Eighteen years ago, right before Michigan’s charter school boom began, I accepted my first teaching job at a Detroit based Big Picture Learning school. Built on student-centered principles, this school represented the promise of charter schools at the time: to provide innovative alternatives to the status quo and give underserved communities access to a first rate education.
To reach their self-paced learning goals, learners completed transdisciplinary projects, participated in internships across the city and took advantage of flexible, non-traditional school schedules to pursue their interests and earn college credit.
Since those exciting, early days, charter schools have become stigmatized in ways that hinder charter and traditional public schools from working together. But, remarkably, when the pandemic hit and shuttered all of Michigan’s school buildings, many of the tensions between public charter schools and traditional districts in my community dissolved.
Narrowing the Divide
Suddenly, thought leaders, superintendents, curriculum specialists, teachers, and technology directors from every charter, private, and traditional public school self-organized into professional learning communities. I attended meetings where virtual charter school special education directors coached district superintendents on how to provide virtual learning support to their students. I was invited to join a statewide workgroup where both charter and non-charter experts tackled some of Michigan’s most pressing virtual learning and student-engagement issues.
Our common mission to educate and support students and families through this collective tragedy had us authentically collaborating in a manner that was unthinkable just a few short months ago.
Small charter schools—already relationship-focused, blended, and standards-based—proved to be more nimble and effective during the transition to distance learning. Consequently, many traditional districts turned to us for solutions. For instance, my schools’ advisory programs provided the infrastructure needed to foster and track student engagement and online participation—vexing concerns for many large high schools (in traditional public school districts and charters across Michigan) with thousands of students in the cloud.
Our self-paced learning model—undergirded by competency-based curriculum and mastery-based assessment practices—made it easier to facilitate asynchronous online learning because students set the pace of their work, advancing upon mastery.
I spoke with several traditional districts that were forced to re-examine their pedagogical beliefs when they realized it wasn’t feasible (or good practice) to replicate the 6-hour school day in a synchronous Zoom classroom. Distance learning destabilized the one-size-fits-all bell schedule, and leaders started to see the real value of personalized, student-driven learning. Meanwhile, our schools’ self-paced learning model, supported by competency-based curriculum and mastery assessments, made it easier for students to learn online asynchronously. Students set the pace of their own work, moving ahead as they mastered objectives.
While we helped massive districts think about how to be more progressive and agile, traditional districts helped us think more about scalability and systems. We learned valuable lessons like how to leverage community organizations to provide services to families and how to execute food delivery operations. Superintendents of large districts modeled how to communicate effectively in crisis, how to create stakeholder buy-in, and how to be active in legislative decisions.
Though the coronavirus ravaged our cities and upended our schools, it also forced the education community to come together and innovate through the crisis. For now, the long-standing divide between many charters and traditional school districts has narrowed. I am grateful for the new relationships I have built through this crisis. I look forward to seeing more traditional and charter school leaders work together to subvert the outmoded factory-style paradigm and personalize and humanize schooling for all students in our state.