Creating a Student-Centered High School for a Post-Covid World
Much has been said about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives of adolescents. At Gann Academy, a pluralistic high school in Waltham, Massachusetts, as we have navigated this experience as a community, one of our central beliefs is that there is no going back to the status quo.
In the past two years, we shifted our focus, creating a new educational model with three primary innovations that enhance our students’ holistic experience of being a high schooler during this moment of challenge and change: a customized, semester-long academic curriculum, investment in students’ social-emotional support, and the articulation of explicit community values. Our value proposition lies in centering our work on meeting students where they are, and in so doing, forging a new status quo that will serve our students for generations to come.
Going Deep: A Customized, Semester-Long Academic Model
Semester-long classes are familiar to most adults who have completed undergraduate and graduate education. A semester model allows for focused learning time and the ability to go deep into subjects. When we re-opened in fall 2020, we knew that our students needed stability, consistency and focus, all increasingly challenging to access in an uncertain world. In order to meet those goals and keep our Covid risk mitigated, we introduced a semester model for learning that has had a tremendously positive impact on our students’ learning over the past two years.
Unlike traditional Jewish day schools, in which students take up to eight classes simultaneously, Gann students take two robust semesters full of both required and elective courses, up to five classes a semester, or 10 classes over the course of a given year. Keeping students to five courses a semester and having those classes meet daily has a number of advantages for our students:
The immersive nature of each class is electric. Students are able to go deep in each class period, covering the breadth of their coursework from a stance of inquiry, engagement and attention. From senior English electives to Jewish studies and drawing and painting, the exceptional quality of student work that we have seen from students over the past two years has aligned with our understanding of how student learning works best, by allowing kids to go deep while keeping an eye toward the transferrable skills that students are building in one course and applying in the next.
Our students deserve more than a one-size-fits-all approach. Gann students want to challenge and stretch themselves in areas of interest and excellence and seek support in areas of academic growth. The semester-long model is elastic in a way that allows students to tailor each year to their particular ambitions, interests and needs. Providing students with a diverse array of course choices as well as a schedule flexible enough for them to take advantage of those offerings is a unique aspect of the semester-model, and one that keeps students at the center of their learning,
As an example, while all 10th graders take classes in English, history, Jewish studies, Hebrew, math and chemistry, a student who is interested in medicine might choose to take on AP Chemistry in addition to Spanish or French in the spring semester, while one who already knows she is heading to engineering school may fill up her schedule with two or three classes in computing, design & fabrication over the course of the year. Others who may be exploring their interests in the arts, world languages or humanities, or who seek time in the learning center, are able to configure their schedules in a way that balances their exploration and needs.
Preparing students for an emerging future. As we consider the world that our students will inherit and help create, we are investing in building the skills that will serve them in paradigms that don’t yet exist. The creation of our semester schedule and the curricular process that has accompanied it has allowed us to look critically at our academic program and make sure that each course builds on the transferrable skills like critical thinking, meaning-making and empathy-development that we know our students need to master.
Wellness Matters: Investing in Student Wellbeing
Many aspects of Gann’s response to Covid-19 were protective for our students. From the earliest days of lockdown through the past two school years of in-person school, Gann students have been learning, their teachers and advisors have been attentive to their triumphs and challenges, and they have even been able to celebrate moments of joy and “normalcy” together. Even so, we take seriously the nationwide challenge to adolescent mental health and healthy development that teenagers everywhere are facing and are grateful to have had the resources necessary to meet that need. Gann’s approach to student wellness takes into account the academic, physical, social-emotional and spiritual dimensions of students’ wellbeing, and takes an innovative stance at the intersection of these realities.
This is hard, but we can do hard things. Gann’s student support team, which includes our assistant head of school for teaching and learning, school counselor, dean of students, school nurse and learning center leadership take a collaborative approach to our students’ wellbeing. Our goal is to support and accommodate students in times of need while also working with students and families to build their strength, resilience and fortitude.
Jewish tradition and practice provide a meaningful framework for our work. Jewishness and Jewish tradition animate every aspect of life at Gann. We know from the resilient history of our people as well as contemporary adolescent psychology (such as Dr. Lisa Miller’s The Spiritual Child) that deep and authentic spiritual and communal knowledge and experience is protective for teens in times of challenge as well as a proactive tool for student thriving.
Relationships are at the center of learning. With students enrolled in semester-long classes, both they and their teachers are able to focus their energy and attention on the immersive experiences in each course. Student-faculty relationships have been at the heart of a Gann education for decades, and facilitating their development is a key tool for living our mission.
Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh LaZeh: Naming our Communal Values
When Gann reopened in August 2020, we didn’t know how well our students, employees and families would be able to adhere to the strict guidelines that we put into place to help reduce risk to our community. In collaboration with our student council, we created a community brit outlining the expectations for behavior in and out of school that would enable us to stay open. The brit underscored for us the deep importance of explicitly naming communal values and behavioral expectations for everyone in the school community, which we have since extended to other aspects of our school experience beyond the confines of Covid. This year, for example, our student council and school leadership worked together to create a general brit for student norms, and our 12th graders are hard at work creating a special covenant for their time together in Israel this spring. Here’s what we’ve learned:
Our choices impact other people. Covid or no Covid, Jewish tradition teaches us that our behavior impacts other people’s lives, and that it is our responsibility to make choices that will ease and support the lives and wellbeing of others in and out of our community.
Naming values is part of the educational experience for adolescents. Sometimes we take for granted that students understand expectations through a process of inference or osmosis. However, by clearly naming, discussing and having students and families sign on to our brit, we have the opportunity to bring kids into the discussion of the why of our values, and to use that conversation as an important learning moment for them about how they can meet those expectations.
Bringing community service “home” to Gann. Community service hours have long been part of the graduation requirement for our 10th, 11th and 12th grade classes. As the pandemic bore down on opportunities for our students to find meaningful chesed opportunities, we looked for small and large ways for students to give back to their community.
However, it became clear that students wanted and needed avenues to contribute at “home” at Gann, so we created the Gann Community Fellows program in order for students to volunteer in our library, dining hall, marketing department and head of school office. This program served the two-fold purpose of giving students an “inside baseball” perspective on what it takes to run a school while also contributing to the feeling that it is our communal responsibility to keep our school thriving.
In reflecting on the past two and a half years of evaluating, responding to and sharing what students really need, and creating a school in that image, our value paradigm has shifted. We have a new understanding of the importance of shared responsibility and purpose in order to shape the experience and the future we hope for our students. In building a new model for high school, we hope to be effectively sharing that the value we offer is in the attention paid to what students need and the willingness to make thoughtful choices and intentional changes in order to meet that goal as well as we can. We aspire to model a level of responsiveness and responsible risk-taking in service of our community that infuses our school’s culture and inspires students and teachers, parents and administrators alike.