By Leslie Boghosian Murphy
As we all know, schools were forced to close abruptly when the Covid-19 pandemic began last spring. By summer, most parents knew that there would have to be some sort of remote or distance learning in the fall. After weeks of helping our children with their online homework, we also knew we weren’t necessarily the best teachers. As a member of Community Board 4’s education committee, I heard a variety of distance learning horror stories from parents across the district and we kept asking, “What’s the plan?” Yet the Department of Education (DOE) and the city were unresponsive to our question.
We asked in May. We asked in June. We asked in July. No answers.
So, I set out to find a solution myself. What was needed, I realized, was real-time instruction with a small group of children—no more than four or five. This approach would provide individual attention as well as allow the children peer-to-peer socialization, the two most crucial elements absent from asynchronous learning.
But where to find the extra teachers? I called every local college and university—including Columbia, Pace and SUNY—and asked about their student teacher programs. Of course, many of these schools were in a similar bind, with student teachers who had no way to accomplish their field work and were looking for alternative methods of placement.
“Leslie called me out of the blue and asked what we were doing with our student teachers for the upcoming year. Everything was in flux,” said Natalie Lukas, director of SUNY’s Urban Teacher Education Center. “When she explained her plan I thought it was brilliant and was on board 100 percent.”
The student teachers could get course credit for working virtually with young learners, and the public school students would get the benefit of live distance learning. This would also benefit our educators enormously, who were carrying the burden of greatly expanded workloads, as well as caretakers who didn’t have the time nor resources to serve as teachers at home. And best of all, it was free.
Working with our higher education partners and local principals, we formed the Student Teacher Virtual Learning Initiative and brought it to the DOE. They wound up approving our program in one day—unheard of at today’s bureaucracies.
I was adamant this program start with our lower-income students. Parents with disposable means were creating their own pods and hiring private tutors to work with their children. This was further highlighting the inequities and quickly widening achievement gap in our city.
“After Leslie heard of students being placed in private learning pods by some families, she decided to replicate the small group experience for our students,” Lukas explained. “It was a way for us to build equity.”
This was a win for parents, educators, and students, and it was all at no cost to the city. Hundreds of students are now getting synchronous learning, benefiting from the initiative. “Leslie is someone who actively listens and tries to get to the bottom of things,” said Katherine Ledwell, associate director at Columbia Teachers College and former NYC public school teacher. “That’s very rare these days.”
I was told there was no solution, there was no plan, that the issue was simply too big to tackle. But I found a solution, devised a plan, and identified key allies, and together we tackled the issue.
“The Student Teacher Virtual Learning Initiative has helped our school support students in so many ways,” said PS 33 Principal Cindy Wang. “They were able to provide learning supports in smaller group ratios so students felt more seen and heard by adults. Having student teachers also allowed for us to schedule additional sessions with students who were blended on their remote learning days. Overall, we had great success and were eager to have the students back for the spring semester.”
New York City faces many problems as we struggle to recover from the pandemic. We simply can’t continue with business as usual—while city officials stonewall residents or simply react to bad press instead of planning ahead. As with our Student Teacher Virtual Learning Initiative, we can accomplish a lot if we work together to identify and implement creative solutions. We just need the political will to get us there.
Leslie Boghosian Murphy is a former investigative journalist, a mother, and an executive board member of Community Board 4. She is running for city council in District 3, which includes the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.