The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the education system to pivot and adapt. Every function of schools has been drastically affected, including special education and resource services, extra-curricular and enrichment activities, and community programming. Life during the pandemic has forced many educators to break from familiar and successful routine, becoming innovators in technology and communication in order to reach remote students in new and meaningful ways. For several literacy-focused summer programs located in Solvay with School of Education collaboration, remote learning was a reality as well as a research topic and theme.
The Syracuse University School of Education and the Solvay Union Free School District formed a university-school partnership in 2014, although the two institutions collaborated informally for many years prior. A hallmark of the partnership has been a three-week summer program for youth, called InquiryU for its focus on inquiry-based learning, staffed by SOE faculty and graduate students working with Solvay teachers. Additionally, a summer literacy program, offered in one form or another by the School of Education for over sixty years, now operates in connection with the Solvay partnership and is planned in conjunction with InquiryU.
Over the years, InquiryU and the Literacy Clinic have provided important summer enrichment for K-12 students while also providing field placements for teacher candidates in eight different certification areas. This past summer of 2020, with an abrupt shift to remote and online instruction having affected most schools, plans for InquiryU and the Literacy program were not deterred.
Kelly Chandler-Olcott, Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence in Reading and Language Arts, has been one of the leaders of InquiryU on the university side since its inception six summers ago. She commends her Solvay colleagues for their commitment to the program, especially during the challenging pandemic time.
“Many of the same teachers have been involved with InquiryU since the beginning, and they are devoted to true inquiry, to a program driven by student-developed questions,” she says. “You could not ask for a better partner.”
Katie St. Laurent is the Library Media Specialist at Solvay High School and has supported the InquiryU program every year. “Our collaboration is one of those rare situations that benefits everyone,” she says. “Solvay students get additional adult support and enrichment opportunities, Solvay teachers get to participate in thinking deeply about teaching practice, and Syracuse students have an authentic but mediated first experience teaching kids and collaborating with professional teachers. The program is greater than the sum of its parts; year after year we learn new things.”
The summer 2020 version of InquiryU, led on the university side by SOE alums Heather Waymouth (M.S., Literacy Education ‘08, Ph.D., Literacy Education ‘21) and Molly Lahr (B.A., English Education ‘14, M.S., Literacy Education ‘15), was dubbed the “Digital Leadership Academy,” not just because of the digital format, but because the inquiry topic was built on the spring 2020 emergency closures. Student projects addressed better practices for sharing information, allocating resources, and designing digital instruction in K-12 schools, all with the intention of helping Solvay leaders devise a plan for the next school year that would be responsive to student perspectives from the spring of 2020.
“The kids embraced the online space and format,” Chandler-Olcott says. “They were quick to learn digital tools, adapt, and be active in their learning.”
Another silver lining to the digital and remote programming was that students were able to present their final projects to a wider audience using web presentation tools. In addition to their classmates and families, Solvay administrators could see student groups’ findings and recommendations for improving online learning.
The Literacy program was led by Kathleen A. Hinchman, professor of Reading and Language Arts, and Keith O. Newvine (B.A., English Education, ‘02, M.S., Literacy Education, ‘07), a current Ph.D. candidate in Literacy Education. The program occurred simultaneously and was planned collaboratively with InquiryU, although combined activities were reduced due to remote-learning challenges. Sixteen fifth and sixth graders received one-to-one tutoring from students in their culminating experience for the Literacy Education master’s program. Attendees also participated in program-wide community-building activities and project showcases.
According to Hinchman, “Solvay families and school staff, including teachers, school media specialists, guidance counselors, all levels of administrators, and the technology coordinator, were helpful beyond measure with student enrollment, resource allocations, and support. It was pure pleasure to design literacy instruction in such a supportive community.”
Hinchman also noted that student attendance was more consistent than in previous in-person years, likely because there were no transportation issues or vacation conflicts.
With the education system in flux it’s difficult to plan, but Chandler-Olcott says that no matter what, the Digital Leadership Academy theme will continue again this summer. She also stresses that Solvay is going above and beyond in this pandemic time.
“We are grateful that Solvay continues to partner with us, despite all the challenges of the pandemic,” she says. “That the district continues to pursue instructional improvement while investing in student enrichment is really impressive.”