Education at Gardner Betts in the time of Covid-19: one foot in the present, one foot in the future.

Today’s Contributor: Gwen Zucker is a CTE teacher and Campus Innovation Connector at the Gardener Betts Juvenile Justice Center

The Gardner Betts Juvenile Justice Center’s AISD schools, Travis County Leadership Academy and Day School, have their very own COVID-19 education plan.  While the Detention Center portion was able to return most residents to the community in response to COVID-19, the residential facility continues to house students from all over Central Texas, including the majority of the population from Austin.  The rules are different here.  No one can drop-off chromebooks to these students, nor park a big hot spot in the parking lot.  Teachers and students can’t log onto zoom and talk to each other through audio and video links…not yet anyway.  

Instead, COVID-19 education consists of paper packets and phone calls…for now.  

Teachers design weekly paper packets, with readings, reviews, exercises, graphic design projects, workbook assignments, SEL lessons, origami, drawing lessons, connect–the–dots, word searches, and hidden pictures–the latter items depending somewhat on requests from the week before.  These packets are emailed to County staff at the end of the week. On Sundays, County staff prints out the packets, then hands them out each morning and afternoon during the week.  Teachers are each given an hour each day to call into the 8 different units and speak with as many students as they can.  We are a connection to the outside, a source of warmth and encouragement, someone to share memories of a recently passed grandfather, plans for the future, and then perhaps a gentle reminder of some lessons they had previously learned.  Throughout the day they receive these individual phone calls from teachers that have been routed through the control bubble and into their units.  And staff can call teachers for students when students need help outside of assigned call time. Teachers signed up for google phone numbers routed to their cell phones to maintain security while being able to provide support at students’ requests.

Teachers, when they are having a great day, may get to speak to each student in several of the eight units they teach. That means, no lunch duty, counseling session, PE class, or dropped lines stopped too many of their calls.  Teachers take notes on conversations to be shared with colleagues and to be sure each student gets attention.  There are the very few who refuse phone calls, but not many.

The future beckons though.  We imagine fully online classes, full access to online resources, ways to connect all our students to the incredible resources unveiling themselves by the week… Nepris.com (a platform that provides teachers and students an opportunity to chat directly with industry leaders about their work, successes, failures, pathways and inspiration; Computer Science Python class (that was gifted our school by Edhesive and includes free grading), certification classes for CTE classes, a free Harvard University online course for Unity (free game design platform).

For now, plans are in place for one way Microsoft Teams calls from teachers to students, and perhaps at some point in the future student access to AISD desktop computers in classrooms.  The challenge is teachers are normally an integral part of the online security system that keeps students from inadvertently or purposefully doing something that will extend their term in the facility or cause some concern out in the community.  Without teachers to monitor students online, staff can not be sure everyone is operating safely.  Our tech managers are working on a system to overcome this, but for now, paper rules.

Still, we want to respond just as all our colleagues are. We are trying to create connections, maintain continuity of learning, and help students know they are part of a larger community that cares about them and still wants to inspire them.   We write letters, send pictures, encourage mental and emotional responses to the materials we provide for engagement, share stories and chat with staff.

Each teacher is limited to one paper packet per day.  Using two to four pages, teachers need to create something for every student, from the not–yet–reading to the college level. And through phone calls we assess how students are doing and how we are doing.  We are still working on the mechanics of getting packets back to teachers so we can provie authentic feedback. So in the meantime we talk to them and we talk to each other.

We are fully engaged in learning, blending teacher and student lesson design, phone conversations (outreach and response), group work, and individual packets.  There is artistry to every method.

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