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How Polaris Charter Academy Keeps Students, Parents, and Teachers Connected

Posted on: April 20, 2020
This is the third in a series of inspiring stories about the innovation and success with distance learning from charter public schools in Illinois. You can read the first two entries here.

At Polaris Charter Academy, students learn on day one that “We are CREW, not passengers.”

When such a strong school culture suddenly finds itself grappling with distance learning, the mission was clear to leaders and staff: get the trickiness of technology out of the way and focus on the teaching, learning, and connecting they do best.

To accomplish this, Michelle Navarre, the head of Polaris, and her team focused on using technology that students and families were already familiar with. By intentionally simplifying their platforms, Polaris could ensure that community and personal growth remained at the forefront of this new normal.

Polaris’ remote learning platform utilizes three simple outlets to keep parents, teachers, and students connected. First, all parent communication is done through the Remind App, eliminating the need to text some parents while emailing others. Second, any synchronous learning is done through Zoom and all lessons for grades K – 8 are housed in Google Classroom. And finally, Polaris built a Remote Learning Hub that students and families can access directly from the Polaris website homepage.

To ensure participation, Polaris provided extensive tutorials on how to use all pieces of their communication puzzle. “We’ve used Google Classroom for a long time, but we made adjustments to it so that every classroom for every grade looks exactly the same, which makes it easy for parents to navigate and allows older siblings to help younger ones if caregivers are working,” said Navarre.

Daily schedules and weekly assignments are posted every Monday at 8 a.m. and homework is due on Friday afternoons. Teachers meet with small groups of students and hold virtual office hours every day.

Each morning students connect with their “crew” (derived from the idea that at Polaris, We are CREW, not passengers) comprised of their fellow students and a teacher, just as they do during the typical school day. When school is in session all-school crew assemblies occur on Mondays and Fridays, during which Polaris celebrates students’ birthdays by giving them a free book. On May 1, Polaris will launch its first virtual all-school crew session and books will be delivered to children celebrating birthdays via Amazon.

Polaris moved its Spirit Week online to give students the opportunity to participate in Pajama Day, Crazy Sock Day, and more from home. These small acts of solidarity continue to bond the Polaris family. All students need this connection right now, especially the approximately 18 percent of Polaris students who live in transitional housing and do not have the comfort of entering their physical classroom every day.

“There is no time more important than now for students to stay connected and feel seen,” said Navarre. “Test scores have never mattered less and character development has never mattered more.”

Polaris will host its first virtual Town Hall via Zoom soon to connect with parents regarding the remote learning platform. So far, its structure and usability have received glowing reviews from parents, many of whom are essential workers and are appreciative that their children are receiving quality education during this pandemic.

Navarre attributes the success of the program to Polaris’ culture as well as leadership’s ability to look at all possible barriers to student participation and find ways to mitigate these obstacles. To minimize technology barriers, Polaris passed out Chromebooks and headphones to students ahead of the school closure and made sure they had basic school supplies like pens, pencils, and notebooks as well. Polaris is still working with caregivers to provide students with access to technology and is providing paper packets when technology is unavailable.

“We’ve revamped everything to engage our students every day,” said Navarre. “We’re using this time to teach students how to learn, to take charge of their own learning, while supporting them and staying connected as one crew.”

The mission of Polaris Charter Academy is to educate students to be self-motivated, creative, critical thinkers, with the ultimate goal of shaping life-long learners and citizens with a strong sense of personal and civic responsibility.