I have founded seven schools over the past 12 years with one mission in mind — to eradicate the achievement gap that Black students suffer year after year. Fortune School, a network of K-12, tuition-free, public charter schools is a regional initiative in Sacramento and San Bernardino to prepare kids for college, starting in kindergarten.
So, when on March 21, I announced to families we were closing our schools temporarily because of the COVID-19 virus, it broke my heart. When you are an educator, the school community means everything. You experience the joys and challenges of life with children and families as you educate the next generation. But, when God closes a door, he opens a window.
It never occurred to me that a deadly pandemic would drive us to lock-up our brick and mortar classrooms and open virtual ones in a week’s time, but that’s exactly what we’ve done.
We put hundreds of Chromebooks into the hands of eager parents and on March 25, Fortune School launched an ambitious Distance Learning Program to our families who, alongside millions of Californians, have found themselves sheltering in place and suddenly homeschooling. Our program is built to last until the end of the school year if need be. We are using Google Classroom as our learning management system, providing students with original, teacher-made videos and assignments curated by our curriculum and instruction department based on Fortune’s existing curriculum. Our teachers engage students face-to-face for instructional questions through Google Hangouts. It’s been cool to see students rocking their school uniforms at the kitchen table from home, while they video conference with their teachers and classmates.
Principals don their school swag and hold daily morning meetings on Facebook Live. Students and their parents friend us on Facebook to hear announcements, say the pledge of allegiance, sing the National Anthem and our school song, “Lift Every Voice.” Our goal is to keep our school community together during these difficult times by constantly communicating with families in fun ways. We’ve even gotten creative with technology to feature our PE and visual and performing arts teachers to provide yoga, art, music, and spoken word for students.
Interestingly, principals have observed that we’ve seen certain social media savvy, millennial parents engage in our digital schools in ways they never did in person. For sure, there are some in our school community who struggle with the technology. To address that problem, we have established tech hotlines to answer questions from parents and teachers, manned by the IT staff who were normally assigned to school buildings. We created a Distance Learning Hub, which is a family friendly website with technology training videos, announcements and a portal to virtual classrooms all in one place. Teachers have their own Distance Learning Professional Development website along with office hours two times a day from our tech and curriculum experts.
We have moved Special Education services online too, providing specialized therapies and instructional supports to students with IEPs through Google Hangouts. Counseling is available for all of our students who need social-emotional support during this time.
Kids still need structure in a homeschooling model. We’ve provided parents with a daily schedule that includes breakfast and lunch. Any parent can pick-up a FREE grab-and-go breakfast and lunch every day at a drive through at one of our school sites.
Small public school systems like Fortune, don’t receive much attention in the larger narrative about what’s happening in American schools right now. But, I want you to know, we are here and we are serving our families from our homes to theirs. We are keeping a positive attitude and following the advice of inventor George Washington Carver who said, “Start where you are, with what you have. Make something of it and never be satisfied.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Margaret Fortune is the President/CEO of Fortune School, a network of K-12 public charter schools in Sacramento, California she founded to close the African American achievement gap in her hometown. Dr. Fortune has been an education adviser to two California Governors. She is secretary-treasurer of California State National Action Network, a national civil rights organization.