Opinion: Charter schools lead in innovation during pandemic

Robert T. Kimball

Why, how and what. Simon Sinek reminds us that these three simple words create a powerful framework for understanding.  

National Charter Schools Week was celebrated last week, and charter public schools are showing us what they have to offer: innovation in teaching and learning. When our nation’s public schools were faced with an unprecedented challenge — the need to rapidly transform from in-person instruction to distance learning — charters led the way.

Because of the design principles that the charter community is founded on, charter public schools were able to rapidly deploy teachers and technology to reach students and keep learning moving forward. At first this transition occurred organically, in response to parent demand, and then more formally, as states required the creation of distance learning plans. 

Robert Kimball

Studying how this occurred in the charter sector is not important just for those schools, but for all public schools.

A first-of-its-kind study released by Grand Valley State University studies how a group of 78 charter public schools are doing it. Grand Valley is Michigan’s largest oversight agency of charter public schools. Its schools are geographically and programmatically diverse and educate more than 34,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The university commissioned an independent analysis of these schools’ distance learning plans.   

The study found its charter public school teachers are seizing the opportunity to push learning beyond traditional boundaries and expectations. Grand Valley charter public school teachers are using multiple methods of instruction, prioritizing instruction in the core content areas, and monitoring student learning in their distance learning plans. For example, the study found that 87% of Grand Valley schools are delivering instruction in combinations of print, live virtual sessions, and pre-recorded videos to reach all students. Online lessons are being made real by connecting with industry professionals.

Distance learning plans are more than academics though. The study found that ensuring students’ and families wellness is the entire schools’ responsibility, not just teachers. For example, William C. Abney Academy, Grand Valley’s K-6 school in Grand Rapids, is using “wellness committees” of bus drivers, lunch aides, and non-teaching staff to ensure that students and families remain connected to the school and engaged in learning. Even for Grand Valley’s Montessori schools, which rely on personal interaction and hands-on learning, the study found that schools are effectively replicating their in-person Montessori programming.

In short, this is a proof point from the charter community showing that schools can innovate. This study also offers important insights into the rapidly-changed role of the teacher. Everything from greeting students with email or virtually instead of a smile at the classroom door to monitoring student participation by logins rather than a quiet conversation after the bell is so different than what is taught in our colleges of education. Their work today is a test of their resilience and professionalism.

Is the how perfect? No, far from it. Access to devices, internet connectivity, the ability of parents to engage, and the level of rigor students are being exposed to is uneven. Outcomes must be assessed. However, just as the first cell phones were clunky and got better over time, the longer and more widely used distance learning becomes the more it will improve. Already we are making progress toward positive change. Real solutions to inequities that we all knew existed, inequities that were controlled for by traditional in-person instruction, are finally being discussed by educators and policymakers alike.

Lastly, about the why — that’s the easy part. Our students’ futures and our nation’s talent pipeline are too important to let them stagnate, even for a short time. And that’s why charters’ innovation is so important.  

Robert T. Kimball, Ed.D., is associate vice president for charter schools at Grand Valley State University and chair of the Michigan Council of Charter School Authorizers.