Distance Learning & Special Education: How One Private School Pivoted During the Pandemic - All Children Learn

Parents of children with learning differences have had to navigate an entirely new landscape as the Coronavirus pandemic shut down schools and began a new distance learning approach in education.  While all families are now having to adjust to having more active roles in the day-to-day curriculum for their child, this task comes with some unique challenges for special education students.  

All Children Learn is helping parents with special needs children connect with the appropriate providers and schools to ensure that those children don’t get left behind.  In this article, we interview Winston Preparatory School regarding how they’re successfully managing distance learning during the pandemic.

Winston Preparatory School (Winston Prep) is a network of six campuses in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and California. We offer students with learning differences a highly individualized, holistic, and responsive education and serve students through grade 12. Additionally, in New York City, we offer a unique gap year program for students who are not yet ready for college or the workplace.

Tell us a little about what led you to distance learning

Once the Covid-19 pandemic changed the landscape for education last spring, Winston Prep pivoted all of its campuses to allow students to learn live, full-time, and online. In March 2020, we moved our full-time educational operation for students to a Distance Learning Model. This model is evidence-based in its approach, focusing on skill-driven programming in the online environment. At the onset, we placed a high value on our teachers and leaders maintaining connections and engagement with the community, our peers, and instructors. 

In the Fall of 2020, we started offering two learning options for all students: live in-person learning five days a week on campus or short or long-term remote participation. In-person learning on campuses has been made possible by implementing comprehensive COVID-19 safety protocols and programming considerations and we follow local, state, and CDC guidelines. We recognize that the health, safety, and overall well-being of our entire school community is the ultimate priority.

Families who chose for their child not to return to a physical campus, or whose child is unable to return to school for any reason at any time, medical or otherwise, have been participating in Winston Prep’s Remote Learning Program. This program allows students live access to all of their classrooms via secure and state-of-the-art video streaming technology. Students at home are seen and heard by their teacher and classmates as if they are in the classroom with their peers on a large screen tv mounted in the back of the room. Remote Learners have a clear view of the teacher and the whiteboard, as well as access to all materials virtually. Should the situation change, Winston Prep would pivot back from an in-person program to our successful Distance Learning Program.

To build on the success of our Distance Learning initiative, this fall, we introduced Winston Online, a fully online community, which allows students with learning differences to study online anywhere in the country.

How do you manage collaboration between families and educators?

That’s a great question because we believe family engagement is key to every student’s success. A few examples of how we manage family communication include consistent contact from student’s one-to-one focus instructors via email or phone weekly, virtual parent conferences, three narrative reports a year, and weekly newsletters from Campus Leadership.

How do you plan to measure for success?

With the launch of our “Winston Online” model, we felt firmly that our core mission still applied and would guide us through all of the decisions we needed to make. Through our Continuous Feedback System, each child’s learning profile is analyzed and an individualized learning plan is created. Assessments of students’ needs and progress at Winston Prep are continuous and meant to be a way to understand each child’s strengths and weaknesses so that we can most effectively help them learn through precise and individualized curricular design. Assessment is not a ranking mechanism, an end-point, or used for creating labels and limits. It is constant, drives understanding, is individualized, and highly focused. Our assessment allows our educators to measure skills, track progress, refine goals, give feedback, and realize potential and improve the ability to learn.

Can you tell me how you keep children with learning differences engaged for extended periods of time, remotely?

Our faculty are really experts in the field of learning differences.  The short answer to your question is that our faculty go to great lengths upfront to learn the most effective method for engaging each student.  This is how we establish a learning profile at the beginning of their studies, so that faculty can focus on each individual’s specific learning needs and ways to better engage. This includes an assessment of engaging students in learning, whether in-person or remote. The design and implementation of each student’s educational program begins with an understanding of their learning profile in the context of a neuropsychological model of learning disorders. Although it is merely a starting point in our ongoing assessment of students’ strengths and weaknesses, it is an important diagnostic characterization that allows us to begin to focus upon and investigate primary areas of learning difficulties. Some examples of our strategies are grouping students with similar learning profiles, one-to-one daily remediation, skills-based programming, and frequent assessment of progress and adaptations to programming.

We take a data-driven approach to the individualized educational process which begins with the review of each student’s psycho-educational evaluation, standardized testing, informal testing, and social-emotional development. 

We also cohort students based on their learning difficulty, skill level, and educational and social-emotional needs. This allows educators to more precisely develop, adjust and refine a curriculum that meets the skills and content needs of each student in a small group and allows each individual to study at their pace, giving them the tools to continue independently learning and growing. All of our campuses provide intense skill remediation while fostering independence, resilience, responsibility, and self-awareness. 

What behavioral supports or strategies do you offer for those of our kids who are inattentive or exhibit other problem behaviors?

Our Focus Program is designed to offer each student one-on-one time with a teacher each day. These in-depth, individualized lessons offer great support for all of our students in order to focus on their areas where they need the most growth. This method also offers behavioral support and makes students feel more understood and comfortable in our learning environment. 

What if any materials, gadgets, or technology do you send to the home or require in order to be successful?

All of our remote students have a school issued chromebook to access Google Classroom and Meets. Students without adequate internet are provided with hot spots. In addition, books and other needed materials are sent home for student use.

How if at all do you promote socialization with their peers while distance learning?

Many of our students struggle with social communication, so opportunities to improve these skills are critical, whether in-person or online.  Some of the specific strategies our instructors focus on is designing small group activities, structured discussion formats, and frequently dedicate the first and last several minutes of each period to discussion and expressive language development. Activities such as Finish the Sentence (e.g., I can’t stop laughing when…), Personal Artifact Share (mature version of Show and Tell), I Spy (identify an object in a peer or teacher’s background), promote social fun, engagement and connections with peers. We also conduct events outside of class with various virtual events and themes to encourage community and socialization. 

How has your school improved from this experience?

I think the biggest learning is our understanding of our students. Since we are now able to assess and remediate students outside of the physical classroom. Without the indirect support of the physical classroom structure, we have a deeper understanding of how our students perform independently and can more effectively tie in this knowledge to our programming. 

Has there been anything that has surprised you?

We have been really amazed at how many of our students have taken responsibility for cultivating community connections and enthusiasm, organizing and sharing messages of gratitude, and overall making the best out of a challenging situation. We are proud of the resilience of our students. 

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