The French-Amerian School of New York finished a successful semester of distance learning last spring that has set the bar for virtual education in Westchester County.
"The kids continued to learn, which was the key objective, but during this difficult time all of the classes, with no exception, were fun and engaging and for me, that's what came through," said Frederique Menzaghi, whose son just finished the 6th grade at FASNY.
Parents across the school, which begins at just three years of age and continues through 12th grade, praised FASNY's quick adoption of a rigorous distance learning program following the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
"I really felt they continued the education. The classes were conducted from morning to the late afternoon," said Miho Nasu, whose daughter just completed 11th grade at FASNY. "I don't feel that she got anything less than she could have under the circumstances and that was really amazing," Nasu added.
While most area schools took weeks to transition to virtual learning following classroom closures, parents and faculty at FASNY recount a seamless transition from in-person to online that kept students on track without missing a beat in their education.
"The school closed on a Friday and by Monday all grades were running with some kind of online learning. They've just been continuing at it since we went completely off-site," said Tarek Fadel, a member of FASNY's Board of Trustees whose three kids just finished up the 9th, 8th, and 5th grades at the school. Even more, Fadel said the high school made a point to complete the entire curriculum for the year online.
"We started from a place of wanting to keep the same level of quality teaching and learning and stay on track for what students needed to learn this year," said Head of School Francis Gianni.
The implementation of a consistent school-day schedule for distance learning was key to the program's success, said many parents.
"My friends with kids in other schools told me they got one hour of Zoom in the morning, received assignments on the web, and then were on their own. What FASNY did is keep the same schedule. If a kid had math on Tuesday at 8am, then every Tuesday they had math at 8am," said Menzaghi, who added this set schedule helped her son weather the uncertainty of the world.
"We tried to not lose a sense of reality as much as it had been twisted, so routine was our keyword. It was all about keeping as much of what was in place before quarantine in place after quarantine. For example, school counselor and speech therapy appointments transitioned immediately to virtual appointments and even increased," said Charles Grenon, Head of the Lower School.
Although teachers kept the students' daily schedule intact, administrators pulled upon advice from the global French-American school community, specifically in Asia, to make adaptations that prevented students from burning out on online learning, said Board President and former FASNY parent Emmanuele Vinciguerra
Four weeks in a row of online learning spurred exhaustion, FASNY heard from these schools in Asia, so administrators decided to split up its usual two-week spring break into mini-breaks spread across the semester. This past semester FASNY had three-week blocks of school followed by a week-long or few day break to maintain students' energy. This sustainable schedule varied from that of many area schools that completely cut out the spring break in order to finish the school year early.
Technological tools coupled with community support
Technology, and specifically Chromebook laptops, have been integrated into FASNY's curriculum for years now, which enabled an easy transition to full-time virtual learning. Once the pandemic hit, the school distributed Chromebooks to all students so families didn't have to buy additional devices to accommodate distance learning.
"When we closed the school overnight everyone was on their computer the next day ready to start teaching remotely and with clear directives for what to do," said Vinciguerra.
The consistent schedule and uniform technological tools for all students made it easy for her two sons, who just finished 7th and 9th grade, to stick with a routine that required little supervision on her part, said FASNY parent Christine Bessin.
"All lessons were on Zoom so they would start by ensuring that all the kids were present and would ask them to have the video and sound on to make sure they were not doing anything else on the side," said Bessin.
"It's hard for students to get motivated to complete online work assigned via email, whereas Zoom is more interactive. You can see your friends and teachers and they can check on you and ask how you are doing and discuss issues," said Bessin. "They were really paying attention. It wasn't just a teacher doing a class and then running away for the rest of the day. I think that was important because the attention, participation, and attitude was maintained. Attendance was maintained in every class and they were reminded participation in Zoom would be included," added Bessin.
Bessin also has a daughter who just finished the second grade at FASNY and said the technological tool used for the younger grades, Seesaw, helped facilitate age-appropriate lessons for the elementary years.
Jennifer Stevens, parent of a fourth-grade daughter and president of the FASNY Parent Teacher Association, also spoke highly of the schedule and community feel of the online classes.
"I think they did a good job of trying to keep the kids connected and engaged. My daughter was excited when her classes were going to start and she stayed excited about it," said Stevens.
Of course constant screen-time, even with the break every three weeks, is difficult, so teachers varied lessons to include small group time and allowed students to complete assignments on their own if they wished to log out of Zoom.
"Every teacher was always checking in on the kids. In math, the teacher was creating a breakout room where three or so kids who were working on difficult problems could get help in breakout groups just as in a classroom," said parent Frederique.
Flexible and tailored education
A consistent schedule was helpful for maintaining routine for students in distance learning, but flexibility and individualized education was equally important, said Head of School Gianni.
"We tried to tailor things to be receptive to all family situations," said Gianni, adding this was especially important for the lower school.
The pre-school grades had two Zoom sessions a day, and one specifically designed to allow students to socialize together, which is a key component of education in the early years. Besides this time, parents could choose when to help support their child's learning with synchronized online and in-person activities depending on the needs of their schedule.
"We were responsive to parents who said this is too much, or my child needs more. Differentiation is a huge component of our practice at school. The teachers and families are real partners and we communicated Zoom schedules with families," said Isabelle de Trabuc Smith, Assistant Head of the Lower School.
At the high school level teachers were always available for individualized sessions, said Boualem Maizia, Head of the High School. "The key thing is that while we're organized, teachers are flexible and students know they can reach their teachers at any time," said Maizia. The small size of the high school student body -- 220 students, also enabled the close-knit feel despite the virtual element, said Maizia.
Ready for fall
With summer now upon us, FASNY faculty and staff are busy developing multiple plans for the fall, including a hybrid online and in-person program in which half the students would come on one day and half the other.
"We feel very confident that whatever the scenario is in September we are ready to deliver the product our families have been used to," said Board President Vinciguerra.
With the pandemic forcing families to spend more time at-home, realtors across Westchester County have noticed an uptick in families leaving the city in search of more space. For those who are looking for a new school for their children in Westchester, FASNY parents said you can't go wrong with the school's programs, even if they're still at a distance for the coming semester.
Families also don't have to speak French in order to attend because in addition to the French baccalaureate track, the school offers an international program with no French required.
"If somebody's looking at the school, I would say with no reservation that the distance learning at FASNY works. I think the testament to that is my son who said this was the best year ever," said parent Frederique.