This fall, Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) will be changing its structure of how students receive their education in the Ypsilanti area by offering a new year-round remote learning program.
Covid-19 brought routine changes for students and their families when it came to attending school. However, an option where parents can optionally choose their child to attend classes remotely year-round had not been an option at YCS. Now, there is an option this upcoming fall with the new program "Ypsilanti Community Connected Schools.”
Class is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. for students and will include live instruction over Zoom. Students will attend morning meetings, small group meetings for specific subjects like ELA (English Language Arts) and Math, two elective classes, breaks, and offline activities such as reading and time to work on a themed project that will be introduced at the start of each quarter. Students in the program will also have opportunities to meet in person with their classes at a new brick-and-mortar building at 1076 Ecorse Road in Ypsilanti Township.
The new program will also still include other in-person activities like field trips and community service projects with local businesses.
The Start of the New Program
For Kier Ingraham, an online learning administrator, assistant principal of YCS TK-8 Online Learning Program, and key developer of Ypsilanti Community Connected Schools, including ways to encourage social interaction with the students online and in-person was very important. As a previous math and computer teacher, Ingraham took challenges head-on and could not wait to provide students a unique opportunity for learning during the pandemic. Later, she would ask the district to lead the online program, and the district took that chance.
The new program started in August 2020 when the district decided that grades K-8 were going to continue the online format. That was when Ingraham and other staff were requested to be a part of the program. Throughout the previous school year, the online program staff headed by Ingraham would hold meetings to discuss what students and families needed after the pandemic, leading them to be classified as a distanced learning program due to the amount of live instruction they included in the program.
The program was formatted not only by feedback from parents and students but also by the teachers who would come to meetings with suggestions of what they tried for their students and how that worked. Ingraham is hopeful for the future of the program and how it will bring students closer to their communities.
“Later, I’m hoping that it will increase the joy of learning,” Ingraham said. “That students will find that joy through the projects, through the community. They’ll understand that they can learn anywhere and it’s not just at school. But that school, whether they go back to a traditional classroom at some point or once they go to college, they know how to gain those skills for learning but that they really have the joy that they’re seeking out to learn.”
For Some Teachers, Remote Learning Led to Positive Outcomes
Ms. Cindy Smith has been an educator at YCS for two years and from the standpoint of an educator gave valuable feedback when the administration began to consider offering a permanent year-round program. Even before the pandemic, Smith had found that technology was already making a positive impact in the classroom.
Smith found that using online programs like Ed-Puzzle, Kahoot!, and Quizlet not only helped students with progressing their learning skills but also helped her assess which students needed more help or were ready to move forward. For Smith, there were more options online that were tailored to different students' needs than she had found when teaching in the traditional classroom.
Smith was involved heavily in the development of the program, including creating the logo, looking at the new brick-and-mortar building to be used, and also attending ice cream socials where parents and students were able to ask questions about the new program. Depending on the enrollment, Smith is set up to be teaching middle school math in the program this fall.
Smith hopes that students will be able to benefit from the option as it will allow them to learn wherever they go and might offer them more family time. For some students, it will help them advance further and continue to make progress in difficult subjects. Smith, herself, is hoping that the program will help facilitate relationships she has not only with students but also with parents.
“I am looking forward to the student-parent-teacher relationships that are going to build stronger and stronger as we move forward in this program and the success of the students themselves as they feel and see that they can still be part of a connected community,” Smith said.
For Kelly Andrews, who has been teaching at YCS for four years and will possibly be teaching a split kindergarten/first-grade class this fall depending on enrollment, has also found that teaching online was effective, despite how it was an initial struggle for many school districts to adapt to. Like Smith, Andrews also saw improvements in the online format that she had not seen in the traditional classroom, including improved attendance and fewer interruptions.
She also noted that students additionally benefited from small group instruction, where they received directions alongside a small group of other classmates.
“I taught fully online last year,” Andrews said. “I found that my fully online community worked very hard and grew tremendously with academics...When the district shared that they wanted to continue this online program, I was totally on board. It allows another option for parents, and after seeing how effective it was over this past year, I think it is a very positive addition to our district.”
Andrews also supported that in times of the pandemic, teachers are working harder than ever before to help their students. She is proud of YCS and their dedication to the education and future successes of their students, acknowledging their leadership and strong beliefs in the teachers, students, and community.
For Other Teachers, Remote Learning Was Not Easy at First
In comparison, Cantrese Reeves, who has been a middle school ELA teacher for four years at YCS, had only minimal knowledge of technology, but she did find that when technology was incorporated into lesson plans it was easier. For her personally, teaching during the pandemic had thrown her out of her comfort zone when she had to use technology more than ever before.
Despite this, Reeves found that the pandemic has made educators better. Not only did Reeves learn a new way of teaching, but she found that students adjusted to the online format as well and preserved despite the pandemic.
“I just think the fact that we were able to get through a year successfully where students were still able to accomplish what they needed to accomplish to be successful in spite of the fact that we’re going through a pandemic,” Reeves said. “I even had students that were learning from hospital rooms because they were sick, but they didn’t want to miss out. And that’s really encouraging for me, and I’m hoping a motivation for other students as well to overcome those obstacles.”
Reeves was excited about the new program opportunity as it would be an additional option for students who may not thrive in a traditional classroom setting. In helping support the new program, Reeves focused on recognizing needs and then fulfilling them, assisting Ingraham in any way possible. Through this, Reeves helped in setting up the ice cream socials, getting out the word about the program, helping to set up the building, and also working with the district to set up the curriculum for the ELA program along with other teachers for pre-K-12.
Reeves hopes that students will be able to benefit from the program not only by having the option to take extracurricular activities at the brick-and-mortar location, but also have flexibility in their schedules and be comfortable by taking their classes remotely at home.
Gail Sykes is a Young Fives educator for YCS, and at the start of the pandemic, she was initially unsure about the online format due to her love for the personal relationships developed in the traditional classroom. As Sykes continued to teach online, those personal relationships seemed to grow more than before in the homes of the students.
In regard to personalization, Sykes noted how small group instruction helped her students like Andrews did. Sykes also stressed that with the class being taught online, she was brought into the homes of the students. Sykes then not only came to help teach students, but she also helped her families in personal matters, including helping families get access to food, personal supplies, offering mental health support, and for some families, supporting them and a loved one through a terminal illness.
“I had parent meetings and it was a time where just me and the parents met online in Zoom,” Sykes said. “And as the time went on, they got pretty in-depth as to what I could do to help better them. And sometimes it wasn’t academics, sometimes I would have to do food drop-offs on their porch. They needed help with that, you know? They needed some personal supplies dropped off. They needed some mental health support. I could reach out and do that, and we could have those conversations...So, it didn’t just help the child, but the whole family.”
It was those experiences that made Sykes realize the potential that came with online learning and the reason why she changed her mind on whether she would teach online.
Depending on enrollment, Sykes might be teaching Young Fives students, or a split class of Young Fives and kindergarten. Sykes supports how the staff of the program is keeping its walls transparent on this, focusing more on the academic needs of the students in their assessments and having that reflect the set-up of which staff members will be teaching at which grades.
For the fall, Sykes hopes that the program will continue to help grow student-teacher-parent-community relations, but that it will help grow students as individuals.
To learn more about the program and upcoming events about it, such as ice cream socials, visit YCS TK-8 Online Learning Program page.