70% of students at Manara Academy District—a small public charter in Irving, Texas with three campuses—are currently enrolled in fully remote learning. From the beginning of the pandemic and the switch to virtual learning, school leadership knew that they wanted to do right by their virtual learners: they wanted them to have the exact same access to a high-quality, equitable education that an in-person learner would have. They also knew that engaging their families and ensuring their comfort with virtual learning was absolutely vital to meeting this goal and that they would need to take advantage of every resource available in order to do so.
Manara is using a tactic called “Parent Academies” to drive progress toward their goal of having a minimum of 75% of families feel comfortable and confident with at-home learning by the end of 20-21 SY.
Lori Trussell, principal of Manara’s Arlington STEM Academy (pre-K-8th) campus, previously used this tactic at Arlington and covered topics like supporting your child’s learning at home and at school, cyber safety, interpreting the results of standardized test scores, supporting your child’s social-emotional learning needs, supporting your English-language learner, etc. Arlington’s first Academies boasted around 130 family participants.
The district had long talked about implementing the practice across their three campuses and nearly 700 students, but COVID-19 amplified the need and the opportunity to use them to prepare students and families for the realities of virtual learning. Over the summer, Trussel began working with Rick Dix, principal of Irving Elementary (pre-K-6th), and Denise Sudan, interim Manara superintendent and principal of Leadership Academy (7-12th) to develop strategies for student success in the face of virtual learning. The group knew that their Academies could be a powerful tool here.
As they began to develop the strategy, school leadership realized that one of their teacher-leaders could play a key role in its success.
A working group was compiled to work toward the goal of getting at least 75% of families across the district feeling confident and comfortable with at-home learning by the end of the school year. When Academies were proposed as a strategy, Principal Rick Dix remembered that one of his teacher-leaders had extensive experience and expertise in this exact area and invited her to join the working group and help drive family engagement at Manara. Collaborating with teacher-leaders to the benefit of students and families is fairly common at Manara. Principal Rick Dix says, “If you have people that have talents and they’re able and willing to share and to help, we definitely utilize that.”
Phylisha Gold previously led academy-style family engagement events at a district in Oklahoma. Gold is now a 4th grade teacher at Manara’s Irving campus as well as Campus Testing Coordinator and a member of the Campus Instructional Leadership Team. She and the teachers she worked alongside in Oklahoma were faced with a lack of communication and common understanding with families. This led to frustration on both sides and was severely impeding student success, so the teachers decided to do what teachers do best… teach.
“A lot of times as educators we go into the classroom assuming that parents understand what we do, but when you go to the doctor’s office you don’t understand what the doctor is doing. So it reasons that we have to let them in on what education looks like from our perspective,” says Gold. She led the charge for developing Academies which enabled teachers and families to get on the same page and work together to ensure student success. Gold knew the power of this common understanding and was excited to apply that understanding to benefit students and families at Manara during the COVID-19 crisis.
Ensuring that students and families are clear on expectations and processes required for successful virtual learning is vital to student success, says the Manara leadership team. These Academies are especially important for the families of students who are struggling to succeed with virtual instruction, says Principal Rick Dix. Topics will include successfully using technology associated with virtual learning, establishing strong study habits during virtual learning, who to reach out to for support, etc and content will continue to evolve throughout the year based on feedback from families and the needs that present themselves during the pandemic.
Beyond the pandemic, Gold’s ultimate goal for the Academies is to reach families as soon as possible. She believes that by building strong relationships and expectations with families of pre-K to first or second grade students, it gives those students the best chance possible at an equitable education because they have a strong support system from the start of the educational experience.
In addition to supporting families with virtual learning, Manara will utilize Academies to find equitable solutions to the unique barriers to family engagement that come with having a highly diverse population of families
Manara students and families are diverse, with five primary languages spoken across the district: Arabic, English, Somali, Spanish and Urdu. Many Manara families are immigrants, for whom Manara is their first experience with the American education system. These Academies offer an essential opportunity for families to align with teachers and school leaders on the educational process and student and family expectations for academic success, which can vary greatly from culture to culture.
With so many languages spoken across the district, communication can be tricky. Manara will utilize their diverse staff who have rich language backgrounds to record the virtual Academy modules and translate them into almost every language needed. They will be offered via Google Classroom, which provides safe, contactless communication of key content that is available on-demand to meet the needs of working families.
ANet’s strategic approach to goal setting has been an asset to Manara as they plan to drive family engagement.
Earlier this summer, Manara applied to and was selected to join the Texas Education Agency’s Resilient Schools Support Program (RSSP). The RSSP is a state initiative designed to help schools who are operating remote or hybrid learning models during the 20-21 school year to evaluate their learning models for efficacy and improve upon them to the benefit of their students. Through the program, Manara was matched with ANet and their coach, Kori Hamner, Managing Director of System Advising.
Hamner’s coaching has been essential in helping Manara to take their vision for doing right by their virtual learners and turn it into a strategic action plan, says Principal Rick Dix. Principal Lori Trussell describes Hamner as “accessible, reflective and responsive to our needs.”
From the beginning of the partnership, Hamner sensed the urgency Manara felt to best support their virtual learners. Hamner says that leadership knew that to make this happen, “We really have to engage our families and support them. Families don’t need to know everything about the content but they do need to know how to help and support their students.” Hamner worked with leadership to establish a team and a Family Support Plan and now meets weekly or bi-weekly with the Manara team in both smaller and whole group settings to help drive their strategies for family engagement.