Virtual learning hasn't slowed magnet education programs
WRAL.com. Latisha Catchatoorian. October 21, 2020.

Due to the pandemic, Wake County Public Schools have shifted to virtual learning and the system's magnet schools are no exception. However, the move to remote learning hasn't slowed down the robust offerings and curriculum these magnet schools offer and educators are making every effort to not miss a beat.

"One of the most important considerations we had as we pivoted to virtual learning was how we could continue to give our students the integrated, themed experience that their family signed up for. We really thought intentionally about how we can continue to offer programming that is experientially-based, with an applied learning, hands on approach," said Kimberly Lane, the senior director for Magnet and Curriculum Enhancement Programs for the Wake County Public School System.

So whether magnet students have opted for the Virtual Academy this semester or are transitioning back to an alternating in-school and learn-from-home experience, they are all still enjoying a vibrant magnet education.

Lane said, in a way, magnet schools have been preparing their students and equipping them all along with the necessary tools to take on a challenge like virtual learning.

While no one could have anticipated the current pandemic, Lane emphasized magnet schools have emphasized resourcefulness and adaptability in many of their program themes. These skills have been critical during this time.

"I think it depends on what the course is, but a constant theme throughout magnet programming is resourcefulness and innovation. Students are still getting educational variances and add-on exposures, but in a different way," said Lane. "In an ordinary educational environment, a lot of times, we tend to tell our students how to do things. But this environment has required us all to think about how to do things differently. In this way, we're giving our students the opportunity to think critically and create a learning environment that really applies exploring, questioning, and sometimes even failing — which is a part of learning."

"Our staff has been amazing because they have continued to offer unique opportunities beyond the standard curriculum, even in this digital environment. All of our magnet themes are still evident," added Kitty Yarbrough, a coordinating teacher for the Office of Magnet and Curriculum Enhancement Programs for the Wake County Public School System.

To keep the core curriculum, electives and immersive experiences going required strategic planning and dedicated commitment from teachers, staff and students.

"One of the things that we pride ourselves on in magnet schools is that we are very student centric. We're trying to tap into their passions, interests, and talents and use these to make sure that we're connecting with students. All of us as educators have recognized that our preference is to physically see our students, but in this virtual environment, making sure that we're still connected to them and doing that very intentionally is our top priority," said Lane.

Brentwood Magnet Elementary, for example, recently gave its students a project where they had to engineer a jump rope with things found at home. Supplies were sent to students who needed them, but the project was intended to foster students' engineering skills and creativity.

At Powell Center for Play and Ingenuity Magnet Elementary School, students are still getting the opportunity to build and design things like play structures, desks and even spaceships.

Magnet schools at the high school level are also finding ways to engage students in rigorous, relevant ways.

At Athens Drive Magnet High School, Center for Medical Sciences and Global Health Initiatives, students and teachers are collaborating with the Smithsonian Institute to create an exhibit experience for the students and community. Students will be adding exhibit pieces, including contributions regarding the current COVID-19 pandemic, to the Smithsonian Outbreak DIY exhibit that educates people on the history and understandings of epidemics throughout time.

The exhibit will start at Athens Drive but will later be on exhibit in other locations, such as WakeMed hospitals.

Additionally, leadership magnet schools are still teaching the core curriculum through the leadership lens of Stephen Covey's, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" and international studies magnets are still delivering core instruction through a global lens and offering daily language to students.

And while virtual learning isn't ideal in some respects, in others, it's opened a whole new world of possibilities.

"I think what I find most exciting is the opportunity to really use this virtual environment in a way that provides greater opportunity and access for our students," said Lane. "For example, Centennial Campus Magnet Middle School usually takes their students to N.C. State University for field trips through their university connections, but in this environment, what they've been able to do is to showcase many colleges and universities across the state. Students had their first University Connection Day and kids got to see places they would never have gotten to see if we'd been in a physical campus environment."

Students were so excited about seeing campuses across the state they asked their teachers if they could take virtual field trips to colleges and universities in other states and even in other countries. This kind of world exposure is exactly the type of diverse, immersive learning experience that magnet schools are predicated upon.

Keeping students on task and participating can be challenging even in a traditional physical classroom. To keep students absorbed in the virtual classroom, an engaging lesson is key. To do so, magnet teachers are finding ways to integrate multiple learning experiences into a single project.

For example, for an aeronautics class at Washington Gifted and Talented Magnet Elementary, students were sent flight kits and had to leverage engineering, science and math skills to build it.

At other schools, students are taking to their backyards to find "creepy crawlies" for their science classes, using virtual escape rooms to learn problem solving, or taking virtual field trips to anywhere in the world thanks to a computer and internet connection.

"We use the phrase, 'See things differently.' We're helping our students dig a little deeper, explore a little more, and delve into their own passions and interests more intently," said Lane.

Magnet schools are known for their immersive and often rigorous core curriculum, but also for their electives and clubs, which have not taken a backseat either during this time.

"GT Elementary is still offering between 40 and 50 elective choices right now, which is amazing," said Yarbrough. "Students are participating in at least one elective a day. Puppet Play, for example, is one elective where students were provided with materials to make puppets at home and use those puppets to tell a story."

At Ligon Gifted and Talented/AIG Basics Magnet Middle School, where electives abound, Chase Crafton's Architectural Design elective students create designs, draft floor plans and turn them into 3D models. They have been using a drafting program called SketchUp to create everything from a small home to a backyard sandbox.

"One of our magnet students who's in dance was describing how they are practicing their dance moves individually at home, but together virtually," added Lane. "Even in our electives, there is an opportunity for applied learning."

Dance students aren't only learning the moves to a routine, but also investigating the science of sound and integrating music into their performances. Lane said the magnet learning approach is as much about the process as it is about the end result.

"We're also still having clubs that are handled virtually," said Lane. "Parents have given us feedback that they're really thrilled about this because it's a way for students to feel connected. And I think that's one of the things as educators we're hearing more than anything else is how disconnecting this virtual environment can be," said Lane. "It's super important that the student feels seen and heard and part of something bigger and maintains these connections."

Keeping learning creative and collaborative is something Yarbrough said magnet schools have always done best and this new learning environment is no different.

"Magnet schools have always had to be unique and to offer opportunities beyond regular classroom expectations," said Yarbrough. "So thinking outside of the box is nothing new for magnet teachers. I do feel like we have embraced this time in a positive way and have been able to rely on the tools that we know how to use to keep that outside the box thinking going in this virtual environment."

"One of our program coordinators said that during this virtual time it has felt like we've been able to open our students' eyes to all of the possibilities they have, rather than it being contained with what we can physically show them," added Lane. "To me, that's powerful. There's so much out there for our students to experience. I just want to give credit to our teachers who have been creatively thinking and planning and to our educators and administrative staff who have been hard at work."


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