A student from Christ-St. Peter Lutheran School watches a video lesson. To increase access to online learning, the school lent Chromebooks to any student in grades 3–8 without a home computer.

Learning during COVID-19: Malaika Early Learning Center and Christ-St. Peter Lutheran School

Small schools provide big distance learning opportunities to students during shutdown

By: Isral DeBruin

As schools shift to serve students remotely during the COVID-19 crisis, some are emerging as standouts. These schools aren’t stopping at basic worksheet packets and instead are offering their students coordinated, school-wide, comprehensive distance learning. to spread best practices and encourage others to keep students moving forward.

Smaller schools may not have the large staff teams and organizational infrastructure of larger organizations, but that hasn’t stopped Malaika Early Learning Center and Christ-St. Peter Lutheran School.

These schools are structured differently, located in different neighborhoods, and take different approaches to learning, but they share one thing in common: despite their small size, they’ve stepped up to keep their students moving forward during COVID-19.

Malaika Early Learning Center

Students at Malaika began online instruction March 18, the same day Wisconsin school buildings closed statewide. Since Malaika exclusively serves young learners in grades K4–3, teachers have employed a range of digital and paper materials to keep learning developmentally appropriate.

Mrs. Boening, who teaches first grade at Malaika Early Learning Center, in a post she shared with students and families through Class Dojo. Malaika has used the online platform to communicate, share updates, and upload instructional videos.

Each week, families receive printed materials aligned with the school’s curriculum maps for major academic subjects: English Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social studies. Students, caregivers, and teachers all connect through Class Dojo, an online platform where educators upload daily instructional videos, assignments, and due dates. Parents can also comment on teacher and student posts and check in with teachers about the specific needs of their child. School administrators also comment and speak to families in each virtual classroom, further cementing the connection between home and school.

To maintain school culture, Malaika has established some virtual school traditions, like a weekly Scholar Shout-out video congratulating families that have completed the week’s work.

Christ-St. Peter Lutheran School

At Christ-St. Peter, teachers connect daily with each family in their classroom using whatever medium works best for caregivers: text message, phone call, email, or via online learning platforms like Seesaw and Google Classroom. School leaders send weekly video updates to families, along with messages from the school’s pastor and a STEM activity video. More recently, the school has also begun sending daily video read alouds. Academic content is a mix of new material and remediation of concepts taught earlier in the year.

This picture of a Christ-St. Peter student was submitted by a parent through Seesaw, one of the online learning platforms used by the school’s teachers.

To ensure distance learning is accessible to as many students as possible, Christ-St. Peter contacted each family in March to learn which students were in need of computers or internet access. The school subsequently loaned out its entire supply of Chromebooks to ensure all students in grades 3–8 have a computer to use for schoolwork.

The school’s Community Liaison continues working to connect with families of students that have struggled to engage in school work. This includes problem-solving persistent barriers to internet access.

But not all distance learning is digital. Teachers are also using analog strategies: Each week, students receive instructional packets, as well as the materials for a STEM activity designed to encourage students to collaborate and create with siblings and others in their household.

To maintain school culture, Christ-St. Peter held a virtual spirit week, with daily dress up themes. The effort helped boost daily engagement of students and their families.

FACTS & FIGURES

Malaika Early Learning Center is a nonreligious private school accepting tuition vouchers through the Milwaukee Parental Choice, Wisconsin Parental Choice, and Special Needs Scholarship programs.

  • Grades: K4–3
  • Enrollment: 59 students
  • Student demographics: 94.9% Black; 3.4% Latin@; 1.7% Two or More Races
  • Students from economically disadvantaged households: 100%
  • Students with special needs: 0%
  • Students with limited English proficiency: 0%
  • State rating: (As an Early Learning Center, Malaika has too few students old enough to be tested for a state rating.)

Christ-St. Peter is a private Lutheran school accepting tuition vouchers through the Milwaukee Parental Choice, Wisconsin Parental Choice, and Special Needs Scholarship programs.

  • Grades: K4–8
  • Enrollment: 166 students
  • Student demographics: 64.5% Latin@; 14.5% Black; 13.3% White; 6.6% Asian; 1.2% Two or More Races
  • Students from economically disadvantaged households: 78.3%
  • Students with special needs: 0%
  • Students with limited English proficiency: 23.5%
  • State rating:

2018–19 data from

Isral DeBruin is director of strategy and communication at City Forward Collective. He is a former elementary school teacher and award-winning education reporter.

A Milwaukee nonprofit working with families, communities, and school teams to to foster more high-quality schools. Learn more:

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