2020 Virtual State of the Schools

2020 State of the Schools Marked by Real Reflections from Students, Staff
Posted on 12/15/2020
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Virtual State of the Schools recording“The biggest challenge I’ve had is budgeting my own time because I’m all on my own the entire day and it’s very easy to get sidetracked,” said Lakota East Virtual Learning Option (VLO) student Theodore Engel


This was just one of the reflections on display during this year’s unique “State of the Schools” format, where both in-person and virtual students and staff helped share a lens into the current school year. The Jan. 8 event, which can now be viewed on demand, drew approximately 200 people for the hour-long presentation.


“I really appreciated how honest and real all of our panelists were,” said Superintendent Matthew Miller, who has insisted that student and staff voice be at center stage for this annual event since he introduced it to the Lakota community in the spring of 2018. “While State of the Schools is always about giving our community an overview of current and future district priorities, it was even more important in a year that has been consumed by the COVID-19 conversation.” 


While Miller spent some time reviewing the district’s ever-evolving response to the pandemic, he remained committed to making the evening about this year’s student and staff experience. Beyond the obvious aspects of daily life impacted by COVID-19, the conversation also revolved around such topics as in-person versus virtual learning, diversity and inclusion and social/emotional student support.


Lakota’s Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction, Keith Koehne, addressed the district’s process for planning and executing the virtual learning option this year. He also discussed the progression of plans to adequately support students in quarantine or in preparation for a potential shift to remote learning later this year. 


“Very few other districts decided to do what we did and build our own curriculum with our own teachers,” said Koehne, acknowledging that this had been part of Lakota’s long-term plan, but that COVID-19 escalated that process. 


Jama Singh, a VLO teacher from Cherokee Elementary, helped paint a picture for what relationship building looks like in a virtual format. “I remember someone telling me that your students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” said Singh, referencing community building strategies she’s used this year like both small- and large-group Zoom meetings, a regular “Lunch Bunch” gathering, virtual games and even unique, yet memorable “guest” teacher appearances she and her peers have dreamt up. 


In reimagining her lessons to be virtual this year, she stressed that she focused on what she could do with her students virtually that she can’t do with them in-person. Thinking about those advantages yielded unique experiences like a virtual visit to Disney World while using line wait times to study lapsed time.  


Engel laid out a typical week for a secondary VLO student, outlining both the biggest challenges and most positive aspects of the experience so far. From time management to self-paced learning to grades to video lessons, he covered a lot of ground. 


Ridge Junior School teacher Katie Bauer shared the unique perspective of a teacher who straddles both in-person and virtual learning on a daily basis. On the in-person front, Bauer references the pile-on effect of normal beginning of the year anxieties among her students compounded by new safety measures this year. She also touched on the new strategies and life skills that virtual learners are developing throughout this process.


“One of my favorite parts of teaching has always been getting to see students thriving and experiencing success,” Bauer said. “It’s almost twice as exciting and twice as impressive to see students experiencing success this year because school does look very different.”


Lakota West senior Desstiny Jackson expressed her frustrations with an altered school year marked by canceled events, while also acknowledging the general sentiment among her and her peers that it’s all being done to protect one another. She also shared her experience serving on Lakota West’s new student diversity group this year. 


“Diversity groups let us know that you genuinely acknowledge and appreciate us as students,” Jackson said. “It allows us to ensure that minority students in this district will be met with equal opportunity in this district both during and after high school. It also provides us with a space to share testimony and better understand each other’s battles.” 


Freedom Elementary counselor Audrey Young stressed the importance of social and emotional learning, especially in a year marked by heightened anxiety. She talked about all that goes into this type of learning, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, positive relationship-building and responsible decision-making. She also touched on the various community partners the district leans on to provide the “whole child” attention students demand. 


“Social emotional learning provides a foundation for students to have a positive learning experience,” Young said. “It enhances their ability to succeed in whatever career they choose and in life.”


Elgin Card, the senior director of Lakota’s Outreach Diversity & Inclusion (LODI) department, shared the district’s priorities for continuing to provide an equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students. 


“Some of the things we all want for our kids is for our kids to feel a part, to be respected, to have someone they feel comfortable with regardless of their race or religion or social economic situation,” said Card, expanding on such programs as “Champions for Change,” a peer-to-peer staff training program encouraging inclusive learning environments. He also highlighted new student diversity groups in the secondary buildings that are using student voice to drive future priorities like increased minority staff recruitment and multicultural content in the curriculum. 


Normally held in the spring, this year’s State of the Schools served as an update for both last school year and the current one. Lakota’s third annual event was unexpectedly canceled last spring due to COVID-19 limitations on large gatherings and as the district shifted to remote learning.


Top-rated thoughts in a ThoughtExchange shared in advance of the live panel event helped guide the questions and material covered during the presentation. A recorded version of the event also includes at the end the district’s response to questions posted during the live event.