Busler is one of 127 students attending Harris County Department of Education’s Academic and Behavior School East, one of HCDE’s four schools which serves unique and challenging student populations. Districts in greater Harris County contract for services with HCDE, and students benefit from highly structured, small classrooms.
Single dad Phil Busler admits it’s not easy to tackle the schoolwork for several hours a day with his son, but he depends on his teacher and teacher aide for curriculum, motivation and behavior modification as they get online for meetings.
“They are doing a fantastic job,” said Busler.
Principal Donna Trevino-Jones commends her staff for an “all hands-on-deck approach.”
“Everyone is doing what they need to do to work together,” she said.
The special school serves students ages 5-22 and includes children with autism spectrum disorder, emotional disabilities and development disabilities.
Students distance learn through various age-appropriate technology platforms. Teachers communicate with parents through Class Dojo which tracks assignments and rewards students for accomplishments and behavior. Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom allow for person-to-person exchanges with students and parents. For those with no or limited computer access, curriculum packets are mailed out.
Alex’s teacher LaToya Duckworth says she and teacher’s aide Cierra Davis have multiple meetings with their students. From photo to video to app, it’s a different world in terms of the “new normal.”
“The challenges are that my students’ schedules and their sleep patterns are not the same as when they were in school,” she said. “Sometimes we wait until late evenings to contact students. The victories are seeing how diligent the students are and how they take ownership of their learning—sometimes without me or their parents.”
Trevino-Jones manages meetings between teacher teams, districts which the school serves, and parents.
“We are helping some of the most vulnerable and neediest children in Harris County, so to have them online for extended amounts of time is unreasonable,” she said. “We work to be supportive of our students and their parents. It is hard to have the same level of expectations when we cannot be directly there with them, but we continue to be relentless with our support and communication.
“With our students we have to be flexible, creative and supportive, but I also have to be that way with my own staff.”
She constantly reminds herself that her teachers and staff are also parents, and they have children they are educating and sharing technology with at home, too.
Students like Alex benefit from exercise videos which are sent back and forth as motivation tools.
Alex is managing emotional and anger issues but is turning his life around by taking action and facing his problems, his dad explained.
Coping with the new COVID-19 learning environment takes constant explaining, said Busler, who describes himself as being a strict-but-loving dad and teacher.
“I explain to him that it’s a different type of school, but there are still consequences for not completing his work,” Busler said. “I expect him to put forth the effort and try his best.”
Counselors at the school have their own challenges. Students need help, but sometimes the personal touch is lost via technology. Parents need help with the behavior modification models used by the school. Appointments are scheduled weekly to touch base.
“Since parents aren’t equipped with our techniques, we have suggested role plays and give them social skills strategies to use,” the principal said. “These are things we constantly work on during the year, so the parents get to see this.”
One example is anger management. Through Boys’ Town curriculum, positive behavior is modeled. Parent and child practice together.
Before the coronavirus, Trevino-Jones recalls staff members having their aligned roles and responsibilities. Now roles are sometimes shared in the school community. The cafeteria manager is bilingual, so she is helping with teacher-parent conferences. Teachers who are tech-savvy are sharing their knowledge with teachers who are just gaining new tech skills.
“Many of our teachers are constantly working together and taking the lead, which creates a high level of synergy,” said Trevino-Jones, “and that is a beautiful thing.”