Milwaukee Public Schools fielded criticism over the last couple of months about the district’s slower shift to online learning as students stay home to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Between March 16 and April 20, teachers were not required to engage students in remote instruction. Even when the district told teachers to start supporting students’ learning from home, the expectations about what that should look like were unclear.
MPS issued more detailed expectations for teachers beginning April 27, six weeks after schools closed. Regional Superintendent Carletta Noland is one of the central office administrators who helped craft the plan. She says teachers are now supposed to provide lessons for students every day. Each week, the district Office of Academics tells teachers which learning standards should be covered by grade level.
“It is the expectation that all students participate on a daily basis in order to mitigate some of the learning loss and to demonstrate proficiency in the grading promotion guidelines we have set forth as a district,” Noland said in an interview with WUWM.
Noland says teachers are taking attendance, but students will not be penalized if they can't participate. Homework assigned during this time can only improve students' grades.
According to MPS, teachers have made contact with between 92% and 95% of students. The district distributed more than 30,000 laptops and about 500 hotspots to get students connected to the internet.
There are now guidelines for the minimum amount of time teachers should spend on instruction each day. It varies by grade level, from a minimum of 20 minutes in kindergarten to three hours in high school. Teachers decide the format.
“Our teachers are encouraged to use an integrated approach to teaching and learning, meaning that some of their time could be online, some of their time they may have students complete independent work, and then the teacher gets back to them,” Noland said.
Prior to MPS’s more detailed remote learning plan, many teachers were already in contact with students, but the engagement varied. That’s one reason teachers like Angela Harris spoke out, asking for a more rigorous academic plan during the school shutdown. Harris says the situation has improved, but there are still disparities, partly because teachers can use whatever virtual learning methods they choose.
“We know a lot of our students were already facing inequities and all that has been multiplied because of the pandemic,” Harris said. “So would this be the time to say, ‘we’re going to leave this open to teachers’ interpretation?’ Or is this the time that we say, ‘this is how we’re going to engage our students during virtual learning because we don’t want to widen this opportunity gap?’ ”
Harris has observed differences in what her daughter, a student at MacDowell Montessori School, is offered compared to students at other MPS schools.
“Her teacher posts videos when she’s introducing new lessons and new skills, they have a weekly meeting with their art teacher, a weekly meeting with their music teacher,” Harris said. “They have done a really good job using multiple ways to engage with families and checking for proficiency. But I know that’s not happening across the board.”
Some families say MPS’s online instruction has improved since Chromebooks were distributed. Others say it’s still lacking. Maria Torres has a grandson in seventh grade at Curtin Academy. She says his teacher posts assignments online but hadn’t actually talked with her grandson over video chat until this week.
“He’s a little bit disconnected right now with the school,” Torres said. “It seems nobody was taking care of him, like following up with him.”
Torres has been comparing MPS to the private school her two other grandchildren attend. She says the private school launched live video instruction the week after schools closed in March.
Frank Lammers, the principal at Milwaukee German Immersion School, says some schools are having trouble simply getting in touch with families. Among MPS schools, there’s a wide variation in poverty rates and mobility rates (how often students switch schools).
“Let’s face it — our poverty rate at German Immersion is around 27%. So we didn’t have those same challenges that some of the other schools have,” Lammers said. “Our social worker, she had a handful of people she needed to contact. We probably had 10 students who we had to try a little harder to get ahold of.”
When asked to respond to the criticism about what some perceive as a slow and flawed rollout of virtual learning, Regional Superintendent Carletta Noland said it takes time to develop a plan for this form of instruction.
“I think we need to keep in mind that this is new for all,” Noland said. “We have to remember there were things happening behind the scenes that people in the public eye may not have been privy to. It also takes time to provide 30,000 Chromebooks to families. Going forward, we now have a blueprint, and we have some lessons learned.”
The school year for most middle and high schools ends on May 21. Elementary schools continue until June 11.
MPS Board member Paula Phillips says she’s turning her attention to how the district can prepare for the next school year. Phillips says there was a "failure of leadership" in this crisis, especially when it came to communicating with teachers and families.
“I feel a lot better about what we’ve been doing over the past three to four weeks. [But] it doesn’t take away what wasn’t happening over the first five to six weeks,” Phillips said. “So that’s why I think it’s imperative that all of us in leadership are communicating so that we can continue to earn the trust of people who have given us the duty of educating their kids.”
MPS has not announced plans for what the next school year will look like. But Superintendent Keith Posley has said getting technology to all students is key in case remote learning must continue beyond summer.
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