COVID has forced the OUSD’s independent study program to change. Some say for the worse.

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A year ago, the Oakland Unified School District had approximately 150 students enrolled in its Sojourner Truth independent study program. Today, there are more than a thousand, a direct consequence of the pandemic and the fears of some families to return to school in person.

At the start of this school year, OUSD rushed to hire more teachers and staff for the program, where over the past decade enrollment numbers had never exceeded 250 students. But these efforts took time, and as a result, the first few weeks at Sojourner Truth were fragile: hundreds of students were placed on a waiting list and substitute teachers were recruited to cover classes while the District officials resolved scheduling conflicts, and families browsed Zoom links, Google Classroom and other online learning platforms.

As the year progressed, the students received their permanent teachers and settled into a consistent schedule. But with growing concerns about the omicron variant and an impending deadline for students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to be unenrolled from school in person, the independent study program Sojourner Truth could see another jump in enrollment. next month.

And while many families who were unhappy with the program at the start of the school year are now happy, some teachers and families who were part of Sojourner Truth before the pandemic are now frustrated with what they describe as a dismantling. by the school district of an education model that worked.

“I don’t understand this new SJT program. It’s not what I would have imagined, ”said Roxanna Lenton, who had a son in the program before the pandemic and planned to enroll her youngest son as well, before the program changed. “My kids couldn’t wait to go to school. Finding out that their school just didn’t exist… it was mean.

Before the pandemic and distance learning, Sojourner Truth students traveled to the East Oakland campus a few times a week to get help with online classes or to meet one-on-one teachers. to review individualized work plans. Students’ schedules were flexible and they had access to in-person learning, counselors, teachers and meals on campus. Now the program is essentially the Zoom School, where students are home and online most of the time from 8:30 am to 2 pm.

Sojourner Truth isn’t the only independent study program that has undergone changes this year. Assembly Bill 130, which the state passed over the summer, made changes to California’s independent study programs in light of widespread fears about children returning to sites schools during the pandemic. Families who wanted to pursue distance learning this fall have been urged to enroll in independent studies, and Assembly Bill 130 sets out live education and curriculum requirements for these programs. , as well as policies of engagement with students who do not attend classes. The bill requires families enrolled in independent studies who wish to continue to receive in-person instruction to quit and enroll in a regular school.

But many Sojourner Truth students chose the independent study program specifically because it wasn’t like the traditional school.

“There were kids who suffered from social anxiety, there were parents who were abused and they wanted to keep their kids safe, there were kids who had safety issues. Every child is there for a reason, ”said Lenton. “I realize [OUSD] said to do a program for those who didn’t want to go back to school, but these kids didn’t sign up for it.

According to Lenton, who also teaches at OUSD, families previously enrolled in Sojourner Truth learned a few days before the start of the school year that the program would be completely virtual. In the middle of the semester, Lenton transferred his son from Sojourner Truth to the district complementary school so that he could once again receive in-person instruction.

“I’m sure there are people who are happy with that. You have a thousand people who have chosen to participate, who have asked for this. I didn’t ask for that, and I didn’t ask for my child to be stuck at home, ”she said. “Now it’s basically a regular school, but online. It is no longer an independent study.

One of the things teachers liked about Sojourner Truth was that educators had small workloads of 15 to 25 students and could develop deeper relationships with them, said Michael Shane, who has taught there since 2014.

“It was a very enriching experience, in terms of teaching,” said Shane. “A lot of our students had been through some sort of trauma or were anxious. For some reason, they couldn’t navigate the traditional classroom setting.

This year, some Sojourner Truth instructors who teach middle and high school have 150-200 students they see on Zoom every day. Before the pandemic, Shane taught in Sojourner Truth’s e-learning program, which meant his students came to campus a few hours each day to complete an online program while Shane provided supervision, guidance and support. This year he is teaching four history lessons and has two study periods indoors on Zoom.

Growing pains

Many families were grateful for the opportunity to continue distance learning. Jaime Burnell and his partner decided over the summer to enroll their 6-year-old in the Sojourner Truth program, shortly after the delta variant became dominant in California. But it took weeks to complete registration as so many others were trying to use the website, Burnell said. During the first month of school, Burnell’s son Bates did not have a permanent teacher and the family would not know what the week’s class schedule would be until they received an e- mail Sunday evening.

“It was really difficult at the start. If it had remained this difficult, we would take it out of public school for a year, ”she said. “But just as we were starting to really assess whether or not we should take it down, they responded to our main complaint.”

Bates and his classmates got a permanent teacher, which gave him more consistency, and he got to know his classmates better. While the family were happy with the independent study this semester, they transfer him to Hoover Elementary School for the spring, in part so he can experience the learning in person. As a first grader, his last school experience before the pandemic was preschool. But the biggest thing, Burnell said, was that she was able to get him vaccinated.

“I watched conversations between my friends on Facebook saying ‘My child has been exposed to COVID and now we have to stay home and we are in quarantine for a week,” she said. “I am very grateful that my family was able to stay home and stay safe. “

Enrollment at Sojourner Truth has grown from 360 students in the first week of school this year to 943 students, with more on a waiting list, in the first month. Gary Middleton, OUSD’s Executive Director for Alternative Education, admitted that as a result there had been “growing pains” at Sojourner Truth.

“Our program grew overnight,” he said at the school board meeting last week. “As our enrollment grows, it will be necessary to expand our teaching staff. “

OUSD hired 41 teachers for Sojourner Truth and three specialist teachers who help support other teachers. The district is currently recruiting a school counselor and is in the process of hiring a deputy principal. OUSD is also partnering with The Oakland Reach, a parenting rights organization, to provide literacy classes and support for families. Burnell, the mother of a first grader, also works as a literacy coach for Kindergarten to Grade 2 students as part of The Oakland Reach partnership.

Oakland Unified’s student vaccination mandate, which goes into effect Jan. 1, will require students 12 and older to be vaccinated or have an exemption to attend school in person. OUSD officials do not yet have an estimate of how many students will choose to move on to independent studies, but with more than 4,000 eligible students aged 12 and over unvaccinated, the tenure is likely to result in an increase. registrations at Sojourner Truth. There may also be families, like Burnell’s, who return to face-to-face learning now that their children can get the vaccine.

Of the 244 families with students at Sojourner Truth who have responded to an OUSD survey so far, 90% said they would stay in the program for the spring, and 54% said they would stay registered for the school year 2022-2023. . At last week’s board meeting, Middleton added that many families have said they love the e-learning model, and he expects enrollments for the 2022-2023 school year to be around four times higher. higher than the school’s original enrollment before the pandemic, which could mean 600 to 800 students.

These projections leave Shane, the teacher, concerned that the district may never restore the original Sojourner Truth model.

“I am concerned that they will continue beyond COVID and maintain our program as a distance education academy,” Shane said. “I’ll move on if I have the prospect of teaching Zoom for longer than this year.”


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