to use the tools of virtual learning to maintain the academic momentum over the summer break so that kid’s don’t lose ground. A significant amount of learning loss happens during these six weeks when his students are not in school.
“The other piece that has been successful is that we’ve seen when kids take ownership of their learning, they do much better,” says Greg. “We’re learning how to encourage kids to work more independently. If we can take this as an opportunity to make these huge changes in the coming year, we’ll come out stronger on the other side. And I hope there will be a permanent, deep appreciation for the educators. I am hoping that people recognize that this is incredible work, so difficult, challenging, exhausting, but so critical.”
To read the article in the Park Cross Current magazine, click on the link below and scroll to page 38.