Among the many pandemic-related worries for parents, a lack of academic progress for our children — or worse, an academic decline — was top of the list. With the many forced disruptions to in-person learning, the bounce from remote to hybrid learning and back again, kids at every grade level across the city were at risk for academic stagnation.
Yet this wasn’t the case for students at GEMS World Academy, a private, independent PK-12 school in Chicago’s Lakeshore East.
As a result of careful planning, continual evaluation and quick response to feedback, academic and social-emotional strength remained high for students at GEMS, says Cindy Rigling, Co-Head of School.
“Throughout the pandemic, our curriculum specialists identified and actively tracked our power standards. In line with research, our faculty identified and maintained focus on key standards in each subject,” Rigling says. “We modified the how, but didn’t bend on what we taught and we saw actual movement in student assessments. Generally speaking, there was an upward trend and we are quite pleased. We feel very good about our data that showed our students are not falling behind.”
Flexible but focused
At the core of this full-continuum International Baccalaureate (IB) school exist hallmarks that provide a framework for instruction. In addition to academic rigor, the hallmarks include a whole-child approach, global citizenship, critical thinking, innovation and student agency, among others. These hallmarks guided faculty and leadership as they continually assessed progress.
“In the end, it’s about what is best for the kids, so the hallmarks helped us really consider if what we were doing was best for the whole child,” Rigling says. “We started out all about the academics, and quickly realized that the kids were missing each other, so we adjusted our approach.”
Making space for relationships was also a big part of the focus, says Peg Keiner, director of innovation at GEMS. “We recognized the need for more social time, so while we were remote, we provided opportunities for students to just be together and even to create clubs of interest to them,” she says. The school held remote celebrations of student achievement, conducted the grade five IB exhibition and grade 10 personal projects virtually, as well as remote art exhibits. The school also held Parent Universities and a virtual family math night and encouraged families to explore math in their own home environments.
In the lower school, an online recess chat room quickly became a popular social space where kids could talk about their pets or look at each others’ rooms, and when students returned to school and maintained small cohorts, faculty continued to use technology so students could share presentations and connect with those in other classrooms.
Throughout the whole experience, GEMS faculty maintained the progressive education that makes it such a highly regarded school, with inquiry-based learning and student agency at the center.
“Agency is what keeps kids at the edge of their seats and excited about what they are doing. We are all better at the things we take pride in and our goal is to give kids the opportunities to do as much of this as possible,” Rigling says.
Rich field studies
As an IB school, GEMS provides unique opportunities for students to use the city of Chicago for its immersive field studies. Distinct from typical school field trips, these modules get students into the city’s infrastructure to analyze processes and ask pertinent questions about how the city operates. The pandemic modified — but didn’t stop — field studies, as 95 virtual interactions took place during the year.
An architect who specializes in ADA designs talked with first grade students about accessibility around the city. Students learned about water filtration from environmental engineers and designed and tested their own filters using household items. Third grade students pitched ideas about reducing unnecessary packaging on meals and snacks — and effected an environmentally friendly change.
“Student-driven inquiry is what the IB education framework is all about and students know that their thoughts and concerns are valued,” Rigling says, sharing a story about how first grade students concerned about snow on sidewalks at public bus stops corresponded with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who wrote back to address their questions. “This is what empowers our students to be prepared learners for life. Through these experiences, they learn how to communicate effectively, manage their time, research and process information in multiple ways. That’s at the core of what we teach here.”
In addition to field studies experiences, students met with Sierra Leone Princess Sarah Culberson about the country’s civil war and her efforts to increase access to education and clean water for families. They also met virtually with Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau, about her environmental conservation work — a collaborative experience between French language and environmental studies.
Feedback and parent involvement
In January and April of the school year, students were offered structured entry points back to in-person instruction, and by the end of the school year, 88% of students were back in the classroom. From the beginning of remote learning, GEMS leadership surveyed families for feedback. “Parent feedback guided our work, and for the first six weeks of fully remote learning, we connected with parents every single week. We checked in on their progress and asked how they were feeling and then adapted or modified based on what we heard,” explains Keiner. “By week six, 93% felt we were being responsive to their feedback.”
Keiner developed a website with how-to videos to support parents with getting their students online. “There were resources for social-emotional learning, math and reading, and this provided an important scaffold for overwhelmed parents,” Rigling says.
When surveys indicated a need for increased support for resilience and independence, GEMS offered two virtual Parent University presentations that allowed parents to engage with learning and curriculum specialists and the school counselor.
“Through our Parent University, parents discovered that they weren’t alone in seeking social-emotional learning for their kids, and this helped them create new structures at home for boundaries and time management,” Keiner explains. “It was valuable for parents to learn about strategies that worked for other families.”
Because every day brought new pandemic-related guidance, GEMS hired a second nurse to help with the daily monitoring of best practices. Teachers created a whole library of short videos for families to learn about masking and safety protocols. “We created visuals for kids so they wouldn’t have scary feelings about seeing masked teachers and classrooms that were set up differently,” Rigling says.
Takeaways and silver linings
“Our kids are so much more resilient than we give them credit for,” Rigling says. “In so many cases, they benefitted from learning to communicate more effectively in innovative ways. This was a huge area of growth for our students.”
Out of necessity, students expanded their use of online programs like Seesaw, an app that allows students to share work, gain feedback and create an archive throughout the years. “We used Seesaw just a fraction of the way we use it now and it’s great for students to be able to see the progression and evolution of their own work,” Rigling says.
Surprisingly, the use of technology helped some of the more reserved students flourish as they approached the classroom environment on more comfortable terms, a silver lining that will help inform post-pandemic learning.
Even the kindergartners demonstrated savvy use of multiple online platforms, Keiner says. “In all the different ways they were engaging with faculty and with each other, to see them transition between multiple screens and still remain focused, from kindergarten and up, was just incredible.”
Learn more about GEMS World Academy Chicago at gemschicago.org.