Earlier this month, we released our Continuing to Learn report featuring summaries of the distance learning plans of every New Mexico school district and charter school. To acknowledge the hard work of school and district leaders and, NewMexicoKidsCAN will be highlighting some of New Mexico’s strongest plans in our new blog series, “Learning Leaders.” Join us as we share summaries from interviews with district and school leaders about their distance learning programs and how they are managing the largest disruption to our education system in decades.

To kick off our Learning Leaders series, we are sharing the summary of our interview with the head of Solare Collegiate Charter School, Rachael Sewards. Solare Collegiate Charter School is a grade 5-8 middle school, currently serving 5th and 6th grade students, located on Albuquerque’s southwest mesa. 91% of students identify as students of color and 88% qualify for free or reduced lunch. This is Solare’s first year of operations.

How did you develop your continuous learning plan?

Solare began the development of the school’s continuous learning plan in mid-March when the initial school closure was  announced. Faculty and staff didn’t want their students to fall behind, so they took a very proactive approach to their learning plan. Families were contacted and learning packets were distributed to keep learning going through the initial closure. In fact, 100% of Solare’s scholars received their work packets even though only 60% of students were present to receive them on March 13th, which was the last day of school before the initial closure.

Solare leadership also wanted to be prepared for closure for the remainder of the year, in case the initial closure was extended, so they looked to other charter schools across the country for inspiration. School leaders  made the decision to keep things as simple as possible by using minimal and free platforms, such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

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

Sewards stated that the hardest part for her, as an administrator, has been not seeing the students every day. Another challenging aspect has been figuring out how to provide direct support to students. Solare has worked to establish structures for feedback and support between students and instructional staff via email and text messages.

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

Sewards believes that the best aspect of Solare’s approach is their use of Google Classroom and Zoom. Google Classroom has been the most helpful program since the platform supports high quality lessons that are easily accessible for students. The platform’s automatic grading function has proved helpful for teachers, as well as its record answer feature that can be used if writing is difficult for students. Zoom allows for teachers to schedule mandatory meetings for whole classes, so that students can see and interact with their teachers and classmates. Sewards also believes that their virtual P.E classes are another interesting aspect of their plan. These classes are not required, but students are encouraged to participate. Additionally, the P.E. teacher creates daily movement and mindfulness videos for students to use and access when it works for them.

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

Since starting their continuous learning plan, Solare has made some adjustments to their plan, such as moving from their original paper-based plan to utilizing online platforms. Originally, Solare opted to do paper-based instruction because not all students had access to computers or tablets. School leadership, including the board, made the decision to re-prioritize funds to purchase additional Chromebooks and distribute them to every student. In providing every student access to a device and wifi, they were able to transition to online platforms and adopt a predictable and structured daily schedule. A consistent daily schedule was one of the items parents and family members requested in the survey sent out by Solare. Parents and families of the school indicated they wanted more structure, not less. The routine daily schedule has received tremendous positive feedback from parents because it provides clear expectations and a predictable routine for students.

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

When developing Solare’s continuous learning plan, Sewards looked to fellow education leaders across New Mexico and others across the country, both in the traditional and charter school sectors, for thought partnership and collaboration. She reflected on conversations with a fellow charter school leader in New York, as one of the places she found inspiration. Sewards knew the school leader from previous work and knew that the leader’s school was similar in grade level and model to Solare. With his guidance, she was able to troubleshoot her plan prior to starting distance learning based on what he had experienced with his students, staff and school community.

What has student/parent/teacher feedback been like?

Sewards stated that  feedback from students and families has been overwhelmingly positive. Prior to official school closure, Solare sent a survey to parents for feedback and suggestions. Sewards said that she has been able to see teachers “shine”  with their teaching abilities in a totally new way. As an example, check out this Facebook video where Ms. Thiersch, 5th grade math teacher, “infused a little joy” into her class.

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

Distance learning has impacted the way Solare will operate when school resumes. Distance learning has provided students and teachers with increased technological skills that will continue to be utilized. Solare also plans to initiate a one-to-one Chromebook system for students moving forward. Ms. Sewards also reflected on the fact that, in her experience, COVID-19 and the resulting school closure, has demonstrated the tenacity and dedication of Solare’s students and families. For her, as a leader, it’s been inspiring to see and has kept her and the staff grounded in the important work of serving students and families.

We’d like to thank Ms. Sewards for taking time out of her schedule to talk with us about her plan. To learn more about Solare Collegiate Charter School, you can find the link to their website here.

Stay tuned for more posts from our “Learning Leaders” series.

Jaley Frame is an intern at NewMexicoKidsCAN and lives in Albuquerque, NM. She has attended both private and public schools in New Mexico.


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