Even a school like ours, that is designed to be flexible and leverage innovative technologies to reach students, we still face many of the same challenges navigating the constantly changing education landscape. Valor Prep, located in Goodyear, Arizona, was purposefully founded to provide a hybrid learning experience a full year before the outbreak of COVID-19. So, when the pandemic forced schools across the nation to close their doors and even now as they develop plans to safely reopen, Valor Prep already had much of the infrastructure in place to seamlessly accommodate shifting local health guidelines.
The curricula at Valor Prep was specifically designed to accommodate teachers and students within a hybrid learning environment. Students can access high-quality digital courses at home or on campus and Valor teachers have been professionally trained to engage students for small group instruction or 1:1 support both in person and virtually. Following all state and local health guidelines to protect students and staff, Valor Prep has once again reopened its doors for the 2020-2021 school year. Students are only required to physically attend several times a week from eight until noon where they receive (socially distant) rotational model instruction from teachers. Students are welcome to stay into the afternoon for additional direct 1:1 support, or they can join a club, attend coding classes, or just have structured learning time. The point being that Valor has summited a mountain that many schools are still trying to climb.
Still, no schools, traditional, hybrid, or full-time online, could have been fully prepared for a global health crisis and Valor still faces some persistent challenges. Because of the inherent flexibility of Valor’s educational model, meaning that only a fraction of students are ever on campus at a time, we have found that only about 40% of families have decided to remain fully online with no in-person interactions. Although Valor was built for hybrid learning, our teachers are still working to combine on campus instruction with live synchronous virtual instruction for students at home. Engaging two distinct student groups, in-person and online, at the same time has led to significant changes in how teachers provide instruction and lead activities. To create a seamless learning experience across the board, both teachers and students have learned to use new technologies to enhance engagement and communication.
However, the greatest challenge is the same that all schools, students, and teachers face, and that is the various academic and emotional consequences of the pandemic itself. Whether students were enrolled at Valor Prep last year or are new for 2020-2021, the disruption and uncertainty of last year are being felt today. Valor teachers are constantly looking to the data and insights from our digital courseware to identify areas where students need additional support to ensure they remain on track to matriculate to by the end of the school year; yet the effects of the pandemic reach far beyond academics alone. Valor has also taken steps to support the mental wellbeing of students by implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) into the curriculum. Because no two student experiences have been the same over the last year, our faculty and staff are going to great lengths meet their individual needs, be it academic or emotional. And though we still have mountains to climb this year, we feel we are off to a good start.
Dan Mahlandt, Guest Contributor | Dan serves as the Principal of Valor Preparatory Academy of Arizona and Hybrid Learning Specialist for StrongMind. His experience includes 18 years as a Spanish Teacher and 12 years as an Administrator/creator of unique learning environments including: full-time K-12 cyber programs, an online/onsite lab school, as well as leading professional development in transitioning from traditional classrooms to hybrid learning models. Dan holds two Master’s degrees from Drexel University in Educational Leadership and Creativity and Innovation. Under his leadership, the team at Valor seeks to create a learning environment that empowers teachers, students, and families and prepare our learners to navigate the opportunities and challenges of today and tomorrow.