Welcome to Learning Leaders! This week, we are bringing you our interview with John Binnert, the executive director of Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School. Cottonwood Classical is a charter school located in Albuquerque, New Mexico serving grades 6-12.  It was the first school in New Mexico to offer the pre-university International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum and was recently named the second best high school in New Mexico by U.S. News.

How did you develop your continuous learning plan? 

The leadership team at Cottonwood Classical began discussing a continuous learning plan in late February. There were three different teams involved in developing a plan: the wellness team, administrative leadership council, and the curriculum council. Between these three groups, the teams discussed what they would do for distance learning, the logistics of getting information about the plan to families, providing Chromebooks to students and how to support grading. By the time it was announced that students would not return to school for the remainder of the academic year, Cottonwood Classical already had a plan that would honor the work of students, as well as support students who were struggling. The school also has the benefit of having access to technology for students, which has been a bigger issue for some charter and district schools across the state. 

What has been the most challenging part of switching to distance learning? 

Binnert said that the biggest frustration of distance learning is the loss of fidelity of who they are as a school. Cottonwood Classical is an IB world school, so there are high expectations about what needs to be accomplished for students in each academic year. The school also puts a high emphasis on student relationships and interactions, which has been limited during school closure. Additionally, distance learning has made it difficult for the school to implement their vision, as it’s difficult to replicate these concepts in an online learning environment. 

What do you think are the best aspects of your continuous learning plan? 

Binnert believes that the best aspect of their learning plan is the support they are providing students by extending their 3rd quarter. This extension gives students a chance to improve their current grades and allows teachers more opportunities to support students of all grade levels, including those who are struggling. As the school shifts to the 4th quarter, the school will be grading assignments with a credit/no-credit system rather than a letter grade system. 

Have you had to make any adjustments to your plan since starting distance learning? 

Cottonwood Classical has not made any major adjustments to their plan, but most of the adjustments have been trying to figure out what works best for students and teachers when it comes to engagement and teaching. Adjusting to online learning has been much more challenging for some teachers, as there are some teachers who had never expected to teach their students online. The school has taken an action research approach to figuring out what works best for their students and teachers. 

Were there any continuous learning plans from other schools in New Mexico or the country that you referred to when developing your plan? 

Binnert and the administrative team referenced plans from Virginia, Kansas, and Florida when developing their plan. The idea to extend Cottonwood Classical’s third quarter came from the Virginia Beach School District in Virginia. Schools in Kansas started distance learning before New Mexico, so they read articles about the state’s plan to get insight about what they would expect when starting distance learning. Schools in Florida were looked at to see what was being done about grading and student retention. 

What has been the most helpful tool that your school is utilizing? Why? 

Binnert said that the most helpful tool for their school isn’t actually a tool, but their school counselor, Nancy Stafford. Stafford has been creating weekly Youtube videos about skills for de-stressing and reflection, sends out resources to parents and students, has been available to contact 9 hours a day, and calls families to check in. She has been an incredible outreach specialist for the school and is constantly encouraging engagement between the school, students, and families.

What has feedback from students, parents, and teachers been like? 

Students have said that their current workload has been reasonable. Feedback from parents has been positive, but they’re encouraging the school to offer more optional video meetings so students can have the opportunity to interact with their friends. The school is encouraging partnership and supportive tones between students, parents, and teachers. 

Will remote learning contribute to a change in the way your district operates when school resumes? If so, how? 

Binnert said that there are so many possibilities and contingencies to how remote learning will change how their school will operate. He also shared that the team at Cottonwood Classical always thinks about the potential learning gap between returning and new students at the start of a new academic year, and due to distance learning, that gap might be wider than usual. Since they extended the 3rd quarter, returning students might be 3 – 4 weeks behind new students at the school. The academic team is also thinking about how to prepare for the possibilities of blended learning in the fall, and how they can better implement their mission and vision in the best possible way. They may not know for certain how their school is to continue until August, as that is the biggest variable for how their school will operate. 

In your opinion, how will this impact education in the future?

Binnert said this was a difficult question to discuss, as there were so many ways education could be impacted. When thinking about things more broadly, students at Cottonwood Classical have structure and internet, but that isn’t the same for some students across the US, or even the world. Accessibility to online learning is improving, but this situation has removed access from anyone that doesn’t have a device, reliable internet, or a stable home life. Binnert’s biggest worry is that the gaps that educators have been working on closing might actually be widening. However, Binnert believes that this situation can have a positive impact on the education system by increasing the value of face to face interaction. 

We’d like to thank Mr. Binnert for talking with us about the learning plan for Cottonwood Classical. To learn more about Cottonwood Classical Preparatory School, you can visit their website here.

Chelsea Berg is an intern at NewMexicoKidsCan and has benefited from New Mexico’s private and public school programs. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


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