Amidst the educational difficulties the coronavirus has spurred, one Idaho charter network has thrived.
Gem Prep, a K-12 free public charter school with four on-campus locations and an online school in Idaho, is using the opportunity to adapt and fine-tune their educational model. Gem Prep schools have only one high school at this point—the online school. The physical schools are K–8. However, Gem is planning to add a new grade each year moving forward to make all of them K–12.
With the arrival of Coronavirus, Gem was prepared to shift to full-time online. Gem’s approach is to provide educators the specific training they need to teach effectively online. Laurie Wolfe, the network’s Chief Academic Officer, comments that “we [have] trained our online teachers over the years, we [know] how to do that.” This training includes everything from how to take attendance online, what internet resources are available, and how to convey the proper format for lessons on zoom.
And Gem Prep parents embrace their role in teaming with teachers by assisting their children with connectivity, being included in the plans of the adjusted schedule, and being invited to attend office hours for help with the lessons.
Of course, there will be challenges to overcome. But Gem’s goal is for students to, “maintain or gain on skills.” And they are keenly aware of the need to balance that goal against the fact that parents are working from home—or maybe even lost a job or are sick. As Wolfe puts it, “we have to have a lot of grace for everyone.”
Aside from their readiness, what makes Gem Prep stand out is their system. In particular, one substitute teacher explained how easy it is to adjust to their system because of their smartly-formatted curriculum.
Another important aspect of their approach is to transition student gradually. As kids enter middle school, they begin to use online classes available through the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, taking classes not offered in the physical school. CEO Jason Bransford notes that these are more likely to be the more advanced courses.
Gem’s success is evident in the 92.5 percent of students are on track to graduate—well above the overall state average. Bransford explained that this is due in part to more than half of Gem Prep middle school students taking high school-level courses online. Once in high school, they are able to take dual-credit college courses. In fact, Gem Prep has the goal of providing 60 percent of their students in physical schools with both an associate’s degree and high school diploma upon graduation!
The online preparatory model that Gem Prep uses has also been offered nationally to help other schools navigate these stormy waters. Recently, Wolfe shared her advice for the proper steps in developing their home learning plans.
Gem Prep recognizes a key principle advocated by Don Nielsen, ACTE program chair: “Educating all our children will only occur if we fundamentally change our present system of public education.” We need to allow for effective leadership such as Wolfe and the innovative autonomy they create to flourish within public education. Examples such as Gem Prep show transforming the system is possible.