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Flexible Mindsets to Change: Navigating the Challenges of Shifting Contexts for Learning

by Kate Cushing, Emily Fernandez, and Natalie Quesada on April 8th 2020


mindset, social and emotional learning, culture, adapting, leadership

When we closed our doors on March 13, we tried to be as prepared as possible. We had spent two weeks brainstorming about how we would create a virtual learning environment beforehand, so we hit the ground running. We trained our staff the day before we closed, sent out a message to families through email and facebook, prepared packets of workbooks for families to pick up, and had third party virtual learning plans in place.

Yet, even with all that planning we have changed a lot over the weeks since we moved to distance learning. We constantly adapt our offerings in response to student and family needs, directives from cities and states, tips we learn from other organizations and feedback from our staff and students. When we first started out, we were just offering teacher-led office hours to support online platforms. We then moved to a live option during our third week, and expect to continue upgrading our existing platform by adding recorded lessons over the next few weeks.

We have found that the key is having a flexible mindset. Over the past few weeks we have consistently reminded our staff that it is okay to not be able to execute the perfect plan right now. Rather, we should put out the modified version of the idea we have in our heads -- the version we can enact now -- and upgrade it further in the weeks to come.

"We talk a lot about the fact that we might not have an answer for everything, but we have to do something in the meantime to make it better."

We are trying to prioritize social and emotional learning right alongside academics. In addition to their regular academic schedules of dance, art, music and PE specials, our schools have started holding weekly culture assemblies for the students. We were nervous at first. It is challenging enough to hold assemblies in person! But, our virtual assemblies have turned out really well. We have tried to incorporate families as well by organizing family dance classes and music sing alongs.

We are working to find ways to keep up a sense of culture for the staff as well. In addition to staff meetings, our schools have found creative ways to engage the staff, like optional workout classes led by PE teachers and virtual happy hours on Fridays. They have also created “virtual staff lounges” where teachers can join a google hangout meeting during a certain window of time to chat and catch up with other teachers. Keeping a sense of culture alive was really important to us, and our schools have been really creative in finding ways to do that.

When it comes to students with disabilities, our special education team has worked hard to ensure that all special education students still have the same supports in place that they had before we closed our doors. There are several specific practices we’ve adopted that have been very helpful in supporting these students in this environment.

It has long been our practice to keep our students’ IEP documents in individual google drive folders that are shared with students’ teachers and anyone who provides them with services. When we closed, we sent out an email to parents with copies of their students’ IEPs, a page on how to apply the IEPs at home and an outline of our plan going forward. We also sent around an email to our staff reminding them where to find IEP documents. Having all documents in one easily accessible place has made things much easier.

We have also created Remote Learning Plans for all of our special education students. Remote Learning Plans are summaries of a student's IEP needs and include ways that educators plan to meet each of those needs during this virtual learning period. These plans, which are created by teachers and our Special Education Coordinators, address challenges a student may have in areas of listening, writing, speaking, math, reading, and behavior. They also detail how we will address each challenge and support a student in accessing their virtual academic environment. Now, whenever teachers meet with special education students, they can reference these Remote Learning Plans to ensure that necessary accommodations are in place. It has really helped to have a structured plan that documents our efforts to support our students during this time.

When it comes to our multilingual learners, we’ve adopted a similar approach. Our multilingual learner teachers have created individual profiles for each student which explain areas of strength and growth for each student, as well as individualized strategies to be implemented in class for each student to support them in accessing their curriculum. If the multilingual learners are also special education students, their profiles are linked to their Remote Learning Plans. If not, their profiles are shared with the teachers who service them and with families as guides on how to best support their students during the remote learning period.

Another helpful practice we’ve developed is simply an approach for tackling tricky special education situations. We try to ask ourselves, what would we do if we were in a brick and mortar setting? Simply asking this question of ourselves has helped frame our thinking when we think through complicated situations.

