5 lessons in Grace under pressure

Every school has faced an overwhelming array of adversity — Here are 5 lessons from a school that not only thrived but grew during a pandemic

By Scott Pickering
Posted 9/25/21

The pandemic shook everything in the world of education, and it sent even more tremors through private and independent schools.

Virtual classrooms were something to contend with in the short-term, …

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5 lessons in Grace under pressure

Every school has faced an overwhelming array of adversity — Here are 5 lessons from a school that not only thrived but grew during a pandemic

Posted

The pandemic shook everything in the world of education, and it sent even more tremors through private and independent schools.

Virtual classrooms were something to contend with in the short-term, but a fragile economy and negative perceptions of remote education were entirely different forces.

Would families continue to pay to send their children to schools taking place in their own kitchens? Should they?

Very early, the majority of private schools knew they had only one choice, both for the students and for themselves. They had to reopen again fully to students.

The Grace School knew it. Like so many others, the K-8 school in Providence reopened to students last September and has stayed open every day since. Though some families opted for remote learning last year (many for medical reasons), the classrooms were open to all students if they chose that option.

But what about the “value” of an education under such strange circumstances — with masks and stable pods, with no field trips, no outside visitors or really anything once considered “normal”? Like so many of its peers, The Grace School not only maintained its enrollment, it grew. It opened this month with a 13 percent growth in the student population.

There are many lessons of how and why schools like Grace not only persevered but thrived under adverse conditions. Here are a few of them …

Learn quickly

The Grace School had smart boards in every classroom and a robust technology platform before Covid. But it also ramped up the platform quickly.

“We invested in Web cams, head sets and microphones,” said Head of School Heather Boccanfusco, describing the first days of reopening last fall, when teachers were simultaneously teaching a cohort of students sitting in front of them and a cohort Zooming in from home.

“We invented the ‘Mute Mute,’ ” she laughed, describing the uniquely Grace term for making sure both the computer and the microphone were muted to avoid distracting feedback when multiple Zoom sessions were taking place in the same classroom.

“Our teachers showed amazing flexibility,” Ms. Boccanfusco said.

Keep kids engaged

The Grace teachers worked extremely hard to engage students in learning. This was even more difficult because of the school’s unique model, which is a fully inclusive environment, blending special education students with typical peers in every classroom.

“I’m very proud of our teachers and how they kept our students engaged,” Ms. Boccanfusco said.

“It really was a reflective practice, across the entire year, to figure out the best ways to engage the kids.”

Communicate constantly

The Grace administration and educators also communicate frequently with their families. That happened throughout the spring and summer of 2020, so that when it was time to reopen their doors, families knew exactly what to expect.

“We had open communication with the families. We communicated with them constantly from March 13 to the reopening of school, letting them know at every step what was going on,” Ms. Boccanfusco said.

And they keep communicating all school year. If distance students needed to log off for a break, teachers maintained a dialogue with the parents. If students were anxious about Covid or the protocols, they provided social stories and resource guides for every situation.

Good ideas are worth sharing

The communication happens internally, too. In staff meetings or around the proverbial water cooler, Grace teachers and therapists are constantly sharing ideas about what’s working in the classroom, what’s working for the students.

“Our teachers are amazing at sharing ideas,”Ms. Boccanfusco said. “At the end of last year, we did a survey of all things we did that worked well and we wanted to keep … A surprisingly long list of things that came out of it, things we never thought we would be doing.”

Kids need kid time

One of the unique lessons of Covid has been the value of simply being social.

“We build in socialization time each week for our students — time set aside just so they can socialize,” Ms. Boccanfusco said. “It might be a structured game or activity, or it might be time to just talk with each other and connect.”

Grace learned that its students craved time like this.

“So many of our students are dependent on facial expressions, or body movement, or human interaction,” she said.

The head of school is proud of all her school accomplished since reopening their doors a year ago. Not surprisingly, she’s proud of the team that made it happen.

“I can’t say enough about the teachers, the therapists, the teacher assistants … They’re so resilient, and they always keep the students at the center of what they do. It’s natural for all of us to be focused on, ‘What about me?’ They don’t do that. They focus on, ‘What’s important to my students? What can I do for them? How can I keep them safe?’

“They’re absolute rock stars on a daily basis … They’ve really knocked it out of the park, keeping our kids engaged and learning.”

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