Bitney Prep High School does ‘distance learning’
Early in the summer, when it became obvious that COVID-19 was continuing to spread in Nevada County and the health guidelines from the various government agencies were evolving, the staff of Bitney Prep and all of the school’s stakeholders made the decision to be prepared to start the school year using a “learning from home” model. This early contingency planning allowed Bitney teachers to conceive of and train for a robust and dynamic program. All early indications point to the fact that, while distance learning will never be the preferred model for instruction, it can still be engaging for students and address their social and emotional needs. It can even open up options that in-class instruction couldn’t.
Bitney Prep is using a synchronous learning approach. Students are essentially in class via Chromebooks receiving direct instruction from their teachers and interacting with their peers in real-time. They’ve also shifted to a block schedule, meaning no student is taking more than three core academic classes per semester. “Feedback from our families, as well as much of the data we’ve studied, shows that our students need this kind of structure to keep them engaged. It also helps our teachers keep better tabs on how students are interacting with the curriculum,” said Director of Bitney Prep Jonathan Molnar. “And while the first week of school had some interruptions due to the Jones Fire, we’ve had amazing attendance to all of our classes, real connection with our student body, and we’ve kept the thriving sense of community at Bitney alive.”
Bitney’s Social Science teacher Tori Newman Harris echoes this sentiment, “I’ve been doing interactive activities in my Government class using Zoom breakout groups, and each student has fully participated! They’ve told me that it’s been surprisingly fun to have class this way, and I’m really seeing the fruits of that engagement.”
The last hour of the school day is devoted to teacher office hours and student interest-driven clubs and activities. Every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at these times, all Bitney Prep teachers are available to their students for extra help on any assignments. Also, Bitney has a plethora of clubs at that time that students can attend virtually. From music appreciation to playing Minecraft together, a documentary film club, a Dungeons and Dragons group, a cooking club, to a game club/hangout, Bitney offers something for everyone to get together around common interests and enjoy each other’s company.
“Even though we’re operating in a virtual environment, I really feel connected to my students and they tell me that they are feeling connected to the school and each other,” says Bitney Math Teacher Alison Harper. “I’ve been able to focus on their individual needs and keep them all on track. The office hours and the clubs have really helped in all of that.”
“Traditionally, on Wednesdays, all of our students are out at their internship sites all day,” adds Bitney English teacher Daniel Elkin. “While some students have been able to maintain their internships this year, the majority of our students don’t have that opportunity because of COVID safety issues. Instead, we’ve moved to focusing Wednesdays on our Learning Through Interest program. Through this, our students create their own projects based on things they are passionate about. We’ve got them doing things like designing their own fashion line to making jewelry to podcasting to writing poems. The sky is the limit. Our job as instructors is to guide them through that process, and really make sure they take the time to reflect on what they are learning along the way. I’m especially looking forward to a project a couple of students are working on. They are making a cookbook together. They’ve promised to bring me sandwiches!”
Both staff and students appreciate the quality of the distance learning program at Bitney Prep High School. Bitney is particularly proud of the fact that equity and parity issues are all taken into account. There’s a small cadre of students who have trouble with internet connectivity. They have been brought on campus to work in the Technology Learning Center, a safe environment where they are monitored and supported.
“Everyone in the Bitney Prep High School community is looking forward to being back on campus, and I hope that people in our county continue to do the things necessary to mitigate the spread so that we can return sooner than later. I’m really proud of what the Bitney community has been able to accomplish with our program,” concludes Elkin. “While it’s not the same as having students in the Bitney buildings, they are always front and center in our hearts and minds.”
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