PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — While teachers across the country are trying to be effective in an environment they’ve never seen before, a school division in Southeastern Virginia is tweaking a familiar platform to adapt to the new reality.

Thousands of students in Portsmouth are going to school on a screen, but some of them didn’t take part at all in virtual learning at the end of last school year, and now they’re behind. Even though a class of students will all be in one virtual room for the time being, they won’t be in the same place when it comes to progress.

According to data from the Virginia Department of Education, about 62% of Portsmouth students are economically disadvantaged. More than 1,500 students had no contact with their teachers at all from March through June, a situation Director of Curriculum Anita Wynn calls unacceptable.

“It’s alarming, because any student that we can’t reach means we haven’t succeeded with that individual,” Wynn said.

The school division will now use a more flexible version of paced learning.

“It helps us to compartmentalize and give the sequential steps to student learning,” Wynn said, “and with the pandemic, we realized we needed to adjust those pacing guides.”

Learning at their own pace

Math Education Coordinator Fiona Nichols says how course work should progress with each school week is an estimate that’s not carved in stone.

“It provides an outline where we ensure that everything that needs to get taught gets taught within that time frame,” Nichols said.

She says it also allows for some latitude so teachers won’t get bogged down.

“Let’s say four days are allotted to this topic, and within two days kids have it,” Nichols said. “Well, by all means, move forward.”

Teachers will do quick-check assessments and work with students in small groups to find the gaps, and determine how content missed from the past school year can be incorporated into the current one.

Flexibility makes it successful

Portsmouth teachers train online to prepare for the school year (WAVY Photo)
Portsmouth teachers train online to prepare for the school year (WAVY Photo)

Wynn concedes that launching the initiative on a virtual platform where’s there’s no in-person feedback, will be the biggest challenge.

“It’s different when you’re in a classroom and you can use proximity and you can use eye contact and you can use gestures,” Wynn said.

With the right level of teacher flexibility, Nichols and Wynn agree that the paced learning approach can work in almost any classroom setting. Portsmouth rolled out the idea during summer school and began collecting data.

Teachers will complete surveys every two weeks, and use several metrics to gauge effectiveness, including benchmarks, ongoing assessments, grades, projects and, as Wynn points out, “the actual interactions with our students because that’s equally important.” Unlike virtual classes last spring, all student work will now be graded.

Portsmouth Public Schools will be entirely online for at least the first nine weeks. The division is providing devices and internet service to all students who need them.

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