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“We were preparing for this all along”: How charters succeeded in the COVID-era classroom

Posted on: August 2, 2023

In March 2020, when millions of students around the world were sent home from their classrooms, one charter network found themselves uniquely positioned for the months ahead. For the first time in global history, parents and caretakers were tasked with more than just homework help: They were expected to provide tech support, tutoring, and classroom supervision at home.

For most students, the change was overwhelming. But for some students, distance learning was a natural step from their usual classroom environment.

Distinctive Schools, the charter management organization overseeing eight INCS member campuses, was among a select group of schools whose students were prepared for a drastic shift in their education. Since its founding in 2011, Distinctive Schools has aimed to redesign and transform the learning environment into one that best serves students, families, and educators.

Years before the pandemic began, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) West Belden, a Distinctive Schools campus, took teachers on inspiration visits to classrooms around the country. Teachers were encouraged to take the best practices they saw back to Chicago, where they worked with families to create classrooms of the 21st century that not only met learning objectives, but also increased joy for students.

The result was personalized learning, a classroom approach that adapts lessons and curriculum to each individual student’s needs and strengths to ensure they’re learning material and concepts in the most efficient way possible while upholding the schools’ promises of strong results to families and to communities.

“What we learned during that journey was that it was a lot less about the specific strategy of the work we were doing and more about the heart of the work we were getting at,” said Colleen Padgett, senior innovation partner at Distinctive Schools. “That continues to live on in our classrooms and expands beyond our walls through our partnership with LEAP Innovations.”

Personalized learning can look a lot of different ways, but the core approach revolves around recognizing that every child is an individual and we can go further with them if we help them to understand who they are both as a student and as a person.

Distinctive Schools teachers work with each student on goal setting and designing a learning pathway that they want to approach. Through intentional relationship building with students and families, kids can understand who they are holistically, take ownership over their learning, demonstrate progress in a way that feels right to them, and connect their learning to contexts outside of the school setting.

Personalized learning means focusing not just on product, but also on process. Teachers work with students to help them understand the ways that they work best so that long after they’ve left the classroom, they still know the ways in which they work best and can be successful.

The self-awareness and self-understanding that students have as a result of personalized learning was at the core of why Distinctive Schools students sailed quickly adapted to remote learning while so many struggled. As Padgett puts it: “It turns out, unbeknownst to us, we were preparing for this all along.”

While no one could have predicted the unprecedented shift in education, these students were already capable of troubleshooting and showing their work in different ways. Many students were even thriving in this new academic setting, where independence became the norm and they needed to seek out what it was they needed, whether that be office hours with a teacher or group collaboration with their peers.

Students were comfortable taking their education into their own hands and course-correcting when they were struggling, thanks to the flexibility their classrooms provided them with all along and the conversations they’d had with educators about finding their learning styles. They were also familiar with many of the tools and digital platforms that became a mainstay of their day-to-day lessons.

This digital fluency certainly helped students but was not the only reason for their success during tumultuous times. “Since we started this work, we’ve known technology was not going to be a replacement for strong teaching,” notes Scott Frauenheim, CEO of Distinctive Schools. “It might sometimes replace a paper and a pencil, but technology is really just a tool that students use.” At its core, personalized learning is about the relationships between students and teachers.

We’ve come a long way since March 2020, and while some things remain the same as they were pre-COVID, personalized learning is here to stay at Distinctive Schools.

Distinctive Schools partnered with Chicago nonprofit LEAP Innovations in the spring of 2023 to deliver professional development rooted in personalized learning. Through collaborative professional development and personalized coaching, LEAP Innovations with Distinctive Schools’ personalized professional development solutions empower teachers and leaders to design innovative learning experiences built around preparing and inspiring students to become lifelong learners and leaders. Utilizing the LEAP Learning Framework, which has been developed through years of research and collaboration with educators, innovators, and thought leaders, the Distinctive Schools vision for personalized learning will continue to expand to classrooms across the country.

As Distinctive Schools prepares for a new academic school year, Frauenheim says teachers are eager to try new classroom designs based on last year’s learnings and to have a fresh new start with students who are now more adapted to the classroom setting. And thanks to the efforts of personalized learning, we have no doubt that students will find ways to thrive in their classrooms and beyond.