Charter schools and coronavirus: Q&A with Wayman Academy Principal Simaran Bakshi

4/21/2020

Wayman Academy is a K-5 public charter school that serves low-income students with outstanding results.

Located on the west side of Jacksonville, Wayman Academy is classified as an A-School and a High-Performing School according to the state of Florida. Its principal, Simaran Bakshi, was one of just nine principals in the entire state to be honored this year in Florida Tax Watch’s Principal Leadership Awards.

As a public charter school, Wayman Academy operates independently of Duval County Public Schools. During coronavirus, its independence has meant it receives less support than traditional public schools in the shift to home learning.

We reached out to Ms. Bakshi to ask a few questions about home learning at Wayman.

How is Wayman Academy adapting?

At first, the whole idea of home learning sounded irrational. An entire education system had to shift to remote learning for an uncertain period of time. Students were not expected to be considerably affected by the change. And on top of that, we had less than a week to do it.

Somehow, the Wayman Team made it work.

We worked tirelessly to create our online learning platform called W.A.V.E., Wayman Academy Virtual Learning. The virtual platform started on Monday, March 23rd at https://www.waymanacademy.org/wave/

The daily schedule mimics the school schedule, and parents are encouraged to follow it for maintaining structure and discipline. Parents also had the option of collecting hard copy packets from the school. About 95 percent of parents picked up the packets with detailed instructions on how to access W.A.V.E.

Parents were also surveyed on the phone about technology access, and students received laptops to take home. Each parent was contacted via one-on-one phone calls, announcements through social media, and school website updates.

Not being a large school, our teams are not large, either, but we maintained structure and tried to train our people pretty quickly. As a principal, my job was to help people understand their jobs and be responsible for the same. I was over-communicating with my team when tensions were high due to this fast transition, and the feeling of the unknown. Kids were placed at the center while we worked hard, communicated, and kept evolving quickly.

What is home learning like for your students? What struggles are they facing?

We turned to virtual learning as a response to school closures, and the school is now at home. Parents are trying to balance the role of being new teachers and caregivers. 

We are in constant touch with our families and students. The truth is that they are not getting the same learning opportunities as many others in the more affluent neighborhoods. These households lack the technology infrastructure, capability, finances, and physical space to provide the best learning environment for their children.

Most of my parents do not have the privilege of working from home, or do not have any jobs at all. Some parents are leaving children unattended or under the care of an older sibling, as taking off work is putting their jobs at risk. Many families from Valencia Way, neighborhood subsidized apartment complex, were already struggling with operational problems for months. Now with multiple school-going siblings in a tiny apartment, and maybe with one laptop to share, students are struggling to learn through Zoom meetings and timely turn in all online work. They do not have the advantage of having their own rooms turned into classrooms. Homeschooling as seen on TV, in the living rooms of celebrities, is not the reality in my students’ households.  

For our students with disabilities, the therapists are struggling to have the students attend online sessions. From just yesterday’s report from my school counselor, we had about 60 percent missed sessions, or the parents had declined video conferencing.

When students are living in a disadvantaged environment or have a disability, school is the only option that can offer learning experiences that they may not obtain at home. Sadly, we will see the inequality grow as weeks turn into months and our families grapple with the new challenges.  

How are you engaging parents and caregivers, especially families that are struggling?

Students and parents are being called every single day.

We have provided all our grade level teams with support personnel, mainly consisting of paraprofessionals, and substitutes. They are the link between the teachers and the parents. The support personnel make sure that the students are working on their packets and checking if they need any kind of support.

Teachers meet with their students via Zoom meetings to teach lessons. The Class DoJo app is used for parents without any technology access. Some teachers also hold one-on-one lessons for students with no or minimal home support.

As a principal, I check the attendance every day, and try to mitigate chronic absences by reaching out to the parents via emergency contacts, if no other modes of contact are working.   

What is going well so far?

Teachers are making contact with parents and students every single day. Reviews from parents are great – some even complained about receiving too many phone calls and work from the school, which I personally take as a compliment. Parents like the structure and schedule for their children. They are trying to partner with us to the best of their abilities.

What are your challenges?

We don’t have enough laptops for the students, because we are still waiting on the approval of Title II and Tile IV grants to purchase additional machines. It is challenging to implement distance learning without distributing internet-enabled devices to all students.

There was no professional development provided to teachers before the transition.

I am afraid of students who had mental health challenges before and might have considerable difficulties adjusting back to normal life when school reopens.

We cannot hide from the fact that virtual school can never be a substitute for face-to-face learning. There will be some significant long-term consequences and learning gaps, especially for the students in our underserved neighborhoods. Parents try to do their best, but students need more than just reading or math. They need structure, consistency, discipline, challenge, and accountability to learn and grow.

How has this experience changed how you think about your work and mission as an educator of underserved children? 

Education is ever evolving, and though the times are unprecedented, I have learned that we should have been prepared for an emergency all along. 

I have always worked in Title I schools and have been an ardent proponent of equity for all students. This pandemic has halted or at least slowed down my work to fight for my students. We hope that every child is getting equitable opportunity to access the resources to meet their needs during school closures, but  the reality is that the digital divide will definitely take its toll on many students.

Our goal right now is to help support our students and families the best we can, as the crisis continues. As a school, we are already discussing ways to meet our kids’ needs at their pace and level when they return. We are preparing to deal with the devastating impact school closures will have on student achievement.  

I have always believed that every student can learn and there is a place for every kind of child in the public school system. Public schools don’t just provide education – they also provide child welfare to the most vulnerable, nutritious meals to the neediest, the only safe place for some, resources for special education … the list goes on. School closures will certainly leave a dent in our students’ lives, and public schools, including district-run or charter, will have to become more innovative and rethink the future of education.    

This entire discussion still leaves me thinking – when the next emergency arises, are we prepared to provide future education without schools?

 

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