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Addressing unique challenges of distance learning at Bitney Prep

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Bitney Prep High School’s Resource Specialist, Shana Stratton, has been able to meet the moment by celebrating the successes of her students while being honest about the challenges this model of education presents.

Here in Nevada County, the move to Distance Learning because of COVID-19 has presented challenges for all stakeholders, from students to parents to staff. One population that has faced a particular set of challenges has been the group of students who require additional support and services due to the manifestations of their disabilities. Bitney Prep High School’s Resource Specialist, Shana Stratton, has been able to meet the moment by celebrating the successes of her students while being honest about the challenges this model of education presents.

“During a traditional school year, I always serve as an advocate but during distance learning, this became one of my main roles,” says Stratton. “It was hard for students to understand what was causing them difficulties and recognize what they needed to overcome these challenges with this new learning environment.” In order to assist her students, Stratton refocused on teaching her students self-sufficiency and self-advocacy. “Many of our students don’t understand that they have a right to ask for help, further explanation, or additional resources. During Distance Learning this is especially important because their teachers can’t just walk by their desk and notice them struggling. Students have to learn to self-advocate. Distance Learning creates an extra barrier between students and the educational community that can be hard to breach. The screen adds anonymity that isn’t there during the school year.”

Stratton is particularly happy to be working at Bitney Prep during these challenging times, though. “Bitney’s one person at a time approach lends itself to accommodate the needs of diverse learners. Teachers can easily make adjustments for individual students because the curriculum is already designed to be personalized. Bitney teachers naturally check in with each student and adjust as needed. It is a small school with limited economic resources, but its small size lends an extra level of adaptability. Individual assignments can be adapted, entire courses can be changed, and student schedules shifted as needed to meet individual learner needs.” The industrial model of one-size-fits-all usually found in public education is especially difficult for special needs students to navigate. Bitney Prep’s approach is tailored to individual student success and is especially useful in helping students with learning disabilities succeed.

Still, a number of unique challenges have presented themselves for students with IEPs (Individual Education Plans). As Stratton says, “During a regular school year when a student is sad or angry I can see it in their faces and mannerisms. It is natural to take them aside for a cup of tea to connect with them and discuss their concerns. Now? I can’t even see their faces and having a shared cup of tea is just not possible. Instead, we have text messages, chat rooms, emoji’s, and gifs.” Some of her students have flourished in the distance learning model, while an equal number of them continue to struggle. “I have learned to reach out individually to my students and their parents in order to make a personal connection with them.” This connection is often the one thing that keeps her students engaged with their academics.

“I’m a small-town girl and have always lived in Northern California. In a small town, you learn to appreciate individual people. Every person has unique skills to contribute and in a small community, all of those skills are needed. I could never accept that some people were forced to limit themselves in order to fit into a model of education that didn’t match their skills. I chose to teach in Special Education so that I could help to personalize the educational experiences of our most exceptional learners in the hopes that they would have the chance to reach their potential and contribute their best to our little community.”

While COVID-19 and distance learning have been taxing on this unique population of students, at Bitney Prep students with IEP’s have a strong, empathetic, and compassionate advocate. As Shana Stratton says, “A small school like this can be whatever you make of it. With the personalized curriculum, caring staff, and career focus, ALL Bitney students can do anything that they set their minds to achieving.”

Source: Bitney Prep High School

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