With Arkansas school buildings closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, state education officials and Arkansas PBS are partnering to bring lessons to students’ homes. The Alternative Methods of Instruction program (AMI) was originally intended to be a short-term solution for things like snow days, providing packets of material for students to work on at home.
But when it became apparent that the pandemic was going to keep children away from schools for at least several weeks, Arkansas AMI grew into five hours of daily programming geared toward pre-K to eighth grade students that could be watched on TV or online. This is the sixth week for the program. After Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced on April 6 that schools would be closed for the rest of the school year, Arkansas AMI was expanded until May 22.
Arkansas PBS had long been airing national educational programs during the day, but with the virus disrupting schools, Executive Director Courtney Pledger says she and her staff wanted to do more. She was inspired partly by what had been done by public broadcasters in California, which was impacted by the virus about six weeks before Arkansas.
"We began to discuss ways of innovating that original model and making it more personal for Arkansas and at that point, we had gone to the [Arkansas Department of Education’s] Division of Elementary and Secondary Education and talked about the potential," Pledger said. "To their credit, they just leapt on the idea of developing something, and we collaborated on what it might look like and came up with a model that would be more personal, more engaging to kids by actually putting [local] teachers on the air."
The AMI organizers were able to recruit Arkansas’s five most recently-named teachers of the year to host segments that were recorded in their homes or in empty classrooms, curating nationally-produced material that was chosen because they felt it would be of interest in the state.
"It was a huge task," said Department of Education Assistant Commissioner of Learning Services Stacy Smith, who helped organize the project. "Arkansas PBS reached out to us and basically said, 'Hey look, if there's a way that we can be of assistance, we want to be.' And we were able to sit down and look at what were the programming options that they had to offer."
Being able to broadcast on Arkansas PBS’ six TV frequencies around the state was a much more ideal option than just streaming the programming online, Smith said.
"We found that a lot of the state didn't have internet access or students didn't have internet access to be able to access what their schools were trying to provide digitally," Smith said. "We knew that a lot of districts were also sending home lots of paper packets, and there was some inconsistency, and so this was an effort by the state and Arkansas PBS to collaborate and kind of provide some support for students, families and schools."
Federal data shows that, as of 2018, 23% of Arkansas households did not have internet service. Arkansas PBS provides coverage to about 75% of the state. Also, since the outbreak began, cable companies in the border cities of Texarkana and West Memphis have added Arkansas PBS to help expand its reach.
After agreeing to work together, staff at the TV station and the Department of Education then had to decide what nationally-produced material to include. Sajni Kumpuris, assistant director of education at Arkansas PBS, says they decided on a format and licensed educators on staff began making recommendations.
"They were able to take that first phase of looking at our programs, looking at the content of them very meticulously to see what was appropriate for each of the grade bands. And from there, we passed what we thought would work over to the Department of Education where they had their own educators do a second review," Kumpuris said. "Then there was a third review from Stacy Smith to really make sure that we were very thoughtful and we thought about all the things that were relevant to actually the standards of learning and that there would be learning outcomes from this."
After several rounds of back and forth, the national content was chosen, and Arkansas PBS was ready to begin producing the material. But Smith acknowledges that despite their best efforts with the AMI program, nothing can replicate the classroom experience.
"This doesn't compare; this doesn't replace what students are missing with the face-to-face, but it does give them something," Smith said. "We want to be able to support families and school districts who are trying to continue this pace of learning even though the physical building of the school is closed."
One parent using Arkansas AMI to keep her kids academically engaged is Heather Rhodes-Newburn of North Little Rock. Her son is in pre-K, while her daughter is in second grade. She says the broadcasts have become part of her family’s daily routine, even the lessons for older students.
