Lead Like a Ninja: How a ‘Fringe’ Virtual Program Anchored A District’s COVID-19 Response

A key job of every school leader is to establish and nurture strong relationships with key stakeholders—not the least of which is the faculty. When you have the opportunity to open a school, those relationships are the foundation on which your school rests, and the ways of work you cultivate become the traditions that guide your school’s future. And while it was always my goal to open a high-performing, innovative virtual school for our community, COVID-19 required my school to step up in a big way. Our stealthy school mascot, Neo the Ninja, came to represent the strategic deployment of the skills, strategies, and curriculum our virtual school refined as we stepped out of the shadows to lead our district through distance learning to close the 2019–20 school year.

In 2008, Florida’s legislature undertook a bold initiative to expand school choice options for families by requiring the state’s 67 school districts to launch virtual instruction programs to serve students in kindergarten through 12th grade on a full- or part-time basis. This new law, fully implemented in 2009, spurred innovative collaboration and public-private partnerships to build the capacity of teachers and districts to serve learners who desired more control over their path, pace, or place of learning. It was this impetus that launched Pasco eSchool, my district’s virtual instruction program. Over the following decade, our program would grow from a “fringe” program, serving just 2,600 enrollments with adjunct faculty, to serving more than 20,000 students enrolled in more than 50,000 courses each semester.

Even so, never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that we’d be thrust into a central role so suddenly—moving quickly to anchor our district’s COVID-19 instructional continuity plan in service of more than 75,000 students and 4,500 faculty, the subject of my virtual tour. Prior to the 2019–20 school year, districts’ preparedness plans encompassed a wide variety of scenarios—from the standard fire drills and severe weather incidents to inclement weather closures, medical emergencies, or active threat plans. Virtually no K–12 schools or postsecondary institutions had envisioned the impact a global pandemic would have for the educational community.

Florida’s state tree is the Live Oak, which is known for its strength during hurricanes, salt spray, and other harsh conditions. And just like our state’s tree, Pasco eSchool stood fast during a rapidly changing scenario—leveraging its strong collaborative culture to foster relationships with our colleagues in brick-and-mortar schools, while helping everyone learn how to teach and learn online. The new paradigms for teamwork, communication, and leadership offered some unexpected boons for our district.

As our district began its spring break, the statewide announcement that schools would stay closed for an extra week to develop an instructional continuity plan created a vacuum in which speculation, rumor, and uncertainty overshadowed relaxation. Our virtual teachers built a community of teachers using social media to share information. The consistent, matter of fact way in which our faculty offered reassurance and encouragement to teachers and employees helped buy our curriculum and operation teams time to answer logistical questions. Our teachers knew they wouldn’t be left to fend for themselves, and they focused their time and energy on making new professional relationships with peers in those closed groups.

As our plan developed, each of the teachers at Pasco eSchool adopted a brick-and-mortar school to mentor and encourage. From attending the virtual orientation training along with their adopted school to checking in with instructional coaches and teacher leaders, our Ninjas were conduits for questions and resources to support our community. They patiently responded to thousands of posts from parents, students, and colleagues while developing quick reference guides, videos, and other communication tools to help everyone understand this new environment.

As our district closed out the 2019–20 school year and began considering plans for the fall, the structures for collaboration and teamwork sustained our summer school programs and helped define three clear models for our reopening plan. While we plan to offer a traditional, on-campus model along with Pasco eSchool’s flexible school program, we developed a synchronous virtual model coordinated and delivered by our physical schools. This hybrid model maintains strong connections to students and families, while empowering families to decide on an option to meet their needs. Nearly all of our teachers and staff plan to continue using strategies and curriculum first adopted during the fourth quarter of last school year—moving our efforts to infuse technology into our instruction ahead by decades!

Come tour Pasco eSchool during the NASSP Virtual Tour Series and go behind the scenes to see how we flattened our district’s structures to leverage our digital assets and systems while sharing best practices for leading and learning remotely. We’ll provide concrete steps in our planning for the fourth quarter of the last school year while spotlighting the lessons learned. See how those contrary winds strengthened our work and helped us hone our plan for 2020–21. You’ll leave this tour ready to Lead Like a Ninja!

This blog is part of NASSP’s Virtual Tour Series. Be sure to visit NASSP’s Facebook page on September 24 at 1:30 p.m. (ET) to participate in the live tour, sponsored by Edgenuity.

JoAnne Glenn is the principal of Pasco eSchool in Spring Hill, FL. She is a 2020 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Follow her (@tpamathnerd) and Pasco eSchool (@Pasco_eSchool) on Twitter.

 

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