Kairos Academies (www.kairosacademies.org), St. Louis’ newest public charter school, opened doors in 2019 with the goal of reimagining education to unlock human freedom and potential. The traditional model, we believed, trained children to be docile, following instructions instead of thinking for themselves, forcing them into a one-size-fits-all mold that, in reality, hardly fits anyone. Opening a charter school—effectively making us an independent public school agency, like St. Louis Public Schools (but with less public funding)—gave us the flexibility to explore new practices around student self-direction, personalized learning, and a year-round education. And it worked. On rigorous, national assessments, Kairos students grew 2-3x faster than peers in traditional schools; Kairos our parents ranked us in the top 1% nationwide in a wide array of categories.
Then COVID-19 shook the world. The needs and assets of our community changed over night, and to continue providing a world-class education, Kairos needed to change too. Again, the legal flexibility of our charter allowed for innovation to meet the moment. Through a process of build-measure-learn prototypes and iterative, incremental improvements, we found some powerful, data-driven approaches to remote learning that we believe other schools can adopt as well.
More Coaching: Every teacher and administrator at Kairos serves as an executive functioning coach for a “pod” of ~10 students. Remote learning meant students suddenly had to exercise professional levels of independent decision making (i.e., executive functioning). Increasing coaching time was the most important change we made. Additional check-ins let us see what was happening in a student’s home, communicate information with our children, and set individualized accountability goals. Check-ins increased from once a week to 3-5 times per week, depending on the needs of the student. That big upfront investment (about 50 mins per student per week) had a huge return by keeping our kids on track and learning during the rest of the day.
Self-Directed Projects: Those days were, unfortunately, filled with a lot of screen time. We schedule exercise breaks and independent reading, but in the modern day, there’s no way to get around it. But while screen time brings drawbacks, it also brings unique opportunities. The internet houses vast resources and multimedia activities for students to explore. To leverage them, we launched “Independent Studies”—a curated catalogue of self-directed virtual projects. Students explored online science simulations (via Gizmos), took virtual reality field trips to Ancient Rome (via Google Expeditions), and practiced chess with grandmasters (via Chess.com). Independent Studies, coupled with a coach’s support in managing their time, let us turn time at home into time for kids to explore their passions and interests in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through in-person physical learning.
Dynamic Differentiation: Those in-person physical challenges also make it hard to dynamically adjust and differentiate students’ schedules. Schedules determine what, when, how, and with whom material is learned, so if you want to personalize a child’s education, you need to change their schedule frequently. But learning a new routine is tough, both for kids and adults. Remote learning removes that barrier. When students flew through a class, we could plop a 30 minute “Challenge” period on their calendar to give them extension activities to deepen enrichment. Does our testing show that 8 kids never learned fractions? Put a couple “Boost” classes on their calendar. Does a friend group need relationship work? Schedule a virtual lunch or student circle. When attending a class just means clicking the link in an event that just appeared on your Google Calendar, the logistical challenges of physical space disappear. That’s allowed for real dynamic differentiation. Instructors, student groupings, and material can shift week by week (or even day by day) to match each child’s idiosyncratic needs, strengths, and pace.
Kairos is not aiming to be resilient amid the seismic shift of COVID-19; we’re aiming to be antifragile. We aren’t just surviving; we’re getting better because of the adversity. These changes to our model—all prompted the changing landscape our community finds itself in—have actually led our students to learn more than before (at least, according to data). That’s why our approach to remote learning has been acclaimed as a national exemplar by Bellwether Education, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, Charter School Superstars, Teach For America (q.v. “Pursuing the Possible”), NewSchools Venture Fund (forthcoming), and in publications such as The 74 Million and Education Week (forthcoming). Ultimately, quarantine response is just an extreme example of what educators have to do every day: reimagine education to meet our kids’ evolving needs, unlock their potential, and empower them to direct their own lives and learning.