On March 18th, 2020, my principal pulled me into a meeting with the superintendent, principals, and assistant principals from other high schools in the district. I knew this meeting was important when I saw all the other administrators.
The first words out of my principal’s mouth were, “we may have to close the school down for a few days.” After hearing this news, I was surprised and worried; we’d never had to close the school so abruptly before. Shortly after, the meeting delved into a discussion about the safer-at-home orders instituted in LA County and how the school would enact these orders. Initially, we thought school closures would last a week, at most. However, as we all know, it has lasted much longer.
As the safer-at-home orders extended from one week to one month to an indefinite time, I became more concerned about the students and how the school closure would affect them. In addition, I worried about whether we would meet our students’ academic, emotional, and social needs, especially for students that attend a non-traditional school.
Throughout the pandemic, discussions about supporting students have centered on traditional, comprehensive schools. The traditional, comprehensive schools are where most students get an education. The students attend school Monday through Friday from 8 am to 3 pm. However, not all students attend a comprehensive school. There are also students who attend an alternative school because the comprehensive school did not meet their specific needs.
As an educator who works in an alternative school, I believe it is important to share how alternative schools support students throughout the pandemic and understand the experiences of the school staff and students from these schools.
One Alternative Education Model: Alta Vista Innovation High School
I am an Assistant Principal at Alta Vista Innovation High School (AVIHS), located in an urban area of Los Angeles, California. AVIHS follows an independent study model of schooling. Independent study is a hybrid of self-directed learning where the student guides their learning pathway and the continuation model, a more individualized curriculum with instruction in smaller class sizes). Under an independent study model, students are motivated by their own needs and goals while being supported and guided by a teacher providing an individualized curriculum.
AVIHS serves 500 high school students ages 14 to 24. Most of these students are referred to the school by district counselors, probation officers, or social service agencies. The student body mirrors the community AVIHS serves; however, it focuses on credit deficient students at-risk of dropping out of high school. Here are some other notable characteristics and identities represented in our student body:
- 99% qualify for free and reduced meals
- Many students come from historically and racially marginalized backgrounds, including 42% Black and African students and 50% Hispanic and Latino students
- 33% of the students are between the ages of 18 to 24
- 20% are English Language Learners
- 15% are students with special needs
- 10% are parents
The student demographics reflect that the students attending AVIHS need more than academic support. Because of these demographics, AVIHS became a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) school and partnered with an outside agency to assist our students with part-time employment as they earn their high school diplomas.
As a result of these partnerships, our students do not have to choose between earning a high school diploma or working to provide for their families. Our partners provide our students with the opportunity to work while ensuring their academic progress is not interrupted. Additionally, our partners and AVIHS collaborate to confirm that students are on the path to graduation. Under these partnerships, our students blossom, attend school consistently, and complete academic credits while working. Then, the pandemic hit. The school closure and transition to remote learning affected our students like many others throughout the nation. However, many working students saw their hours reduced or positions eliminated.
Needless to say, our students were looking for answers and it was up to us to provide solutions that would help them navigate this situation.
Support Through the Pandemic
As the safer-at-home orders extended into the 2019-2020 school year came to an end, the leadership team met to discuss how we would support our students. After the meeting, we decided to create a task force that included the school leadership team, staff, and students. As we gathered perspectives from task force members, we concluded that it was essential to focus on three key areas: financial support, academic support, and mental support.
- Financial Support: We agreed that it was important to help students find secure job opportunities, especially those that lost employment during the pandemic. Through our WIOA partnerships, we established an internal internship opportunity to teach students how to utilize Tik Tok and other social media as a marketing tool by creating videos for the school. Students were paid to create video content for our school’s social media accounts. Additionally, we provided meal packages that students could either pick up from the school or someone from the leadership team would drop it off at their home. By focusing on these two areas, we were able to ensure that students weren’t putting themselves and their families at risk by leaving their homes to work, and it also provided our students with money that they could use as they saw fit.
- Academic Support: In addition to student finances, we also wanted to make sure students could meet their educational goals. While all students in Los Angeles attended school remotely, many of our students were also supporting their younger siblings or children. Knowing this, we realized an 8 am to 3 pm school schedule would not work. To combat this issue, our school staff became flexible to meet the needs of our students. We expanded our hours for students; teachers began working chunked shifts that met the needs of the students’ schedules. Some teachers split their daily schedules by working in the mornings (8 to 11 am) and later in the evenings (5 to 8 pm). Others opened up the weekend hours and taught students Saturdays and Sundays.
- Mental Support: Finally, we addressed mental health. Our school counselors provided professional developments to our teachers and school staff on trauma-informed practices and how to best support our students during this time. We also partnered with Care Solace to provide our students with any additional mental health support that our students and their families needed outside of the school.
Focusing on the overall student and the three aspects of financial, academic, and mental support ensured our students knew we were committed to their overall wellbeing.
Creating Solutions for Every Student
Schools have always been, in my opinion, a safe place for students; it is where students receive assistance to support their academic goals, mental wellbeing, and daily sustenance that some cannot access at home. Thankfully, the most significant change I have seen during the pandemic is that schools have accelerated the pace at which they adapt to meet the needs of their students. However, there is more that we can do.
The pandemic has reinforced that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students. Each student has their own needs, some of which cannot be met if our solutions only focus on traditional schools and student populations. That is why we must share more information and best practices across our schools. The more we share about what schools are doing – both traditional and alternative – the better we can support students.