Gordon Parks Academy teachers, students overcome virtual obstacles to preserve school community

By Matthew Kelly, Wichita Journalism Collaborative

From interactive Bitmoji classrooms to virtual zoo field trips and online tutoring sessions that double as social hours, the students and teachers of Gordon Parks Academy (GPA) have had to get creative this semester to preserve their sense of community.

Bonds run deep at the north-Wichita magnet school, which serves a diverse student body of roughly 350 pupils ranging from pre-K to eighth grade.

“We have kids who’ve been here since they were in kindergarten, so there’s this sense of family with our students and our teachers and our staff,” said Principal LaTonia Kennedy.

Middle school students spent the entire first semester learning online. Parents of roughly half of GPA’s elementary-aged students had already opted for remote learning when the Wichita Board of Education voted in late November to move all K-5 students online.

And families have risen to the occasion, Kennedy said, adopting an all-hands-on-deck approach when parents can’t stay home to supervise their children.

“This is like a village mentality, but there are younger siblings and older siblings that are able to help at home because mom is having to work,” Kennedy said.

Many grandparents have stepped in to help, she said, and the Boys & Girls Club, a GPA community partner, has opened up some of its rooms during the school day for remote learners whose parents have to work in-person.

“Never did we think that we would be having to educate our children in a remote world and they would have to know how to maneuver, but students are more adjustable and flexible to technology because they are a technology generation,” Kennedy said.

LaTonia Kennedy, principal at Gordon Parks Academy in Wichita, said she is proud of her staff and the students and their familiies for the ways they have solved problems and maintianed their community throughout the pandemic challenges. “You know I’m going to give them an A,” Kennedy said. “And it’s because we’re still here. We’re still doing it. They’re still being educated.” (Courtesy photo)

Cory McCracken teaches technology classes, including robotics and engineering, to GPA students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“Interesting, challenging, rewarding, frustrating — I mean, you could use just about any adjective you’d like to describe this year,” McCracken said.

He starts most classes off with a short activity to get students engaged. The younger kids particularly enjoy scavenger hunts, when they have 30 seconds to a minute to find something in their house that fits their teacher’s prompt.

“Whether you’re teaching social studies, science, English — it doesn’t matter what you’re teaching. If you don’t have a relationship with a kid, they’re not going to learn,” McCracken said.

Michelle Haenggi, who teaches math to GPA middle schoolers, said that to teach effectively in the midst of the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic, it’s important to meet students halfway.

She requests that they turn their cameras on every day during class, but as long as students are responding verbally and actively participating in class, she’s willing to give them some leeway.

“It’s about making them feel comfortable in the classroom and keeping them engaged without making them turn on their camera every day. Let them have their quiet non-participation day once in a while,” Haenggi said.

Like many of her students, Haenggi misses the classroom.

“I personally think that math is no fun to teach online,” Haenggi said. “I love math, but this is not the way I’d want to teach it.”

Still, she’s gone above and beyond to make sure her students are equipped for learning, even hand-delivering compasses and protractors to students’ houses when they don’t have their own.

And she was impressed by her students’ results when GPA conducted diagnostic testing for core subjects last week.

“I am excited because I have a handful of students that will be moving out of their intervention classes and into the just regular math class,” Haenggi said. “To me, then, they are still progressing. They are still making those gains that we want them to make.”

McCracken’s robotics classes have been forced to rely on programming virtual robots this year. Underwhelming as that may be for students with hands-on experience, he said some kids who have been intimidated by robotics in years past have taken well to the new format.

“It’s a little more inviting to them as far as, okay, it’s not as daunting as it looked like in-person,” McCracken said.

“I was speaking with one of my eighth graders last night who really had no interest in my competitive robotics class, and now he’s all about getting back in the building now so that he can work with somebody to build a robot and now he can program it.”

The school board will reevaluate district learning models on Jan. 11, but GPA families have already submitted their preferences for online or in-person schooling next semester.

“We figured that we would have a lot of parents wanting to come back face-to-face, and we were surprised that there were not that many,” Kennedy said.

Parents of just 25 GPA students opted for in-person learning in the spring. Kennedy said that’s a testament to just how well her teachers are adapting to remote instruction. 

Asked to give her students and staff a letter grade for their first-semester performance, Kennedy didn’t hesitate for a second.

“You know I’m going to give them an A,” she said. “And it’s because we’re still here. We’re still doing it. They’re still being educated.”

They’re also still finding time to foster the friendships they’ve developed at GPA. When they don’t have pressing questions, students have taken to using Haenggi’s bi-weekly online tutoring sessions as social events.

“Students come in — sometimes not even for tutoring. They just come in to chat,”  Haenggi said. “They come in to see who else is there. It’s an open place for them to just come and hang out online for an hour with friends or teachers and just talk about whatever they need to.”

That socializing is critically important for the tight-knit GPA community, which has grown together through the years. 

Last May, in addition to a socially distanced graduation ceremony for eighth graders, teachers and staff paraded through the neighborhood in decorated cars as families stood outside waving.

“It was very emotional, but we just needed to see their faces probably just as much as they needed to see ours,” Kennedy said.