Sign up for our newsletter

Share This Story

The 180 Podcast Nov 9, 2020

The 180 Podcast: When the Building is Closed but School is Open, with Ron Berger & Laina Cox

When the Building is Closed but School is Open, with Ron Berger & Laina Cox (Part 1)

As schools try to determine how best to help students, the challenges, it seems, are everywhere: health, safety, technology, food security, personal growth, and, of course, learning. Which is what makes learning about EL Education’s approach so useful. 

EL Education guides a network of over 150 public schools in more than 30 states – helping build schools in low-income communities that send all graduates to college through high student achievement, character and citizenship, while also building teacher capacity through professional coaching, resources and open-source curriculum.

But how does it work? And in particular, how are the program’s fundamentals helping students, parents, teachers, and administrators maintain learning and growing?

To learn more, we spoke with Ron Berger and Laina Cox. Ron is Chief Academic Officer for EL Education, and Laina is Principal at Capital City Public Charter Middle School in Washington D.C. 

As you’ll hear in this part one of our two-part conversation, a lynchpin to EL’s success is something called Crew: robust advisories that form human connections, and the connections in EL schools form a community. 


Complete Transcript

Chris Riback: Ron, Laina, thank you for joining me. I appreciate both of your time.

Laina Cox: Thank you.

Ron Berger: Thanks for hosting us, Chris.

Chris Riback: I’m almost afraid to ask the question, and Ron, if you don’t mind, I’ll start with you. How’s school going this fall?

Ron Berger: It’s the most challenging year. I’ve been in education 45 years, I’ve never experienced anything like this. So we work with schools in almost every state and even within states, everything is different. Some schools are fully virtual, some schools are hybrid, some schools are fully in person. And in every single case, it’s hard. It’s hard for teachers and hard for kids. And so I feel like teachers are being heroic, principals are being heroic, parents are being heroic. I mean, people are being their best selves but it’s really hard.

Chris Riback: What’s the patience level? Does it depend on the situations? 

Ron Berger: I’ve never seen a time in America when the inequities in education are more stark. And so, I mean, you are probably aware Chris, that in some families, it’s just the parent is home working and so she can’t be watching her three kids while they’re in virtual school. But that’s the easiest of the problems, I think.

We work with districts and schools all over the country where many of the kids don’t have any internet access in their home, don’t have any devices in their home where they may not even have space where they can be quiet in their home. They may not have enough food, they were counting on schools for their food and for their emotional sustenance. I mean, for some kids, school is the safest place in their life, emotionally and physically. And so it’s a real wide range. But I would say it’s made really stark for us, Chris, how much we need to work as a nation to make sure things are more equitable.

Chris Riback: Laina in your school, is what Ron is describing, does that ring true to you? What’s life like in your school this fall?

Laina Cox: It’s interesting because I’ve definitely learned that question around “how’s the school year, how’s school going” has really become subjective by the day, the hour, the minute. We’re pushing through. We are extremely resilient, we’re creative, we love our work. We love our students and our families, but we’re exhausted.

We are fully virtual; we’re 100% distance learning through first semester. We are in this mode until the end of January. And we are trying our best to support our students academically, socially, checking in on their mental health, checking in on our families. None of our families were expected to purchase anything. So we have done two rounds of school supplies. Every student has a school issued laptop. We gave out hotspots, so we are privileged in the sense that we have been able to offer our students what they need foundationally. But so much more of our work has been checking their needs in so many other ways and beyond just engaging in class, but are they okay? We are living through a global pandemic, how are they handling that?

Sometimes things can be going great, our expeditions are going well and then we have a family that might be in a crisis, or we have a situation even with our own staff, a staff member might’ve gotten sick. So we’re dealing with it. We’re pushing through, we are leaning on each other, we’re leaning on our EL Education Network and we’re going to make it, we’re going to make it work. But yes, there has been a struggle.

Chris Riback: Ron, as I’ve seen video of some of the schools in action and in particular Laina’s school, how do the schools transition to an all virtual environment? I mean, the video that I saw of Laina’s school, the kids are engaged and the teachers are right there. And it’s a video, so of course, everyone’s happy and smiling and their best selves. But I’m watching this and I’m just thinking, “How in the world does this translate to a virtual environment?”

Ron Berger: Well, I can say Chris, there’s no school I’m more proud of in the country than Laina’s school, Capital City Public Charter School. And it’s an amazing environment. It’s a thousand kids from pre-kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. Every kid every year in 12th grade gets into college.

