Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Next in our series is an interview with Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First, one of our nation’s leading charter networks. In a matter of days, Doug and his team had rallied the schools in their network to fully embrace distance learning and while their journey hasn’t been without hardships, they’ve pulled off what other districts and networks are finding difficult – actual learning happening for thousands of students every day – with average attendance rates in the 90th percentile.


Marc Porter Magee: I’m so excited to have Doug McCurry with us. He is the Co-CEO and Superintendent of Achievement First, which is one of the most widely-acclaimed charter networks in the country. He’s been in education since he first started as a classroom teacher 25 years ago. But he’s been with Achievement First for 21 of those years, helping build it up into a network of 37 schools across three states. He and his network have emerged as real leaders in the past month as they’ve made this heroic shift from a network of in-person schools into a dynamic distance learning network. We’re excited to dig in with you today, Doug, so thanks for coming on.

Doug McCurry: Thanks for having me, Marc.

Now that we’re a month out from this, maybe you could take us back to that fateful day, Friday the 13th in March, when a lot of schools around the country found out that they were closing indefinitely. And help us understand the hard choices you had to make as you started to grapple with that.

So it seems like about six months ago because, in Corona time, each day is more. But yeah, on that day, we actually had a planned staff day off of school just to break up the year a little bit, which turned out not to be the greatest day to have done that.

That day—or the night before and then that day—started with us trying to make the call of whether or not we should close school. This was in New York, in particular, but then we were going to make kind of cascading decisions. We were starting to get wind that it might happen at the state level and then the big charter groups came together before the city, and we made the call to close school earlier.

Once we made that call, then we have the question of, “Oh, my gosh, what does this mean?” And truthfully, we had done a little bit of planning for this contingency but not much. And then so we had two problems. One, we didn’t really have a good enough remote learning plan and two, most of the Chromebooks were in the schools. A few of our schools have one-to-one, and kids are in the habit of taking devices home but in most of our schools, the work is done there.

We then had to launch a massive two-prong project. On the one hand, we had each academy level or elementary, middle, and high grouping together as fast as possible to come up with the best possible learning plan for kids while trying to get devices to kids. And then thirdly, trying to figure about what are all the other implications, food, safety, other issues for folks. And so kind of rapidly got multiple teams going.

I was personally more focused on the kind of content side of the house. But we had to rally on the Chromebook side. We had to figure out how to safely get into our buildings with great social distancing. We had to call every single one of our families and inventory what they had both from a device and WiFi. Then we had to ship to some places but also then had parent pick-up on sites but aligned to where food pick-up was to where they could pick up Chromebooks from us. We had to then connect them to WiFi carriers, get MiFis. Literally, Chromebooks were arriving my house, Dacia, our Co-CEO’s house, and two other houses were our Chromebook depots. So they’re arriving to our homes to be then shipped out to other places. So we wanted to solve the digital divide.

And I heard some districts say, “Well, we can’t do remote learning because the kids don’t have devices.” We had that problem, but we rallied. We now have a Tableau report of the device and where the kids are and the status. And we’ve got it now to where fewer than 5% of our kids now don’t have that kind of core access.

Then on the content side, we had to rally. I mean, the good news is I’ve always had the mindset of, “We don’t have to try to invent it ourselves.” And so some of our first calls were to our friends at Uncommon and Success and some of the other charter networks. And we found that Uncommon High School was actually ahead on what they were doing. So we learned a lot from them and then kind of modeled our 5-12 program off of them.

Then a group of elementary folks came together and had a pretty similar program there. And then as part of the thing, too, is we wanted to make sure we had a phone touchpoint with all of our parents and kids just to check on them, how are they, what do they need, and make sure that they knew how to access both kind of the foodservice depots that were happening as well as other social services. And so that week from that Friday to the next Friday was a blur. This kind of makeshift room I’m still sitting in, I was there blurry-eyed, it felt like working all the time, to figure this out.

There’s this famous phrase from General Omar Bradley. He said, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” And he was involved in all the different planning of World War II. It feels like in the first few weeks at least, there was a strategy of, “We need to get all of our kids online.” But the logistical problems that you had to solve must have been immense.

I love that saying. And I think on all of those, just thinking about that Chromebook issue, we had to figure out where are all of our machines, right? What do kids need? How do we get them there and really have a systematic way of getting that information, right? And then just as a small aside, our Chromebooks were all configured just to work on our AF network. So we not only had to get them. Then we had to figure out who on our IT team could then reconfigure them to get out there and to really be able to match it. And it’s only because we had very strong operational backend on that that we were able to really pinpoint which kids needed that equipment very quickly.

