How a DC Boys Charter School Kept Students Engaged During Virtual Learning

A D.C. charter school made sure its students stayed engaged during virtual learning last year so they would all return for this schoolyear

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As Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys prepared to open in Southeast D.C. last week, Shawn Hardnett had little doubt the same young faces he saw online last year would walk through the school’s doors.

But Hardnett, who founded the charter school in 2018, knows that wasn't the case everywhere, with a News4 investigation finding some school districts in the area lost track of many students during the long period in virtual learning.

“I will insist that the reason that we did not lose families in the way that other schools did was because of the relationships, the relationships that we built with our students," Hardnett said.

He said those relationships helped teachers and staff keep tabs on students when in-person instruction was impossible. When virtual learning began amid the pandemic, he said Statesmen immediately contacted parents to ask what their kids needed to successfully learn at home. They spent a week getting familiar with technology and made sure to have at least two contacts with each family each week.

When all else failed, "We had to knock on doors,” Hardnett said. “We had to say: ‘What do we need to do? What do we need to do to get them online? Do you need another computer?’"

He said developing relationships is especially important in communities with tough socioeconomic challenges like the one his school serves. Statesmen’s teachers are predominantly men of color, something he said helps young students connect and stay engaged, even if just online.

"We had a 98 percent engagement, six hours a day online, on camera, shirt and tie on," Hardnett said of his students’ virtual attendance in the 2020-2021 school year.  

He understands that, as a charter school, he was able to do a few things others couldn't, like bringing students back in person a little earlier last year. He said he also shared what he was doing with other administrators around the country so they could all learn from each other.

And he's careful not to blame the teachers in other schools or districts that are trying to track down at-risk kids now.

"I don't know what every other school was dealing with,” Hardnett said. “I serve a group of boys who have particular needs -- and lots of them -- and we were able to make this happen."

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