For example, how should we adjust our practice now that parents are more involved in the therapy services that some of our students receive? Because our students are receiving them at home, parents now have access to conversations that would otherwise be private. We were stumped at first, but then we asked ourselves whether this was any different than something we might encounter in our brick and mortar school. It is certainly possible that we could have a situation in a brick and mortar environment where a parent wanted to sit in on a therapy session with their student. Even in a brick and mortar environment, we would have just found a way to tailor our services to that reality, and that is exactly what we did. Asking ourselves “what would we do if we were in our brick and mortar school?” has helped to ground us whenever a complication arises.


What we learned/big takeaway

Do not let the fear that something is going to change prevent you from taking action, because the thing you put out now is better than doing nothing.

Some of our families really like live instruction, but we also want to accomodate families who do not have multiple pieces of technology or need flexibility on timing. We are working to ensure that both live and recorded options are available to all students in our schools.

What we are still figuring out

Attend all of the webinars you are invited to and reach out to as many people in the education community as you can. It has been really helpful to be able to collaborate with people in our positions at other schools.

What I would tell other leaders during this time


  • 5 Tips for Supporting Students Socially and Emotionally During Distance Learning - Hebrew Public has tried to prioritize social-emotional learning during school closure. This resource from Understood provides strategies that teachers can use to support their students and provide a sense of normalcy.

  • Best Practices for Educating Online - Emily Fernandez, Kate Cushing, and Natalie Quesada spent time researching virtual learning in order to prepare and train their staff.  This document from the Council for Exceptional Children and eLuma provides best practice suggestions in a variety of areas.

  • iContinue Learning Plan - This case study discusses one charter network’s plan for implementing virtual learning and emphasizes connecting with other schools and educational leaders.  This resource provides another example of a charter network’s special education plan.

  • Navigating COVID-19 When Your Child/Youth has a Disability  - This school emphasized the need to provide resources and support for families during online learning.  This resource compilation from Families Together provides support resources organized in several ways, including by student disability types.

  • Distance Learning and IEPs - The schools featured in this case study provided parents with information about how to implement their child’s IEP at home.  This set of resources provides templates and examples of how IEPs can be implemented during distance learning.

School background

Hebrew Public is leading a national movement of exceptional, diverse public charter schools that teach Modern Hebrew to children of all backgrounds and prepare them to be successful global citizens.

About the Author

Emily Fernandez, Chief Schools Officer. As Chief Schools Officer, Emily provides management and support to all four schools in the Hebrew Public network. Prior to her role at Hebrew Public, Emily served as Founder and Principal at Brownsville Ascend Middle School. In addition to her work at Ascend, Emily has held roles at KIPP NYC and Teach For America in Miami-Dade, Florida.

Kate Cushing, Acting Senior Director of Curriculum and Instruction. Kate provides support for all content areas. She has a background primarily in literacy, coaching program team members, and supporting secondary academic leaders. Kate was the founding Director of Operations for Brooklyn East Collegiate, an Uncommon middle school in Brooklyn. After three years in school leadership, Kate transitioned to a teaching position where she taught fifth grade at Brooklyn East for several years. Most recently, Kate has been teaching sixth grade at Girls Prep Bronx Middle School. While at Girls Prep, Kate served as a grade level leader and co-chair of the English department.

Natalie Quesada, Director of Special Education Services. Natalie works directly with special education coordinators at each school to manage and oversee special education services at each school in the Hebrew Public network. Natalie began her career in education working as a teacher for two years. She later transitioned to the role of School Psychologist within the same school district. This new role allowed her to work primarily with Special Education students and their families. Natalie quickly realized that her passion was working with that particular demographic. Prior to joining Hebrew Public as a Director of Special Education Services, Natalie served as a Coordinator of Student Support Services for a charter school in New Jersey which gave her the opportunity to oversee both the Special Education programs as well as the English Language Learner program.

by Kate Cushing, Emily Fernandez, and Natalie Quesada on April 8th 2020
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