It’s as good as you can get for a school in my mind, and yet the virtual reality for them being remote is hard just like it’s hard for everyone. I can say one thing that’s been really helpful is that all of our EL schools, and Capital City is a model for this, use an advisory structure called Crew in which every student is in a small group of their peers that they meet with daily.

And that Crew is like their family at school. And that made the transition to remote learning very different because in a traditional and typical high school or middle school, you might have hundreds or even thousands of kids that all of a sudden are not there and who’s going to find them? Who’s in charge? Who is going to reach out and make sure every kid is okay?

But in the EL schools, as soon as school’s closed, Crews gathered, people found their Crew mates. Their Crew leader found their Crew, they made sure every kid was okay. And if there were kids who had no connectivity… now Laina’s school is actually fortunate, they were able to get connectivity to every kid. But we had many schools where that was not the case right away. They found kids through phones and through conference calls.

And Crews found every kid to make sure, are you okay? Are you safe? Are you healthy? Do you need food? Do you need supplies? How can we help you? And so the Crew unit became the family that looked after you. And also schools convened their staff Crew so that we made sure are staff okay?

They have their own families to worry about, they have their own lives to worry about. And so having some social – emotional structures like that, I mean, many schools have advisories that are very similar to what we call Crew, was essential to making sure there was a structure through which people could look after each other.

Chris Riback: Laina, bring that to life for me. How did the Crews come to life in Capital City?

Laina Cox: So it might sound cliche, but what Ron just said was so real for us. Crew was hands down what allowed us to shift seamlessly to distance learning back in March, it is what we prioritize when we were putting together this emergency plan and schedule.

So before I even thought about what assignments or how live classes were going to be set up or anything like that, my immediate focus was how many times can we have Crew and how can we ensure that it’s happening multiple times during the week to check in on our students and our families. An uncertain time like going into the start of a global pandemic, staying connected was the most important piece for us. We needed to know that our students and our families were okay, and they needed us as well.

When I’m introducing it to new families, I describe it as this is your child’s family away from home, these are their Crew sisters and brothers and their Crew leader is their Crew parent, and all of that. And I’ve always meant it and our Crews have always been close. But I noticed something just different in the spring and just how much closer our Crews were.

Just even one example in April, one of our sixth graders lost her mother to COVID. And the Dad the night that the mother passed away, the dad contacted the student’s Crew leader that same night to let him know. And the next day that student showed up for Crew. We were shocked. No one obviously expected her to be there but she said that was where she knew that she could get what she needed at that moment. She felt safe and she wanted to be with her Crew mates.

And that Crew connection is the exact reason that we prioritized it in the spring and we still prioritize it now. We built our schedule around our Crew. We start our day in Crew by checking in and we end our day now with Crew.

And that’s not how Crew is normally scheduled when we’re in person. But the idea of the simple piece of standing in the hallway, being at the front door when students walk in the building as just a regular hallway duty where you’re reading faces and you’re greeting students and all of that, we don’t have that now. Students just show up on a Zoom link.

And so we put Crew first because that teacher can read a student’s face immediately when they turn on their camera on Zoom for us to see how that student is and gives us a chance to then check in with that student or to reach out to another teacher or to an administrator and say something didn’t seem right, let’s check in on that family. And so it’s been such a priority for us, with our students.

And then on the flip side, our staff Crew was what held us together in the spring as well. I am always very honest and very vulnerable with my staff about the things that I don’t know. And I can’t tell you how many times I said, “I have no idea,” to just different things that would come up in the spring. I have never led a school through a global pandemic; teachers have never taught during a global pandemic.

And so after those first two weeks when we were first closed and it was announced that we weren’t returning, that first staff meeting that I had on my first virtual staff meeting I opened it with the word grace and I just said we have to have grace for each other and with each other as a crew. We had to refocus on teacher wellbeing.

I have two small children, two elementary school children of my own and I always describe it as I’m running a homeschool for my own two children while running a school from home. And that was the case for so many of our teachers and staff.

And it was just really critical for me as a school leader to support them to sustain their wellness and their work-life balance in making sure that our virtual environment was healthy and positive. We had to really be, by full definition of Crew, we had to be a crew for each other.

Chris Riback: How much of what you’re doing now, this fall, is based on what you learned last spring and how much is because you’re just following your philosophy?

Laina Cox: It’s a blend of both. So we made the decision in the late spring or early summer that we were going to begin the year, we were actually the first school in the district to announce we were going to begin the year in distance learning. And part of that was because we knew that in order to live up to our philosophy as a school in EL Education, we knew the work that we would have to do over the summer to plan for as best a distance learning EL Education program as we could.

