Educating Students in the Middle of a Pandemic

Academics

It is no surprise that the last 18 months were quite the whirlwind. Businesses sailed murky waters navigating how to stay afloat without passengers riding into their establishments. Homeowners and renters trudged through the tundra of covering expenses without available work. Schools were forced to traverse the heat of deserted classrooms while educators, parents and students alike were buried under the heap of virtual work. For a time, Rivertree Academy was no exception. Yet, even with the added tumultuous weather of burst pipes during what we called “Snow-Vid,” our students thrived. 

Our formula was and is simple: teach kids to learn well, love well, work well, and lead well. While these tenets are integral in meeting our goals, to surpass them, we, their educators, are charged to live them. 

Learn Well

At Rivertree Academy the families we serve are deemed “disadvantaged” with more than half of our scholars attending on full scholarship; much thanks to our generous partners. While financial wherewithal has been identified as a roadblock for many, we quickly realized that there were more areas needing intervention. 

At the beginning of the school year only 4.4% of our students returned to campus nperforming on grade level across subjects. 58.8% were one grade level below while 36.8% were scoring at two or more grade levels lower than average. With the understanding that virtual learning was not working for our students, we embarked on a mission: become a student of your students. From utilizing performance diagnostics, to incorporating manipulatives in class, creating individualized learning plans and maintaining a 1:12 student teacher ratio, we were determined to overcome the challenges that created academic gaps and close them. Collecting data throughout the year allowed us to identify weak points and zero in on the skills that would move them to mastery. Students 

identified as having nuanced academic deficiencies were assigned an interventionist and visited with the Dean of Curriculum and Instruction. With the added help of our incredible volunteers, our collective bandwidth sparked growth! By the end of the year, our K-5th grade students went from 14% to 59% reading on grade level. In math, we saw a spike from 6% performing on grade level to 60%! 

Behavior management was another area of priority. We know that academic success is directly tied to the emotional, behavioral, and spiritual health of our at-risk students. With that, we designed a Behavioral management team offering different levels of interventions. 

Once a week, students received in-class instruction around social emotional health or individual counseling sessions from our Christian School Counselor. Our Dean of Students leaned into those identified as needing additional discipline guardrails by designing behavioral plans and monitoring patterns. Our Restorative Practices Coach offered real-time coaching to teachers around classroom management and led the front on building healthy relationships while teaching effective conflict resolution skills. To expand worldview, one Friday a month, a mentor from the community would pair with a student and walk through a variety of prompts pertinent to self awareness, career goals, study habits, and time management. Together the Behavioral Management Team built social capital to achieve social discipline which proved to be essential for growing the whole child. 

Love Well

This principle is only effective with intentionality. It is never enough to just show up to work. Weeks leading to the first day of school, Professional Development sessions are dedicated to informing teachers about trauma-induced instruction. As aforementioned, we take a “whole child” approach in our teaching. 

We meet our students where they are and with whatever they have encountered, while simultaneously calling them up. 

Our main objective is to highlight Jesus. Whether through Chapel lessons, the RTA Creed, field day games, or a high five from the Dean in the hallway, Rivertree Academy scholars know, unequivocally, that they are deeply loved, totally accepted and completely forgiven. It is the Gospel message that drives our efforts. If we do nothing else, it will be that we introduce our students to the goodness, grace, and love of the Lord. 

Work Well

When other schools decided to stay 100% virtual, we opted out. We knew that keeping our scholars out of the building would only work to their detriment. Once government officials made the call that it was safe to return–with PPE in tow–we welcomed our scholars back into our classrooms. 

We took off full throttle by implementing a computer-based diagnostic assessment designed to analyze reading skills and student academic needs. We also decided to extend our school day by an hour every day to maximize instruction. Two days a week, after school tutoring was also made available. 

Lead Well

For us educators, we lead well by example. There is no expectation we set on our scholars that we do not model. Our students’ scope for leading is directed towards one another; but ours, is leading families and onlooking educators to foster healthy habits and high order instruction, respectively. 

Leveraging these pillars, set the bar high for our scholars; and we did not relent in our expectation for them to be met. Sure enough our scholars rose to the occasion. By the end of the 2020-2021 school year, results proved our formula correct. Our 3rd grade class improved from 30% to 90% reading on grade level, and 0% to 90% performing on level in math! Greater than an opportunity to shadow an RTA teacher, our 5th graders are proof positive of what it takes to thrive. Six 5th grade students graduated from our program in June. We wanted to send them off to middle school and place them with teachers that will notice their well-rounded Rivertree Academy education. Afterall, our aim is to produce servant-leaders who will follow Jesus, thrive academically, and transform their communities. With the help of the Lord, we did just that in the 2020-2021 school year. 

by Justina Jenkins, Ph.D
Head of School, Rivertree Academy