Universal charter schools unveil online learning plan

PSP has organized a fund to buy laptops for charter and Catholic school students who need them.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Universal Companies Family of Schools is distributing 2,500 Chromebooks to its students Thursday as part of its plan to switch from using printed learning packets to using fully online instruction.

This came as the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) announced the formation of a fund that would supply 15,000 laptops to students in charter and Catholic schools.

The Jump-Start Philly Schools Fund has been started with $3.8 million in pledges, with a goal of raising $6 million or more. The Susquehanna Foundation of Janine and Jeff Yass is giving $2.6 million, the Lenfest Foundation $1 million, and the McCausland Foundation, based in Lafayette Hill, $200,000.

PSP said that beyond a “device gap,” schools said in a survey that they needed help to transition to online learning and to prepare for “academic recovery.”

“More and more we expect the shutdown to last all through, and we know there’s going to be unevenness in what students are going to be able to accomplish during this prolonged closure,” said PSP executive director Mark Gleason. “Schools will have to figure out what that means in terms of transitioning to a new grade or new school year in the fall. We don’t know what they will need, but we do know it will be different than the typical opening of school.”

Universal’s new program, titled Virtual UC, will use Google Classroom as the primary platform for assigning homework and distributing video lessons to students. It will use Zoom for live lectures and office hours with teachers.

The schools plan to begin online instruction April 13, the same day that the Philadelphia School District plans to roll out virtual classes, but assignments for each course are already posted, officials said in a statement.

The laptops distributed today included Chromebooks that were already in schools, as well as 1,750 that were purchased at a cost of $487,599, according to an organization spokesman.

The Jump-Start fund will fill any remaining gaps that Universal has in making laptops available to all students, Gleason said, and encourages other charter and Catholic schools to “reach out to PSP staff” for help.

At Universal, virtual instruction will operate on a “truncated schedule,” said Blanchard Diavua, principal of Universal Audenried High School. Students will receive live lessons from 9 a.m. to noon, and teachers will be available from 1 to 3:30 p.m. for office hours. Diavua said he wants to give kids ample time to connect one-on-one with teachers. That way, students will have the opportunity to go over material that wasn’t drilled as thoroughly, since they’ve missed several weeks of school.

Over the last four weeks, Universal schools have provided students with printed packets to catch them up on missed class time. But Diavua and his team of administrators, teachers, and counselors have spent the past month checking in with families about their access to technology, to prepare for the switch to online learning.

“We had our leadership team call every single family to gauge technology and internet access,” Diavua said. “As we begin online instruction, teachers are going to be calling families again.”

Universal plans to ease students into online learning with a few review sessions, but the schools will jump into new material several weeks before the School District of Philadelphia, which has ordered teachers to only teach “review and enrichment” until May 4.

Since students have different levels of access to technology, grading will be a bit more flexible this year. Diavua said students will be evaluated more on a case-by-case basis, and grades will be adjusted if a student is unable to watch all the lessons or turn in assignments.

He said that supplying Chromebooks to students in this difficult time is crucial to equalizing the education landscape in the Philadelphia area.

“It’s critical that we as a city continue to make sure that our scholars have the same type of access as our suburban peers,” Diavua said. “We need to do everything in our power to find ways for them to interact with their teachers, friends, and administrators, and get back on the right track with their education.”

Universal operates seven schools in Philadelphia that enroll about 4,000 students total.

The Philadelphia School District purchased 50,000 laptops to distribute to its students, a project that it expects to complete next week so that online learning can begin on April 13. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and his family contributed $5 million toward the $11 million cost.

The Jump-Start Fund is also working on ways to expand internet connectivity for families. It is alerting households of Comcast’s offer of free Internet Essentials for two months. The cable giant is also offering free data packs so that families can use their smartphones as hotspots to get internet access.

Additional reporting by Dale Mezzacappa.