And so for us, I mean, we had every stakeholder possible’s voice at the table. We were holding family town halls to hear from our parents, what’s working, what’s not, what do you need, what can we do more of? We did student surveys and met with student focus groups asking them the same things like, you’re going to be going into this grade next year, what are you looking forward to, what would you normally be looking forward to? And how might we be able to do that virtually to still give you some semblance of an experience of your middle school time?

We met one-on-one with every teacher to discuss what was working, what wasn’t, what they needed, what we could do over the summer to try and plan better for what they would be willing and able to help plan. so this is my 20th year as an educator, my ninth year as a principal and it was like I was creating a brand new school.

And so we just had a lot of design teams over the summer looking at our core practices from EL Education and thinking about, how do you flip this? How can we make is virtual? How do we do our portfolio process? How are we going to make this still that’s something that’s so core to who we are as an example and something that we refuse to let go, just because we’re in distance learning, but what does that mean? What is that going to look like through distance learning?

And one of the things that I tell my teachers this all the time, like I would not have been a successful distance learning teacher, they are better than me. My teachers are absolutely amazing. And just how creative they’ve been in trying to become experts on how to flip these initiatives that we do all of the time and how to make them virtual and getting used to online platforms and all of that.

So it really was a blend of learning from the spring and reflecting on that and then doing and making the adjustments, which that in and of itself is our philosophy with EL Education. You try something, you reflect on it, you look at the data. We really took ourselves through a process of what we ask our students to do with their own work in their ways of trying to develop high quality work.

Chris Riback: Ron, has this been in some way, maybe the ultimate test case for what you always believed Crew was and could be? How has Crew held up in your mind in this new reality?

Ron Berger: Well, to build on Laina’s comments, Chris, I think we have always been committed to Crew as two things. First of all, it’s a school culture of teamwork and courage and compassion throughout the whole school. So it’s the spirit that you’re not in this just for yourself, that school is a team sport. It’s not an individual sport. It’s not about each kid getting ahead herself or himself or their selves, it’s about everybody working together.

And it’s also this advisory structure, which in elementary schools is like a morning meeting structure and in middle and high schools, like Laina’s setting, is a small advisory group. We’ve always felt like that was a cornerstone of what we believed schools should be. But once the pandemic hit, we thought it’s not just that it’s essential, every school actually has to have this.

I mean, we came out with a book on Crew that came out in the middle of this pandemic. We have 38 videos about how to do it, some of which are featuring Capital City. We have an online set or toolkit of free resources. We are advocating in every possible way with open free resources how can we help other schools do more of this because the need for care for each other, the need for community, the need for looking after each other has never been clear to us. So if anything, it’s just amplified our mission to help more educators have access to tools to do this more.

Chris Riback: Why was it important to put all of that together and to make those resources available to anyone?

Ron Berger: Well, we actually have been working on the book for three years, so it wasn’t that we wrote it in the pandemic. But when the pandemic hit, we weren’t even sure we could finish it because of how things shut down. But we felt like this is the time when it’s most needed. So we accelerated our work to get it out in August.

The book is just called “We Are Crew.” And it’s a guide for schools that want to amplify their advisory programs or their morning meeting structure, or build their staff culture in the way Laina and Karen and Belicia have done at Capital City to build a staff that works together.

So it’s stories of best practices and models from our best schools about how to do that well. And we can’t give away the books because it costs money to print them. But everything else connected to the book, all the resources, so all the online models of how it’s done in schools are free. All of our videos are free and accessible online.

And we have professional development kits online also for free, because we’re just trying to get out resources to people in the country who realize now school culture really matters, and every kid needs to feel like he or she, or they really belongs. And if a kid does not feel like they belong, they’re not going to succeed in school.

And by belong I don’t just mean that they’re welcomed or that someone smiles at them when they enter the school, I mean that they feel valued for who they are, that their culture, their background, their racial identity, their sexual identity, their sexual orientation, their cultural background, their primary language, their body type, kids have to feel like, “I’m okay here, people value me here. They believe in me here. They think I can do great things here.”

And that’s very hard to establish in schools if kids feel anonymous in any way. So we need structures in every school where kids feel known and seen and heard and valued for who they are. And so we’re just on a mission to spread resources for that.

Chris Riback: And on that culture point, if I could quote you and something that you wrote in a preface to one of your other books, “A Culture of Quality,” you wrote this paragraph that just struck me: 

“My nurse is my former student, my plumber is my former student, the volunteer fire department members are my former students. The test scores they got in sixth grade no longer matter to me, but I care deeply about their commitment to quality, courage, and compassion. My life depends on them. And even if you don’t live in a small town, this is true for you as well, your life depends on the high standards and kindness of the people who take care of you and your community, all of whom are someone’s former students. It’s a good reminder about what really matters in education.” Do you feel that even more now? 

