SWBOCES PD Center Shines, Leads Partners through Educational Challenges during Pandemic

Through the struggles caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the Center for Professional Development and Curriculum Support at Southern Westchester BOCES has pivoted to support its school district partners. The Center’s success, which stems from a combination of humanizing technology and implementing flexibility, allows it to continue providing educational opportunities and resources in this new era.

While the pandemic has disrupted teaching and learning in their traditional settings, Senior Director Mary Elizabeth Wilson and her team have embraced the challenges and created a new plan that bolsters the Center’s efficacy.

“Our campuses are closed, but our schools aren’t,” Dr. Wilson said. “The landscape is shifting so quickly. None of us have experience dealing with pandemics, but we have been working side-by-side with our partner school districts to make our professional development programs better for our partners. We have redesigned. We are flexible. We’re all learning together.”

Instead of meeting in person for discussion or instruction, the Center has implemented new strategies and turned to online learning with Virtual Meet-Ups and Drop-In Webinars. With the switch to video-conferencing, professional development offerings have continued with the same vigor while maximizing virtual learning. From teaching guided reading to mental health to facilities discussions, educational partners can key into the online adaptations and not let the pandemic halt their learning. This virtual shift has proven beneficial as approximately 500 participants joined in various online learning opportunities in late April. In May, the School Library System pivoted to shift a previously planned in-person conference to a virtual mini-conference that drew in over 125 librarians from our region and across New York State.

“We are leveraging the virtual space,” Dr. Wilson said. “Our P. team met to discuss and problem-solve. The ‘what’ and the ‘how’ have been very important. It’s essential for BOCES to be out in front of this. The team has been nimble and is working super hard to support teachers and, ultimately, kids. This isn’t a crisis in education, it is education during a crisis. Despite the COVID-related challenges we are facing, some really good things are happening. To identify and share the good work, the Center has launched its ‘Promising Practices’ campaign, which invites teachers to share their success with colleagues across the region. We are in this together and it is a very heavy lift for each school to try to do this work on their own. It has provoked strong, encouraging conversation and thinking.”

Dr. Wilson’s core team includes Brandon Cruz, supervisor of school safety and facilities; Eleanor Friedman, supervisor of the school library system; David Luhman, director of school partnerships and innovative practices; and Tracy Tyler, supervisor of literacy and learning.

All professional learning sessions scheduled pre-pandemic to take place in March, April, May and June have been completed, said Mr. Cruz. In fact, he and his colleagues added additional workshops to the Center’s calendar because they saw a need from their educational partners. Thankfully, he added, the transition from in-person to online has been fairly seamless. It has also expanded his team’s professional networks as they meet, converse and help a wide variety of educators.

“Now we’re able to say ‘We have something for you and we’ll bring it your way,’” Mr. Cruz said. “We’re reaching people who are outside of our area since we have been offering our courses online. It’s really cool to be able to perform virtual trainings, especially for people who can’t leave their homes but can get on Zoom. Having this option is really helpful. We’ve adjusted a lot and are still adjusting. We’re hoping to continue building on this.”

Experienced members of the Center for Professional Development and Curriculum Support team lead more than 20 Virtual Meet-Ups each week. These meet-ups are roundtable discussions that participants join based on their roles or the topic – like prioritizing standards, school scheduling, special education gatherings, school safety consultations or weekly Curriculum Council meetings.

The dialogue taking place in the Virtual Meet-Ups then informs the Drop-In Webinars. The Professional Development team creates roughly five webinars per week that range from cross-disciplinary library services to planning considerations for transitioning elementary classes into the virtual space.

“It was really important for us to humanize technology and allow for some personal connections,” said Dr. Wilson. “From the start, we weren’t just going to generate lists of links to share with our partners. People are already being inundated with that. We wanted to focus on high-quality instruction to assist teachers in starting from what they know about teaching and learning, and use this knowledge and expertise to make decisions about how to best engage students remotely.”

Dr. Wilson is glad that, despite the pandemic, her team was able to quickly pivot to support their school partners. Mr. Cruz noted that his colleagues are excited when they see their partners doing well and feed off of their positive energy.

“That is the motivation,” he said. “I love the fact that we’re able to still do this work. It keeps us supporting districts and keeps them reaching out to us. The need is out there so it makes us feel good that our team is experiencing success. We’re reinforcing old relationships and building new relationships. In the long run, I hope that this helps to keep BOCES in the front of their minds.”

To combat the challenges of learning new technology and transitioning into online teaching, the center’s approach focuses on pausing to examine “where you are and what you would be doing if you were in the classroom with kids,” Dr. Wilson said. Only then should teachers and administrators look at selecting tools that can bolster their mission and support their pedagogy.

Despite technology being ubiquitous in society, members of the PD Center are keenly aware that a digital divide may inhibit some students from learning at the same pace as their peers because they do not have access to the same tools. Dr. Wilson’s team has worked to leverage all forms of technology – not just the new ones – to augment and reinforce education and classroom work.

This flexibility also translates into how the center offers mandated trainings with “PD Gone Virtual.” In the first week that schools were closed, in mid-March, the center hosted a one-day, six-hour session. However, its rollout has gone through phases, similar to how schools have generally transitioned. Now, instead of offering a singular training session in one full day, they can be broken up into two or three sessions.

“We’re trying to create a sense of calm,” said Dr. Wilson. “In April, we looked at the remainder of the school year and assembled people based on content area or grade level. We looked at the curriculum and asked ‘What can we do well?’ We wanted to position kids to be successful. The question was: ‘How can we best prepare them – teachers and kids – to be September-ready?’ We’re helping to create that infrastructure work in schools to best position them for success in the next academic year.”

Click here for information about the Center for Professional Development and Curriculum Support’s work, facilitator contact information,  calendar of upcoming events and sign-up form for professional learning e-blast updates by area of specialty that are tailored to your needs.

Click here to access the center’s social media channels: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.