Designing Virtual Academies by Centering the Voices of Stakeholders at the Margins

“We wanted to provide a really great online learning experience for kids and for families. A big part of that is partnering with families. An online education in many ways is an even deeper partnership because students are learning in their house. From the beginning, we thought of our online school as an opportunity to provide kids with an excellent education and to partner with families.”—Kurtis Indorf, Great Hearts Online

We have seen the COVID-19 pandemic have deep reaching impacts on all parts of school ecosystems, from students and their families, to educators and administrators. Many schools had to make quick pivots to figure out distance learning in order to be able to continue to serve students safely throughout the pandemic.

As districts look ahead, there is interest in distilling and building upon the pivots of the past year to create more innovative school options. As Robin Lake shared in The 74, “The ability to be unbounded by the offerings that are in a school building and the kind of one-size-fits-all approach has been liberating for people.” 

Some districts are considering creating long-term innovative virtual academies to continue to provide a high-quality educational option for students. For a myriad of reasons, virtual learning still remains a desired and valuable option for students and their families, whether for health and safety concerns, for students who experience extreme bullying or BIPOC students. As Paul Hill writes in The Lens for CRPE, “Even before the pandemic closures many Black and Hispanic parents had deep concerns about in-person schools: discriminatory tracking, harmful disciplinary and suspension practices, and unequal access to good teachers and schools with adequate funding.” Creating a successful long-term model is contingent upon meeting the needs of those who want this option. 

Great Hearts K-12 Academy, like many districts and Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) across the country, pivoted to distance learning during the 2020–2021 school year. This school provides the same quality curriculum and builds the same strong culture between students and teachers, but does so without the traditional barriers of in-person schooling and with even deeper relationships with families.   

Input from prospective families was of paramount importance to Great Hearts Online during the design process. They wanted to ensure the school was built by and for these crucial stakeholders, especially because they did not view this school as merely a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they were designing a long-term innovative virtual school that would continue to serve interested students and families long after the pandemic ended.

As other districts around the country seek to design virtual school options for their students, they too should identify key stakeholders and engage them from the very beginning. To address the trauma and heightened inequities of the pandemic, long-term solutions such as virtual academies must center equity and family voice in the design process. At Education First, we believe that if you design to meet the needs and desires of students who are most at the margins, then all of your students will benefit from an equitable, inclusive and high-quality learning environment.  

Recognizing the Agency of Students and their Families

As educational systems focus on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, they have a responsibility to create systems that are more responsive to students’ needs and provide a high-quality virtual option for students that want it. A virtual academy cannot simply be a replication or continuation of the distance learning so many districts put in place over the course of the pandemic. To ensure the investment in a virtual option is high-quality and responsive to student and family needs, districts and CMOs must recognize the leadership qualities and innate knowledge and expertise that families have and engage them in key decisions around creating a virtual academy.  

“Public education must diversify, make room for new ideas, support initiatives from outsiders—particularly in communities of color—and expect parents to remain, as they have become, full partners in decision-making for their children’s education.”

—Paul Hill, CRPE

With robust stakeholder collaboration, districts can in turn equip educators and school staff with the targeted resources, training and tools necessary to meaningfully set students up for success. The below action steps will help you 1) identify key stakeholders, especially those at the margins and 2) engage these stakeholders in the design of your virtual academy.

  1. Identify Key Stakeholders

Understand your group of potential student and family stakeholders: As districts think about setting up a long-term virtual academy, they need to understand who is still interested in a virtual option and why.  Since many had a virtual option over the course of the past year, it can also be beneficial to understand who was able to thrive in an online environment and be sure to engage those students in longer-term planning. To ensure the voices of people who have been historically marginalized are heard throughout the planning process, districts should understand the key demographic indicators of the community they serve. This could include:

  • Racial/ethnic background
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Immigration status
  • Language spoken at home
  • Special student populations such as students with disabilities, LGBTQ+ students, English Learners and more 

Identify stakeholders, especially those at the margins: Districts can utilize a stakeholder mapping exercise to push beyond who are regularly thought of as traditional or “usual” stakeholders and think about a wider swath of stakeholders. Are there student and family groups from the above list who should provide input on the virtual academy but who might not usually have access to engagement opportunities? Are there other community members your district should engage during the planning process besides students and families? In mapping stakeholders, it is important to think beyond those who are usually engaged in school feedback conversations or already have heightened social capital, and expand the list of key stakeholders to all who have a vested interest in a virtual academy. Districts should be prepared to think critically regarding how they are conducting targeted outreach, especially to engage historically marginalized stakeholders.  

  1. Co-Design Your Virtual Option with Key Stakeholders

Determine topics for input: Transparent communication and inclusive stakeholder engagement will help you understand the priorities and preferences of the community you serve. Districts can engage families on a number of key considerations in setting up a virtual academy, such as: 

  1. Academic Strategy: How do students learn best in the virtual space (e.g., asynchronously, synchronously)? What academic strategies and supports worked well in the virtual space this past year?
  2. Culture and Connection: Which students seemed to do especially well in the virtual setting? What about the virtual environment helped make them successful?
  3. Scheduling: What school hours are feasible for families’ schedules and needs at home? How much flexibility does the schedule need to have?
  4. Staffing and Support: What type of support do school staff find helpful in the virtual space (e.g., collaborative planning time with colleagues, weekly professional development, etc.)?
  5. Supporting Special Populations: What adjustments or considerations should be made for special populations of students? How can districts increase accessibility and support all students?

Identify outreach methods to engage voices at the margins: Outreach to families needs to be done in a way that is equitable and inclusive so that all stakeholders have the opportunity to provide meaningful input. Strategies to engage voices at the margins include:

  • Providing transportation to in-person meetings
  • Having morning and evening meeting times to accommodate work schedules
  • Offering translation to additional languages and accessibility services
  • Providing childcare for stakeholders during engagement opportunities

If districts are seeking to set up a virtual option they can also consider utilizing technology to engage families in innovative and accessible ways.  

“During the pandemic, [Hamilton County, Tennessee] launched a School Reopening Task Force to begin plans for returning to school. The task force works with staff, parents, students, business leaders, health professionals and other community members to create a safe plan for reopening school buildings. Using effective practices for 360-degree communication, the district not only launched a stakeholder survey, but invited the public to a virtual panel discussion and Q&A with task force leaders, in which they shared their decisionmaking process and listened to the concerns of community members.”

—Kristy Sullivan, TNTP

Designing a virtual academy can be challenging work. But there is no need for districts to do this alone. As districts look to recover with equity, they must respect the agency and desires of families in co-creating long-term solutions and incorporating stakeholder feedback into the decisionmaking process. With the input of students, families and other key stakeholders, all of whom have vital knowledge about their community, district leaders can co-design a virtual school that meets the needs of all students. 

This blog is the first to kick off a series detailing best practices and key considerations for setting up a high-quality virtual academy, based on research conducted by Education First. This research included a wide-range of sources, including expert interviews from implementers on the ground and research-based best practice. The series discusses: centering the voices of students and families who have been historically marginalized during the planning process, components of a strong academic strategy and how to build culture and connection in a remote environment. 

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