As the first week of the Burlington School District’s V.I.B.E. virtual learning academy comes to an end, administrators are hoping the lessons they’ve learned while teaching online since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic will not only offer a better program this school year, but also help them innovate as they look to the future.
“We were thrust into (having to do online learning) last year,” said Burlington Superintendent Pat Coen. “I think we had three or four of days to prepare. And we learned a lot, and (the district’s online program) is going to much better than it was.”
Operating at the former James Madison Elementary building, the V.I.B.E. program now functions as the district’s virtual learning option.
Before this school year, the district’s online courses fell to teachers who would have to juggle virtual instruction with in-person learning.
Now, the district’s virtual learning will be taught by instructors who teach online exclusively and will each have their own classroom to work out of at James Madison.
“One of our strengths is that our teachers are going to be 100% dedicated virtual teachers,” said Beth Shurtleff, the V.I.B.E. program’s first principal, who is also working on her doctorate in educational psychology and technology.
“So they’re going to be able to focus on that and best practices and what’s working really well for the students.”
The program allows kindergarten-12 students the chance to take 100% of their classes virtually, but also allows opportunities for individualized and blended learning plans, including:
- Meeting with instructors in-person at James Madison;
- One-on-one talks with teachers via Google Meet;
- Picking their own class schedules for the day;
- The opportunity to take some courses at the student’s normal school building;
- And other supplemental, enrichment and social activities that can be done at the school (although the activities will not be required for any classes) but still allow for social distancing.
“For a lot of students, that’s a big draw,” Shurtleff said about students being able to pick their own class schedules. “That ownership of their own learning and their own scheduling. … Students can complete their work at any time of the day that they want. So if there’s a family issue or if a high school student has a job or any other things that might interrupt a traditional school day, this works well for them.”
It’s currently unclear how many students are opting to take V.I.B.E. because of concerns about the pandemic and the delta variant of the coronavirus, but the numbers of those wanting to get on board with the program keep rising.
On Aug. 12, Shurtleff told The Hawk Eye that 170 students were enrolled for the fall semester, up from 104 the previous week.
On Friday, school officials said the program has more than 235 students enrolled, with additional students registering up until the first day of school and into the week.
The program will also function as a regional online learning hub, serving not just Burlington students but also students in West Burlington, Keokuk, Fort Madison, Central Lee and Winfield-Mt. Union.
According to Savannah Prescott, community relations coordinator for the district, just this week the New London School District has expressed interest in joining the program as well.
“We came together because we’re a regional community in southeast Iowa,” Shurtleff said of the partnership between the districts. “We felt that we could do the best job we could with virtual learning by pooling our resources and expertise. … It’s really just a matter of finding the best solution for all of our districts and working together collaboratively really got us where we wanted to be.”
Shurtleff said the district is open to entering into partnership agreements with other school districts in the future and that, hypothetically, the program would be able to hire more staff to meet instructional demands as enrollment increases.
“This is the way of the future. We are a technology society,” Shurtleff said. “The big thing with this program is that we are looking at every individual student and we are looking at their psychology work on multiple intelligences, where we find out what makes every kid awesome. Every human being is amazing. We just have our individualized areas of strength.”
By Wendy Greenberg
Princeton Public Schools (PPS) students will begin the school year September 9 with a new director of student counseling services, and Riverside Elementary School students will have a new principal.
Dana Karas, who has previously worked in PPS, is the new director of student counseling services, replacing Kristina Donovan, who left the district earlier this month.
Ebony Lattimer, who has an extensive background in math, science, and special education, joins the district as the new Riverside principal, as Mark Shelley relocates to Pittsburgh.
Karas, who will officially join PPS at the end of September, worked as a middle school French teacher in Princeton early in her career. She later taught French at the Manalapan-Englishtown Middle School. She was a school counselor at Churchill Junior High School in East Brunswick, and in 1998, she became a school counselor at Freehold Township High School, a post she held until 2003 when she returned to Princeton High School as a school counselor.
This fall, the guidance staff will be on the front lines as students return from remote learning and they resume their social connections at school. “Counseling is extremely important right now,” said Karas. “Many students remained remote and will be returning in person. The counselor is on the front line, recognizing signs of trauma, and helping students to be successful emotionally and academically.” She said this is a critical time to be responsive and supportive.
Karas, who was the New Jersey School Counselor of the Year in 2017, served for seven years in Lawrence Township Public Schools, first as supervisor of Guidance and Classic and World Languages and then as supervisor of Guidance, Careers, and Alternative Programming. She was at Franklin Township Public Schools for more than eight years where she was director of School Counseling, and supervisor of World Languages for grades 9-12.
A graduate of the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s degree in French education, Karas earned graduate degrees from The College of New Jersey and Georgian Court College. She is currently completing her doctorate in leadership from Kean University.
Professionally, she has served as president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association and continues to serve as an executive board member for this organization, where she has co-authored the state’s current approved school counselor evaluation model. She has served as a committee member under the New Jersey Department of Education, where she contributed to the creation of the state’s social-emotional learning competencies and also served on the On-Ramps to College initiative.
She calls joining Princeton schools “a full circle moment,” adding that she had mentors on the guidance staff. “I am happy to give back to the community that has given so much to me.”
PPS Superintendent Carol Kelley said of Karas, “She has impressive experience in school counseling as well as expertise related to students’ social-emotional health and well-being. Her experience and her dedication to students make her a wonderful addition to our team here in Princeton.”
Ebony Lattimer will step into the Riverside principal’s position on August 23. For more than four years, she has served as principal of The Titusville Academy, which is a private, nonprofit special education school known for its work with students who have learning and behavior difficulties.
At Titusville, Lattimer helped to develop and manage a blended-model curriculum for special education students. Blended learning models combine online educational materials with traditional, in-person classroom instruction. Lattimer also served as vice principal of the International Academy of Trenton Charter School. For the last eight years she has been an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Lattimer, who grew up in Red Bank, was selected as a finalist by a committee of Riverside faculty and staff, district administrators, and community members.
“As the current principal of a school for students with disabilities, Ms. Lattimer has cultivated skills and expertise to help a broad range of students succeed academically,” said Michael J. Volpe, assistant superintendent for human resources.
Lattimer began her career in Neptune Township as a math and science teacher in 2003. She left her teaching position in Neptune to accept the principalship at The Titusville Academy. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in administration and leadership from Georgian Court University.
In an email, Lattimer said that what impressed her about the district and about Riverside was the “commitment to educational excellence, and by that I mean not only academically, but also socially, behaviorally, and emotionally. They truly do the work to ensure our students are strong, positive contributors to their community and our global community as a whole.
“In addition to being impressed by their commitment to educational excellence, I was impressed by Riverside’s expression of respect and openness to diversity and equity through their display of sawubona (a greeting that means “I see you.”)”
She added that she was looking forward to meeting Riverside students in September, and to working with the “talented Riverside teachers and support staff who make it such a welcoming and special place.”
Kelley noted that Lattimer’s “passion for students, her leadership abilities, and her knowledge of curriculum stood out in a field of very strong candidates for this job.” She also praised Lattimer’s interpersonal skills and her ability to utilize data to improve students’ academic achievements.