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What Will Happen in the Fall?

As we transition into May, I know that many Wooster families have questions about what our next school year will look like, what our plans are, and when we’ll start sharing that information. Unfortunately, on the “when we will know” part, I don’t have a lot of answers. As far as when students and teachers can return to campus, and in what kinds of configurations, we’ll have to rely on what our public health and state government officials tell us. At present, it is our intention to be open, with students and faculty on campus, in the fall, but other factors like current prevalence of the COVID-19, local testing capacity, and availability of PPE will likely be relevant at that time. Lots of things that we do not control, but also lots of potential options to explore, even given the conditions.

So, rather than dwelling on the hypotheticals, I thought it might make sense to write about how the things that we do control have helped to sustain our learning environment these last five weeks and how they can predict a positive experience for our students regardless of how the rest of the situation pans out. The central theme here is that we are still Wooster School, and the things which make us special and strong -- and quite literally the best learning environment around -- are what will assure positive outcomes in the future.

Why has Wooster School been able to transition to distance-learning so seamlessly and well?

I recently read an article which described the best schools as highly diverse ecosystems made up of many micro-systems, all of which contributed to the learning and development of students (and faculty, parents, etc.). I thought this an apt metaphor for Wooster. It went on to say that the schools which had best adapted to moving online in this emergency were those that had built around their core values. They had preserved the diversity of their ecosystem.

Because Wooster is a school that is built on relationships -- particularly between students and teachers, and among students -- we’ve designed our online learning system to reflect that. We have prioritized teachers meeting with individuals and small groups. We’ve prioritized students still being able to work together as they learn. We also ignored the false dichotomy that is being peddled by many schools that online is necessarily bad while physically present is good. Given that we have no choice right now, how is that even helpful? In addition, we already knew that there were lots of things that would work out well, while we’d be creative and resourceful in making the best of the rest.

Many things can be introduced and thought about quite well from a distance. When our teachers embed a ten-minute lecture, or a demonstration, or the screencast of a powerpoint presentation on an Altitude card and the student chooses to watch it at home, or during a free period, that’s learning from a distance. Reading is learning from a distance. Practice problems on Khan Academy can be learning from a distance.

Altitude learning is another great example of a learning management system which is designed to help teachers take better advantage of time by helping them flex when and where students can interact with learning materials (videos, demonstrations, screencasts) and with them. Learner-centered schools like Wooster are also more likely to have created programs like Humanities, the Deep Learning Initiative, and Trimester Electives which rely more on flexible grouping, student choice, and more independence. Technology and smart scheduling have helped us to create more learning time. Our sophisticated teacher learning program has empowered teachers to make it more valuable.

As we have re-thought our relationship with time in school, it has also strengthened our commitment to the strong relationships that are at the heart of our school. It should not be surprising then, that a school which thrives on strong relationships and a growing expertise with using technology to enhance learning by increasing the value and frequency of contacts between teachers and students, should emerge from this first phase of distance learning with learning and relationships intact. Definitely different and not optimal, but still effective and meaningful.

So, though it may sound counter-intuitive, schools that have been focused on individualizing and personalizing the learning experience for students -- and blending technology, independence, flexible grouping, etc as a part of their mission for years -- are far better suited for distance learning than more traditional schools. We are more challenged now because the very powerful “in person” elements have changed. There is no question that something is lost when people meet via Google Hangouts as opposed to in person. But has the learning stopped, or are connections not happening? No way.

Finally, it also helps to have highly intelligent, curious, innovative, and extremely hard-working teachers and administrators at Wooster School. We all share the same beliefs and we’ve learned how to be adaptable, one of the most important skills when trying to thrive in uncertain conditions.

Why are other schools and systems struggling with this transition?

In most schools, the primary unit of instruction is the lecture/powerpoint presentation. Since that is the default, we can only assume that time for students to work together in small groups, and for teachers to work individually with them, is considered less valuable. We might also assume that when teachers who are used to spending most of their time presenting or managing whole class discussion do apportion small bits of time to more personalized learning, they might not be well-equipped to maximize that time because they have neither the tools nor the expertise to do so. When looked at through the lens of meaningful learning, they were behind already.

This forced transition to distance learning has revealed what parents couldn’t see from home before -- students that are disengaged and not learning a whole lot. As many of us know from our memories of attending these kinds of schools, the boredom and disengagement can be lightened up a bit by the physical presence of other students, the hustle and bustle inside a school building. But when you remove the ancillary, and everyone is home and isolated, the impersonal nature of the system can become overwhelming.

