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DC charters lead the way on in-school teaching experiment

WASHINGTON (AP) — While most of the kids in Washington’s public schools are dealing with computer screens and Zoom rooms, a dozen students work diligently at their desks at Meridian Charter School, many separated by tall, three-sided partitions that were originally set up as protection against COVID-19.

Head of School Matt McCrea said administrators later realized the enclosures wouldn’t do much to prevent the spread of the virus. Now the cardboard is optional, but more than half of the students still use them as personalized organizers — taping up calendars, decorations and schedules.

“It’s all a learning experience and it’s all playing out in real time,” McCrea said.

While the mainstream public school system in the nation’s capital was forced to start the year with total distance learning for all its approximately 52,000 students, about a dozen charter schools have essentially chosen to become medical-educational experiments, offering in-person instruction for select groups of students.

Smaller and more nimble than the monolithic D.C. Public Schools system, the charters have been able to adapt and modify on the fly, trading information and pushing the limits of pandemic-era education.

“This is our attempt to redesign school,” said Myron Long, executive director of the Social Justice School, which is offering in-person instruction to about 15 of its 50 total students. ”Our size is our best asset.”

It’s a process that D.C. Public Schools has watched closely as it plans its own return to the classroom.

Mayor Muriel Bowser had fully planned to start the 2020 school year offering a hybrid model combining distance learning with two days a week of in-school instruction. But the city was forced to abandon that plan at the last minute amid strong safety objections from the teachers union.

The city was surveying the charter experiments “to see what’s working, what are best practices, what we can learn from and what they can share with us,” Bowser said. “We think we can learn from some of their experiences, but DCPS will have to make decisions that affect … 60 buildings, 50,000 kids and over 4,000 employees.”

The new DCPS reopening plan, announced Monday, seems to draw heavily from the charter schools’ experiences. One option would offer direct in-class instruction to a select group of students with special-education needs, those learning English, and students experiencing homelessness or otherwise deemed to be at-risk.

That’s essentially the same criteria that most D.C. charters used in selecting their own student groups for in-building instruction.

“There were definitely groups of students who were not succeeding in a virtual environment,” McCrea said. “We have a good amount of data on which students had a hard time with the distance learning.”

In some cases, spots were made available to the children of essential workers. Meridian was forced to turn away some parents who wanted to send their children, but Social Justice was able to accommodate every student whose parent expressed an interest.

“Some parents contacted us and just said, ’We have nowhere for them to go during