Imagine needing to buy 700 Chromebooks at a time of extremely high demand, then working to distribute them to hundreds of families in a safe and contact-free way. This was the early pandemic reality for Hanley International Academy, a PreK-8 charter public school that serves the Hamtramck community.
“The pandemic really was a shock to the educational system,” says Steve Paddock, Superintendent for Hanley International Academy. Yet Hanley faculty and administrators were able to achieve this feat quickly — with none of the lengthy funding-request red tape typical of a traditional public school.
“The flexibility we have as a charter school starts at the top,” Paddock says, adding that Hanley’s authorizer, Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office (GVSU CSO), was “extraordinary in providing support and remarkable at making sure we had adequate information to make the necessary decisions.”
At a time when flexibility and prompt action mattered, Hanley had all the resources needed to take quick action. “We were able to pivot to meet new needs and we had the support of the board and authorizer, so when we needed to make a $150,000 purchase of Chromebooks, we asked for an emergency board meeting,” Paddock explains. “If we didn’t move quickly in those times, we weren’t going to get what we needed,” adding that without the trust and support of the school’s Board of Directors, this purchase wouldn’t have been possible. “Many of our Board Members are founding members or have been with us close to 10 years.”
Acquiring the necessary technology to make at-home instruction possible for every student at Hanley was just the beginning, says Assistant Principal Brian Dunn. “It really was a new frontier. We had to figure it out on the fly. Arguably, it was frustrating because we were focused on making sure our kids got the content they needed, but also in a way where we can still have an impact,” Dunn says. While other districts distributed packets to students, teachers at Hanley got quickly up to speed with Zoom and Google Meet and worked to construct school days that were consistent, accessible and beneficial to every student.
“One of the things Hanley did that I felt was impactful was make sure we had latitude and flexibility in how we delivered instruction,” Paddock says. “Hanley is a school that never takes the path of least resistance and we measure against a high bar. So, we mimicked a typical brick-and-mortar school day, starting at 8 and ending at 3 each day.” Extending beyond core subjects to include music and art and, critically, special education support, teachers were able to engage students they knew would struggle with independent learning. And, Paddock says, administrators leaned into the expertise of teachers to create a plan to give students as much content as possible.
“I’m so proud of our staff because they were open and flexible throughout all of these experiences,” says Dunn. “Through trial and error, we figured it out and all were present as we endured the process. We were also fortunate to have the community at large because they were flexible with us and trusted us to make decisions in the best interest of our students.”
Support for more than learning
Hanley has a high population of students who are English language learners, and as many as 95% of students qualify for free or reduced meals, so administrators worked to make sure there was no disruption to meal distribution.
“I’m proud that we were able to be consistent with providing food distribution for students and the surrounding community. We kept our commitment to keeping our students fed and nourished so they could thrive and have healthy lives and we didn’t want the pandemic to disrupt that,” Dunn says. By extending food distribution to the entire community, Hanley gave back and provided “comfort so they’d have one less thing to worry about.”
Similar to many schools, Hanley International Academy pursued virtual learning throughout the 2020 school year and when another COVID spike hit in the fall of 2020, students continued learning at home until January 2021, when everyone transitioned back to the school. Throughout, the GVSU CSO provided ample support and updates on the ever-changing landscape. As a charter school, Hanley was never left adrift, Paddock says.
“GVSU has been extraordinary in providing support,” he says. “They were at the forefront of providing professional development and webinars and pushing out information that was changing by the hour.”
Moving forward to reclaim academic progress
Because teachers and administrators anticipated learning loss and transition challenges among students, they leaned into the flexibility afforded to them as a charter school to get ahead of the challenge and innovate support systems for students.
“We knew going in that we couldn’t replicate all the aspects of face-to-face learning and there would be a lot of growth catch-up,” Paddock says, adding that the pandemic disruption was eye opening because it underscored just how much children, families and communities benefit from the expertise of teachers and child development professionals within the school system. “The value of having professional eyes on social-emotional development and academic growth has, for some, been taken for granted.
Consider today’s second grade students who started their formal education outside of the classroom, learning virtually from home. “These kids are struggling with assimilation because they haven’t had the chance to learn and grow in an age-appropriate environment. They haven’t learned how to interact with teachers and peers and sit in a classroom for seven hours,” Paddock explains.
While some traditional public schools have struggled with staffing, Hanley was empowered to hire multi-tier support staff to provide one-on-one and small group instruction to address learning loss. These paraprofessional teachers support students across grade levels because the losses impact every grade — even to the middle school level.
“We are thinking in terms of what a school is able to provide across the board. When talking about middle school, these are grades we’re going to watch for the next few years,” Paddock says. These older students missed important years when they’d typically learn the value of pursuing higher education and when they’d typically be discovering their individual needs, wants and passions. “Everyone is behind in teaching students about secondary and post-secondary work, and we may well see increased dropout rates over the years. Not being in school means these students have missed learning the importance of continuing their education and having professional adult teachers driving that,” Paddock says.
Schools that have the flexibility to tap into new and innovative ways of reengaging these kids will be the most successful, he says. “As an industry, we are having the right conversations. The schools that are successful will identify the problems and have a good pulse on their community and address their needs.”
Because teachers at Hanley identified missing collaboration and other social-emotional skill deficits, they enacted a positive behavior system, Dunn says. “We have signage in the building to connect students to the message of being together, working together and partnering,” he says. “In staff meetings, we are focused on social-emotional learning and we have hired a full-time social worker to help students learn conflict resolution and problem solving to address their capacity to interact with each other and follow social norms.”
In some cases, Dunn says, they’re working to counteract the mischievous messaging kids have been bombarded with by social media. “We’re battling these forces and keeping kids rooted in the Hanley way. We’re making sure we’re working together for the greater good for everyone,” he says.
It’s ‘all about people’
Now, Hanley International Academy is expanding and adding space to allow for better social distancing needs, support for small group learning and more robust art and music spaces. An additional preschool classroom will further meet community needs, too.
Hamtramck is a community that places a high value on education and Hanley continues to build and strengthen trust with parents and community members. “Hamtramck is a place like no other, where cultures meet and ideas are cultivated and we take pride in maintaining that community aspect. We have the best word-of-mouth recommendations in the community and we stay true to our kids by educating each child like they are our own,” Dunn says.
Their work at Hanley International Academy is “all about people,” Paddock says.
“As a school, we need to have trust and partnership at all levels. I commend our Board of Directors and GVSU for giving us the flexibility and trust to ask ‘What do you need? How can we support you?’” he says. “I’m amazed at our administration and their tireless work in supporting teachers to be flexible and responsive. When we make decisions for kids, good things happen. We’re really servant leaders here.”