"They eat breakfast, and then we watch PBS beginning with pre-K through the second grade time period. And then after that, we just keep it on throughout the day, but I turn it down low," she said. "Then at our lunchtime, that's when we catch the sixth through eighth grade pieces of it. If it's not too far over their heads and it's engaging, we keep it on and we talk about it; we do follow up questions about it. So it's just really been a blessing in disguise."
Gov. Hutchinson had ordered schools closed beginning March 17. The Arkansas AMI television programming started about two weeks later on March 30. Rhodes-Newburn says the intervening period was a "juggling act" for her, reading to her son, while making sure her daughter completed her homework.
Rhodes-Newburn is glad the programs are available on TV because she says her home internet service doesn’t work consistently. She also said her daughter found a role model in one of the five Arkansas teachers who are hosting Arkansas AMI segments.
"She was fascinated that she saw Mrs. [Stacey] McAdoo because at her school, there are no African-American classroom teachers," Rhodes-Newburn said. "So she was just excited to see someone that looked like her, that had an afro like her, and so she was just super, super excited. She was like, 'Momma I know now that's what I want to be, I want to be a teacher.'"
For 17 years McAdoo has taught at Little Rock’s Central High School, but last year was named Arkansas’s teacher of year. That brought her out of the classroom for a year of service, visiting other schools and providing professional development for teachers.
With the national segments selected and a script prepared, "It is then up to me to kind of take what they have written, and I try to add myself to it," McAdoo said. "For instance, one of my common phrases that I say in my classroom is, I always greet my students by saying 'hello dear sweet beautiful brilliant students.' So I felt like it was very important for me to start each of my segments with my signature or standard phrase because I wanted the segments to feel as warm and inviting and as close to allowing the students or the viewers to see who I am normally as possible."
McAdoo is pleased the partnership with Arkansas PBS and the Department of Education is allowing the AMI programmming to reach a large part of the state. Knowing that a lot of her students don’t have internet service or access to devices, she had initially suggested to her superintendent that the district’s cable access channel be used to air programming.
Some in higher education who are not involved in Arkansas AMI are assessing the program’s effectiveness. Dr. Victoria Groves-Scott, dean of the University of Central Arkansas’s College of Education, says it’s fortunate that Arkansas already had AMI in place, though initially without a broadcast partner.
"There are other states that have nothing in place, and so those children and teachers have been struggling," Groves-Scott said. "People I know all across the United States and other states, they haven't even had contact with their students because they didn't have a mailing list and packets weren't put together and there was no approved virtual platform. So we're sitting really good in that situation."
But she says there are limitations, especially six weeks into the program.
"A lot of the AMI is not teaching a new skill, just reinforcing, and we're reviewing content that was previously taught because it’s very difficult to teach a new skill, especially a complex skill virtually, and for the younger children that is particularly difficult," Groves-Scott said.
She points to long division in math as something that would be challenging to teach online, or chemistry for older students, especially when they can’t participate in a lab. Special needs children also need one-on-one contact, which can’t come from the current virtual environment.
Another collegiate official not involved, but observing Arkansas AMI, is Dr. Kimberly Crosby, director of teacher education at Lyon College in Batesville. She agrees that there are unavoidable limitations compared to the traditional classroom setting.
"There's no way to replace a well-trained teacher in terms of providing education to students, and I think that the teachers are feeling it as well as the students," Crosby said. "Teachers are working double-hard to try to provide quality learning experiences for their students and also scheduling zoom meetings and trying to find creative ways to interact with their students socially as well as academically."
When schools reopen, which officials hope will be as scheduled in August, Crosby says the disruption to students' academic progress will be apparent.
"I think it's going to be unavoidable that there will be some remediation needed, largely because of the different capacity for being able to access online learning with a group of students, whether by geography or socioeconomic status," Crosby said.
"Students are going to have to potentially be diagnosed when they return to school to just try to determine [their level of] learning loss. You know, students experience a certain amount of learning loss just over a summer break," Crosby said, "and so I would imagine this is going to exacerbate that learning loss since the period of time is so long.”