Lake Forest Charter School, located in New Orleans East, educates students in kindergarten through eighth grade. We spoke with their CEO, Mardele Early, about what this very different school year will look like for them. She reflected on children’s emotions in this moment, the need for consistency, and what forty-five years of experience tells her about today.
Caring for the Whole Child
When schools closed in the Spring, Mardele Early immediately checked in with her students to assess their basic needs. Lake Forest served lunch each day outside of the school, and Ms. Early and the school social worker helped families apply for additional state funding for groceries.
“I started making sure my students and staff and their families were safe and that they understood the importance of the CDC guidelines.”
Ms. Early is making sure her students have the chance to process the trauma of this moment, even if they can’t do that in person.
“How are my students processing the murder of George Floyd, which was brutal and inhumane? Do they have the meaning of systemic racism? Do they understand the purpose of peaceful protest? Do they understand that Black lives matter? With the pandemic going on, how are my six hundred kids watching this unfold, a whole new wave in America and worldwide? How are my children and families processing that?”
Early explains that, in a fully in-person school year, they would have sessions with social workers and breakout groups in social studies class to try and make sense of the impact of the racial violence and the pandemic they are witnessing. Even while school is virtual, students will still have the opportunity to process their experiences, only now, those conversations will be virtual.
The familiar structure of the school day
One Lake Forest student works from the car because their parent’s job is on the road.
Lake Forest was well-positioned to adjust to this moment. Even before the pandemic, students had virtual learning activities to complete during Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, and Christmas break.
“Our students are used to virtual platforms,” explains Early, “so it was easy to pivot when the Governor announced school buildings would be closed.”
Now, as the school year starts off virtually, students are diving back into online learning, supplemented by physical workbooks and textbooks. To be consistent with the pattern of the traditional school day, classes are held from 8 am to 3:45 pm. Students start the day with morning assembly, then have classes in forty-five or fifty minute blocks, with fifteen minute “brain breaks” and a lunch period in between. Lake Forest made sure that the pandemic did not take what they call “exploratory” classes away — students still get the same drama, visual arts, music, and language classes they have every year.
The kids need routine,” Early says. “It was a different type of first day, but we were excited for it. We still had that first assembly, the kids will still get their chance to yell and cut up and have fun.”
“I am proud of our detailed planning,” says Early. “I am really proud of that, and our motivation to make sure children receive quality instruction and have a normal, structured school day.”
Throughout that school day, Lake Forest’s teachers are committed to keeping academics strong. They will do so by using the data and planning practices that worked so well for their school in prior years.
“Here at Lake Forest, we’re not going to let kids fall behind. We always do diagnostic testing at the start of the year. And I feel lost without the state assessment data. I’m very data driven — I need to find out where the kids are.”
So Lake Forest’s teachers collected that data, and now they are using it carefully. By knowing exactly where students are starting from, they will be able to meet them where they are and challenge them enough to grow.
A Lake Forest student hard at work online
Preparing teachers and families for the year ahead
Lake Forest filled their gym with technology for teachers to hand out (at a distance) to students.
Ms. Early knew her teachers needed to feel comfortable leading their classes this fall. Even if Lake Forest had leveraged virtual learning before, full-day virtual instruction was new.
“I asked teachers what they needed, and they said, ‘we need training, Ms. Early, if this is what the world is going to be like for the next year.’”
So every week, starting in June, Ms. Early began two or three hours a week of professional training for her educators on delivering effective virtual lessons. She hired a former Lake Forest teacher who now works for a technology company to lead the sessions.
“When he was an ELA teacher at Lake Forest, he was always really into how he could use technology in the classroom, so it has been perfect. I was able to reach out to him and say, ‘Marcus, we need to be trained.’”
Lake Forest also led sessions for parents. Families could log online, ask questions, and learn from Marcus and his team about the platforms their children would learn from.
“That’s one of the things I’m very proud of,” Early says. “All of these professional developments for our staff and also our parents.”
On bringing 45 years of experience to this moment
Mardele Early has been an educator for forty-five years. She has been the CEO of Lake Forest for fifteen of those years. With experience has come expertise, and also perspective — she knows that leaders must be flexible to be successful. She believes that if students are not benefitting from a plan, then that plan needs to change.
“Since last spring, I have been saying we need to ‘pray, plan, and pivot,’” she explains.
“One of my philosophies going into my 45th year of this work is to pivot, to change course and throw out what’s not working. We are data-driven, and if the data tell us that students are not achieving, then it is not working. So no matter how much you invested in it, move on. As the year begins, that is what we will be doing. We will start out the year how we have planned it, but if we need to pivot, we will. We will modify.”
The Lake Forest Charter School community calls their school “the Eagles’ Nest,” where the students, or “eagles,” learn to soar as high as possible. Ms. Early knows this won’t stop, whether those eagles are soaring at home or in person.
“They will not forget what it’s like to be on ‘the Eagles’ Nest.’ We aren’t on campus, but we will be virtually on that same ‘Eagles’ Nest,’ instilling those same values. We soar above everything, including pandemics. And I feel I must remain prayerful and steadfast in the assurance that our school family will get through this pandemic on the other side. ”