For the Review

Roxborough resident and principal at Ad Prima Charter School – Overbrook Campus, David Brown, envisioned his school evolving to a dual classroom — offering in-person and virtual learning — through a thoughtful strategy phased in over 5 years. But COVID-19 forced the school to achieve its five-year plan in about two weeks.

“When the pandemic first hit, we did our best to keep education going while we planned for whatever came next,” said Brown. “Students were sent home with lesson packets hoping this would only be a short-term disruption to in-school learning. After about a week we knew these packets were just a stop-gap solution for an extended problem.”

Being a Philadelphia charter school offered Ad Prima some flexibility, allowing them to move students’ spring break up one week. They used that time for intense professional development on Google platforms for teachers and by March 30, students and teachers were continuing education through virtual learning. It worked, but they knew what they implemented those first weeks was only a band-aid. They would need a substantive strategy based in deep understanding of virtual options and technology.

“It was critical to maintain communications with families. We needed a set of best practices that allowed us not only to teach students their lessons, but to educate everyone involved on how to make a success of virtual learning.”

In normal times, this isn’t an easy task. Throw in a pandemic that shut down most of the world and it became daunting. Fortunately, Brown’s “ace in the hole” was sheltering in place right beside him. His wife, Shaikha BuAli—a high school principal at PA Virtual Charter School who worked at some of the top turnaround schools in Philadelphia—was developing her doctorate dissertation on online educational practices. Her deep dive into cyber education provided invaluable insights, suggestions and proven methods to help Brown get Ad Prima rolling towards a path of success.

“Without Shaikha, I wouldn’t have even known where to start,” continued Brown. “She showed me the many options available, she was a great sounding board, directed on what not to use for our school, helped gauge what was reasonable to achieve in a day of virtual education and gave guidance on how to grow expectations gradually. Needless to say, Shaikha assured our success.”

By April 3, the school was fully synchronous, offering live classes with teachers and students starting at 8:00 every morning, flexibility as needed to extend deadlines and extra assistance to students. During a time when few believed virtual learning could be effective, Ad Prima achieved 90% classroom attendance.

Throughout the experience, Brown learned that every school is different depending on resources, the student population and many other factors.

“From functionality and security, to grading and teacher evaluations, to determining what a classroom looks like, there is a lot to consider and no one-size-fits-all model,” said BuAli. Brown continued by saying, “each teacher is basically a first-year teacher again as they learn how to educate virtually. It takes time and there will be challenges, but success is attainable.”

“This pandemic has shown people that not only are cyber charter schools essential and viable, but they provide options and opportunities that allow students to thrive,” said Dr. John Chandler, CEO, PA Virtual, a member of the Public Cyber Charter School Association (PCCSA). “We are proud that during this unsettling time, our cyber education resources provide a continuum of education for thousands of PA families.”

Since March, PCCSA members have made dedicated efforts to share every resource and insight they’ve gathered over 20 years of perfecting virtual learning. From teachers to counselors to administrators, these schools share their expertise with brick-and-mortar schools across, and beyond, the state.

 "One PCCSA member, Agora Cyber Charter School, was contacted by the Minnesota Vikings to help their offensive line with virtual practice and white-board exercises,” said Chandler. “This shows the vast extent of our expertise and application in online education. For us, the education of every student is all that matters—giving them the opportunities and support to learn in any situation, despite any challenges.”

 The success of their collaboration reinforces to Brown and BuAli that cyber learning has a strong future and strengthens their resolve to use their experience to help other schools succeed in a virtual format.

 “I grew up in a culture that distrusted the internet,” said BuAli. “When I began my educational career, I had no idea of the complexities of online learning, how critical the structure is or how powerful it could be. My hope is that school districts see that, if done correctly, learning virtually can work for most families.”

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