Boys in the Building

Boys in the Building: We started school in-person for our most vulnerable students. Here’s what we have learned.
By Michael Otieno Molina, Head of School

At the Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys in Southeast Washington D.C., our neatly organized and sun-lit art room is alive with energy. 5th graders Rico and Chauncey are taking virtual Lacrosse lessons while 3rd grader Prince echoes Ms. Tomlinson’s notes in virtual Choir class. Three boys, all tall and confident for their ages, are focused, engaged, and masked up with their headphones on. They each have a massive table for the laptops we’ve issued. They are distanced about 10 feet apart. Our morning temperature checks and health screenings have been a bit nerve-wracking, but we are all getting more comfortable now that we are near the end of the first week of on-campus, distance learning.

At the Bishop Walker School, a K-5 tuition-free school supported by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and many other individuals and grant-making institutions, we made the decision to have a very small group of boys participate in our Responsive Distance Learning program on campus. We have a particularly vulnerable school village with 100% African-American students and faculty, as well as many students from areas with high COVID infection rates such as Ward 8 and Prince Georges County. After months of educating ourselves about COVID mitigation and seeking input from our families, faculty, staff, and stakeholders, it was clear that our community was best served by distance learning. But what about working parents with no access to childcare to support this challenging new frontier in elementary education? We had to have some boys in the building.

We made on-campus distance learning an option for only a small number of 3rd - 5th graders so as not to force our youngest students to restrain their naturally affectionate natures or require our teachers to cover their wonderfully animated faces during instruction. We’ve observed and supported our in-person students’ engagement with our Responsive Distance Learning program and worked to troubleshoot tech issues. This has given us real-time information on the challenges and opportunities of this moment. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Young people, when they know they are cared-for and believed in, are extraordinarily resilient, and yet they get exhausted with distance learning. We have scheduled online academic blocks, mindfulness and library sessions, breaks, physical activity, as well as specials and electives from 8:15 – 3:00pm. Some, particularly the older boys and those with attention challenges, need vigilant encouragement to stick with school work and not distract themselves with other online activities. This is best accomplished with multiple adults committed to non-punitive redirection.

Teachers, when given the information, time, and support they need to properly prepare, are among the most creative, capable, and invaluable human resources on the planet. Well-organized, compelling instruction with meaningful content can overcome student fatigue. Also, BWS engages co-curricular partners such as Living Classroom Foundation, which delivers environmental science lessons with take-home science kits, The Washington Ballet, which offers crossfit style physical education, and Inner City-Inner Child, which leads African drumming lessons and physical education for younger ages. This interesting, interactive virtual content happens with support from online proctors and refreshes teachers and students.

Supporters, when aware of the need, will step up. Our trustees and donors have contributed resources for laptops for every student, virtual learning professional development and high-quality web cameras for teachers, grocery gift cards for families, and countless other individual acts of loving care. People of conscience see the challenge and want to help us meet it.

Chauncey was tired today, the last day of our first week of classes. This can be difficult, and sometimes we adults get tired too. But as I began to help the young scholar see the nouns, adjectives and verbs around him, we both felt energized. Having children, and in our case, boys, in the building has been a challenging, rewarding, and ultimately inspiring part of the start to this difficult school year.

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Gary Jared
Associate Director of Development, Communications and Foundations