There was all sorts of information out there—”We’ll do free WiFi, this”—and really getting clear what it was. And then likewise, on the instructional side, it’s one thing to have the big framework of, “Well, we’ll do our classes on Zoom,” right? And I think that is where—I’ll speak first to kind of our middle and high school plan. I heard oftentimes, these things are happening. There’s Zoom-bombing and teachers don’t know. I mean, one of the things we said was, “Okay.” We hadn’t used Google Classroom widely and we hadn’t used Zoom. And so we really needed to make sure folks were trained in those systems and knew it very clearly down to, “These are the settings you need to set your system on so that it works.”

Then we had to get really clear about what our model was and how we operationalize that. And so, for example, how to operationalize that. At the 5 to 12 level, we determined pretty early that if we tried to run the same daily schedule that we had before, it would be incredibly complicated. We realized that nobody is going to be able to work exactly the same that they did before given the context. But especially folks with families or other responsibilities, the idea that you were going to be on from 7:15 in the morning till 4:15 in the afternoon like you might on a regular day is just not going to work.

So we went with a lead planner idea where we had one of our strongest network people or school people essentially create a 10- to 20-minute video that is the core lesson of the day. And then we created a structure to where, instead of a class of somewhere between 20 and 30 kids, a teacher would have four or five of those in a day, you just really had one class like one sixth-grade math class for the entire school would meet. So we set up the schedule. We have math and then science, then history and then ELA. So we have those core classes, and all the kids could join on a Zoom.

And so if I’m the teacher, what I have to be able to do is I have to know Zoom and Google Classroom to be able to set that up. I have to have watched the core video that the lead planner did and done my intellectual preparation to where I know where to pause the video to ask questions of the kids of what the core work is. And then I would log onto the Zoom. “Hi, kids,” and there’s a connection with the students. I’m playing the video to where that’s the core lesson, pausing and asking for questions through chat and some interactions. And then the final 40 minutes is really the kids sent off to work, and then the teacher remains on the Zoom to be able to answer questions. The teacher can monitor some of the work that’s happening.

And increasingly, with multiple teachers at that time, we’re able to then, based on the previous day’s work, send kids off into smaller breakout rooms for kind of additional instruction or support that happens. And so it’s not perfectly like a regular lesson, but you have a strong teacher doing the video of the core and the core lesson that happens. And that, for us, then we’re holding kids accountable for the work on the backend and being flexible there.

What we’ve seen is with this, we’re getting at most of our schools 90-plus percent of kids are attending the class. But we also realize there are going to be some percentage of kids whose life circumstance makes it hard to come to our class at a certain time. And we give those kids flexibility to where they can watch the video on their own time and be able to complete their work on their own time as long as they get it in.

So you’ve obviously been putting out a lot of fires dealing with necessities in getting kids online and getting the logistics right. But it also sounds like there are ways in which you’re learning things now out of necessity that you might want to continue when, hopefully, we can bring kids back into schools in the fall.

Absolutely. We’re starting to have conversations internally and broadly about what can we learn from this. I think we could do virtual summer academies in a way that we’ve never thought of that before which could save us time and money. We’re having to do some of our trainings remotely this summer, and that’s saving us time and money as well and maybe could be higher impact if we think about that. We’re leveraging our best teachers for lead planning and videos in a way that I think could be incredibly helpful, especially for newer teachers.

There’s a spirit of open source across the charter sector and non-charter sector that I think is amazing. And I think we should share the best things instead of everyone reinventing it. Kids are more independent than they’ve ever been before, and some kids are thriving with that.

How do we set goals for kids and give them more of that? How do we leverage Google Classroom and some of the other online tools and programs? We used ST Math before, but we could be doing it more at home. There are other things that we could better leverage. And so I just think we all can use this an opportunity to ask how can we do better-quality programming at a lower cost. This is something that we’re all going to have to be thinking about, especially as it looks like we’re headed towards recession.

Well, it’s great to get this window into how you’re adapting to this world and what you see coming up. I’m sure you’ve got a lot more on the horizon. How should people at home follow along with your work and the work of Achievement First?

The easiest thing, if you go to our website you can find access to materials. We’re all open source, both our core curriculum during the school year, but we also have a page for our COVID-19 materials that you will have the exact same access to materials that our teachers do. And you can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram. We have Achievement First pages there.

Well, thank you so much for making time out of a busy day, and good luck to you and your staff and your teachers and the students over the next coming weeks.

Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.


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