GREAT FALLS — Earlier this week, the staff at Box Elder Public Schools tried something a little different. They posted a video on social media offering encouragement to students by singing “Lean On Me” on a Zoom chat.
The results were mixed. “So bad, it’s good,” laughed Julie MacDonald, the Instructional Coach at Box Elder Public Schools. “We just like to do silly, fun things. And we're always trying to engage.”
Though they’re more suited to educating than singing, there was no mistaking the message: the staff at Box Elder is here for you.
“It's a little bit harder to engage students when they’re not in the building,” she said. “We do have a good relationship between the students and staff. So, we just try to find any means necessary to keep them interested.”
Every school has faced challenges adapting to the new reality of remote learning in the time of COVID-19. But the challenges on the Rocky Boy’s reservation can be more pronounced. When Governor Steve Bullock announced school closures on March 16 due to the coronavirus outbreak, Box Elder wanted to be proactive rather than reactive.
According to BEPS superintendent Jeremy MacDonald, Julie’s husband, the administration had three main priorities in the first few days after closure.
“Because of the high poverty rate and the rural community that we serve, we had to make sure our food services were operational,” he said. “Many students come from tough social situations at home, and they’re hungry when they come to school.”
So MacDonald and his staff developed an efficient system to deliver thousands of meals per day, to hundreds of students around the community.
The next step was ensuring students and staff were following CDC guidelines, and the facilities were properly cleaned and sanitized, to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Box Elder’s third priority, and perhaps the most challenging was revamping educational services to meet the challenges of remote learning. And that’s where the BEPS staff had to get creative.
“A couple of our teachers have taken the lead on some challenge based learning projects where it’s not your traditional textbook and worksheets type of education,” Jeremy said.
Through Apple’s ConnectED grant program, Box Elder was able to provide an iPad to every student in the district. And the new curriculum has taken on several forms as they adapt on the fly.
“We can't keep doing what we've always done because this is a totally different scenario,” Julie said. “If kids were struggling with getting work done in the classroom, they're going to struggle even more outside of the classroom. So, we're just trying to get them to think outside the box a little bit.”
Julie and several other teachers - Connie Reichelt, Kelsey Miller, and Autumn Elliot - spent the weekend developing topics to include in the new challenge-based learning system.
“It’s something we’ve been doing with our older students in bite sized pieces but hadn’t really dove in yet,” she said. “There’s a math portion, a language arts portion, a science portion of history portion, a Cree language and culture portion and a physical education portion.”
Students can choose which projects they want to work on and they can get points and credit for towards those classes.
“An example of a project would be COVID-19 versus the plague. And the math portion is tracking the numbers and how quickly does it spread,” Julie said. “The science portion would be learning how close we are to a vaccine and what's the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection.”
Other projects include recording a podcast, producing a video or making a song in garage band. Teachers are taking the lead to set the bar and provide an example to students to keep them engaged.
To show them, we're putting ourselves out there and doing it,” Julie said. “So now we want you to do it also.”
So, at first glance, the “Lean On Me” video might have seemed like just a silly video – but behind it is a team of passionate educators willing to try anything to help their students succeed.
“Having kids open up opportunities to come out in a different way. It's been pretty eye-opening,” Jeremy said. “And I'm proud of our staff. I'm extremely proud of our staff, and it's just a very great group of people to be a part of.”