The problem goes even deeper. Because these schools haven’t valued time and haven’t found maximized technology and teacher expertise to personalize learning, nearly all of their technology is designed for presentation and/or assessment and communication of grades. So not only does it not adapt well to learning from a distance, but going back to “normal” means returning to an educational experience that is still impersonal, unengaging, and technologically moribund. These were not complex and diverse learning ecosystems to begin with, and the pandemic has made them even less so.

What will Wooster School do in the fall?

As I mentioned above, any decisions about having students and teachers physically on campus -- when, in what groupings, and how often -- will be dictated by what we are hearing from our state and local government and health officials. That said, I can tell you with absolute assurance that we will still be delivering the best learning experience for students in the region.

Being forced to move online has been stressful for all of us, and we miss seeing our students and colleagues every day, but it has also strengthened our technological skills, and our ability and capacity for valuing time. Here are a few things that we’ll be looking to do in September, whether we are physically here or not:

Blended Classes: Wooster School has been building a blended foundation for our classes over the last five years or so. The pandemic is serving as an accelerant, but not for anything that we did not already hope to do. A blended foundation simply means that we are best utilizing all of the resources at our disposal, as intelligently and efficiently as possible, to create the best possible learning for our students. We blend scheduling innovations, technology, program evolution and teacher methodologies to take best advantage of new knowledge about the science of learning, new technology that seeks to leverage that knowledge, and what we know about the power of relationships and community.

Because this model maximizes time and improves individual learning, every Wooster School class in the future will be built upon a blended learning format. As I mentioned earlier, many of our classes are already blended in that they are a combination of technology used to create asynchronous learning opportunities for students (like watching short lectures and demonstrations at home, or during a free period, or even during class) and synchronous meetings of large and small groups, and individuals. In the future, we will look to better utilize technology for practice, enrichment, and individual growth (think here of Khan Academy for math and Rosetta Stone for Spanish). Better utilizing these methods helps us to do two very important things: personalize the pace of learning for students, and increase the amount of time that teachers can be in personal contact with them. With Altitude learning as the nexus, teachers can then provide more individualized and small group instruction, while also collecting and giving better feedback on student learning. You can see these ideas reflected in version 2.0 of our Distance Learning Daily Schedule, and we’ll be building on this to create an even more productive schedule in the future.

With a more blended foundation, we can maximize time and learning here on campus -- and create far more opportunities for students to better learn independence and self-management. Improving on our current blended foundation also helps us to create better and deeper independent learning experiences for our students as they learn and mature. Expect that in the near future the experiences of our Juniors and Seniors will continue to evolve so as to best prepare them for independent life and deep learning.

With a stronger blended foundation we will also be better prepared to pivot should we need to again be off campus for a period of time. It also allows us to flex in between those two extremes with little or no trouble. If we are phasing back in and need to split some classes so that they don’t meet at the same time, no problem. If we need to reduce the number of students and teachers on campus, it can happen overnight. If someone gets sick and can’t be here, or needs to be quarantined, we’ve got them covered. When the day comes that we are all back on campus permanently, a more blended foundation opens up countless opportunities for more engaging and better personalized learning across the board. If there is a silver lining for Wooster in all this, it is that we’ll be superpowering what was already a strong learning community.

So while I can’t give you the details of the day to day, I can assure you that we’ll be ready.

Tuition Adjustments: As the situation develops in the fall, we will continue to view tuition as we have since going online. Elements of the experience that are clearly not happening and which we can disaggregate in terms of cost, we will endeavor to refund. Recent examples are our food and transportation refunds. The reality is that as a Variable Tuition School, our margins are relatively thin and faculty and staff salaries and benefits represent the vast majority of expenditures. We also need to maintain the campus and some services so that we can open fully when we have the opportunity.

I can’t say enough about the resilience and good nature of our community. Because we are tight-knit, and all believe in the power and importance of learning and school, I know we’ll get through together, and stronger than before. This is no cliche now, and wasn’t before we had a pandemic. Wooster is a special place, and the best kind of place to be when things get rough.

As the unknown begins to be known -- whatever that means these days -- we will continue to adjust and evolve as we always have: with students, their health, and their learning at the center.

Be healthy and be well,

Matt Byrnes
Head of School

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