Ron Berger: Well, this is really, truly my life, Chris. I mean, in the town where I live I taught for 25 years. And so everyone in my town basically is my former student. And it is true that the first responders in my town are my former students. And we had a crisis at my home where the first responders were my former students to help my wife.

And if you think, what are the qualities you want to come to your house to save someone you love, you’re not going to be worrying about their test scores in third grade, right? You’re going to be wanting those people to be the kind of human beings who will save someone’s life with great courage and compassion and be just fricking good at what they do. You want them to have high standards for their work.

And so it is absolutely what I believe schools are for. It’s not just for preparing kids for tests, it’s for preparing them to be for life, to be great people and great citizens. And I think, for example, if you ask Laina about the learning expeditions, which is our structure in EL for deep thematic studies that kids lead, you’ll find that the learning expeditions and the studies that kids do are other oriented, they’re oriented toward contributing to their community.

So I’ll share one quick story. We have a school in New York city that as soon as the pandemic shut the school down, these middle school students, they were seventh graders, met in their Crew and decided, not how are we going to help ourselves, but how are we going to do good for our community during the pandemic?

And they chose three projects. One was what’s going to happen to the homeless people in our community during the pandemic? The second was what’s going to happen to all the families who have people incarcerated in our community during the pandemic? And the third was what about all the people that are out of work in our community now and are not going to be able to pay their rent and might get evicted?

And so the Crews split into three teams to research, how could each of those teams figure out ways to engage in advocacy in their community to help those constituents? So this idea that school is not getting you ready to get rich for the world, it’s getting you ready to contribute to a better world. It’s getting you ready to contribute to society in some positive way.

And so even during the shutdown, that example of Crew was like, how do we do some good for the world in our Crew time? And I think the kinds of projects and expeditions that I’ve seen at Capital City are perfect examples of that, of kids being other oriented in their work, of getting smart to do good for the world.

Chris Riback: Laina, picking up on his lead, could you tell me about the learning expeditions at Capital City and the importance of project based learning?

Laina Cox: Absolutely. I mean, so one of the things that I feel like happens when you think of… specifically right now even just thinking about middle school, which I’m the middle school principal at Capital City, this is the age where we’re teaching students to have a voice and learn to advocate for themselves and live in situations and live in their communities and try and fix problems within their community with a context, different type of historical context and kind of the academic side guiding that work.

And what was actually interesting, one of the things that I feel like we had to come to terms with was how COVID even laid bare so many inequities that were leading to devastating effects on our own community, which is majority black and Latinx. Our community was being hard hit with families losing jobs and struggling in ways that we hadn’t experienced before as a community.

And then on top of that, we are also living in a racial epidemic. And so what does all of that mean for Black and brown students? What does it mean when the people who were dying of COVID looked more like them? How do you take that and engage them in that thinking and in that learning and give them ways to really understand that in a different sense than just a book report or something like that?

How do you teach students to fully grasp a concept like voting, for instance? How do you push that during any year, but especially during an election year, during an election year where so many of the things that are essentially sitting on a ballot or sitting attached to a candidate’s name have to do with your community and with people who look like you?

And so in our fifth grade, our expedition is around learning the bill of rights and they’re learning the constitution and all of those pieces. And prior to COVID, our fifth graders put together two years ago during interim elections, they were marching on a college campus, surveying, polling and urging and making college students sign a pledge that they were going to get out to vote and be a voice for them since they couldn’t vote.

Last year they did a voter registration drive for our seniors, our high school seniors. And so all of the seniors that were 18 or were turning 18, they sat, they were trained in how to register people to vote. And then they ran registration drives during our senior expedition classes, during our different back to school nights and different parent events, they were registering voters.

So instead of just talking about an election or talking about the importance of voting, they were given the responsibility. You might not be able to vote, but you surely can register some people, you can understand the importance of it. You can write and do videos. They’ve been doing videos this year, because now we’re virtual to really just push the word about getting out to vote.

Another expedition, our eighth graders study the universal declaration of human rights. And so they choose a right, they research that right and then they design a prototype that will essentially fix violations of that right. And they do their own version of a TED Talk to really talk through what they’ve learned.

And it’s those skills and that explicit teaching, those critical thinking skills that we need young people to have. Those are skills that are being tested in real life situations and not just on a standardized test. But they’re engaging with something beyond what’s just in the classroom.

Listen to Part 2 of this interview here.

More from Turnaround on this topic: