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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul Miller

Copy of 5 Keys That Ensure Academic Success For Young Black Men During COVID

Academic underperformance is one of the most talked about struggles for educators in the virtual schooling environment we now face under COVID-19. Students from disadvantaged communities are in the most danger as teachers and administrators struggle to reach them. The good news is that following these 5 critical steps will drastically improve your school’s performance and mitigate the damage COVID-19 has on students’ education. These steps are the ones that I’ve devised and enacted together with my staff at Green Tech High Charter School. Our school teaches young Black and brown males, grades 6 - 12. 90% of our student body lives at or below the poverty line, but our success is above average and our virtual-schooling academic performance is almost on par with in-school levels. Read on for more...

The Five Pillars

Circumstances have changed, but it’s still the same world. COVID requires we behave differently in the world to be effective but the good news is it doesn’t change what’s effective. Consistency is key, so virtual learning has to paradigm what a traditional school looks like. Many schools in this country that are composed of Black males in poverty are failing, but the systems I’ve devised and installed that has delivered high performing success year after year are still the crucibles for success during COVID.

Here is the big takeaway: take the same systems you use in regular school and create them virtually. Some schools don’t have unifying systems in place and that sets them up for a greater disadvantage in the new environment. It comes down to this: give students something they know instead of something brand new that would look unfamiliar.

If you didn’t have educational performance systems in place, build them now and mirror what you would want if your child was attending the school you are running.

In the information below, you will notice these four terms in parenthesis: Relationships, Delivery of Instruction, Data, and Accountability. These four terms are all part of the 4 Pillars of Success that allow my schools to have a consistent 95%+ graduation rate for Black males who face a 59% graduation rate nationally.

Each one of the 5 keys for academic success during COVID correlates to one or more of my 4 Pillars of Success. I’ll be releasing an eBook on the 4 Pillars and how to devise systems that work for young Black men in 2021. If you’d like your most disadvantaged students to experience the success that sets them up for bright futures, be sure to sign up for our mailing list and I’ll make sure I get it to you as soon as it’s available. It will contain the tips and action items for parents, community, and schools that deliver results.

1. Teachers need to be in their classrooms and teaching like it’s school.

(Delivery of Instruction, Accountability)

  • Teaching has always been an admirable profession that is composed of professionals. The school should be made safe and adhere to all social distancing guidelines for staff. Staff need to be valued and placed at the top of all priority lists. Providing a professional safe place for teachers to teach, is exactly what we want our students to see.

  • Our expectation from your students is this: if a teacher can get up and go to work in the middle of a pandemic, then a student can get up, clear off a corner of a table, bed, or counter, and open their school-issued device to do their work. Seeing a teacher at school will create a level of normalcy and consistency. This is critical. It is a lot less professional when a Teacher is at home with screaming kids and in their own pajamas. We must set the standard we want for our children. We must hold ourselves accountable and live instruction is best.

  • Students come from so many backgrounds and have so many issues, bring them into the building now puts them and staff at risk during the pandemic, however, Teachers are the professionals who have the ability to follow the guidelines and teach the expectation for their students. Empower them. Give them this system.

2. Students must be expected to conduct themselves like they’re in school


  • Develop or utilize your school-wide code of conduct the same way you would as if they were at school. Students need to feel as though they are at school the entire day instead of at home and holding them to your standard code of conduct helps them create that space in their minds.

  • At Green Tech High, students are held to the same standards they were during the regular school day. All students must show their face on camera regardless of what’s going on at home. School must be school and teachers need to connect to their students visually as well as assess for learning other ways.

  • Students must follow the student code of conduct and teachers will still have merits and demerits to help them manage their classrooms virtually. Create a virtual detention and a virtual ISS room for students who elect to not follow the rules. But also continue to conduct student of the month ceremonies, mail certificates home, and recognize positive behaviors regularly. At GTH, if a student is struggling in class, they receive a virtual link to the Dean of student management, just as he would if he were on campus. It works.

3. Instruction has to be uniform and consistent so students don’t have unexpected challenges.

(Delivery of Instruction)

  • While in-person school is in session it is important to have an instructional framework that all staff members can follow, master, and deliver to students. Conversely, with virtual learning, we quickly realized that the same consistency was needed. In virtual or in-person learning, adherence to that framework has to be measured and monitored for it to work dependably, but with virtual, this would be impossible to monitor without reliance on an established system that has Standards, Objectives, Assessments, Self-Pacing already built-in.

  • The teachers have the ability to control how fast or slow the students go and continuously work to reteach concepts. Once the 15 minute review period is up, the teacher and the students spend the other 35 minutes having a work period, where the student uses the time to progress on PLATO with their teacher fully available the whole time as a content specialist who is supporting all their needs.

  • Truthfully, nothing replaces a teacher and PLATO (Online Credit Recovery System) is not that amazing for instruction, we can’t pretend the digital version perfectly replaces the analog. It doesn’t. But you still have a lot of power here. We exploit the efficacy of traditional teaching approaches by ensuring that students get their teachers for 50 min x 8 periods a day just as they would if they were on campus.

  • This kind of consistency and structure yields more tools for stopping academic under-performance before it starts. Teachers must review the data, look for the skill gaps daily, and prepare for the next day based on what their students didn’t understand the day before. At GTH, students login, and the teacher takes attendance, and then the teacher takes 15 minutes to teach any concepts, skills, or information the students struggled with the day before on PLATO. The data from PLATO now drive their instruction the next day.

4. Social-emotional needs, grading, and policies need to be implemented that are COVID friendly but have high expectations for all.

(Relationships, Accountability, Data)

  • When schools were first closed last March, like every other school out there, we struggled with a tide of problems transitioning to virtual. We made mistakes, but we learned from them and fixed them. Ready for the big idea? Every problem we saw previously with online learning is fixed if students are given the ability to have regular virtual human contact with their teachers. COVID is stressful and they need daily support by creating an advisory program with their teachers.

  • Our model looks like this. Teachers are tasked with contacting parents of their advisory students daily, Monday-Thursday. Our school week is Monday through Thursday as well with a full 50 minute 8 period day. Fridays are for social-emotional well-being of the students and for Response to Intervention (RTI). Administrators use Fridays’ to conduct home visits of students most in need. (Does your school struggle with evaluating a child in need of protective services? Administrative home visits, masked and distanced but warm and supportive WORK.)

  • The rest of the school are Advisory Teachers, they have groups assigned to them and meet with each student from 8-12 pm. They discuss grades, work completion, and social-emotional needs on Fridays. In the afternoon students have time to work independently on PLATO, attend Zeroes Aren’t Permitted (ZAP) to receive individualized tutoring. ZAP is an intervention program that places students in a class by their lowest weekly grade to make up work, differentiate instruction, re-take or make-up tests and quizzes. Students are scheduled for a ZAP period on Fridays from 1-2, and tutoring follows afterward. Fridays are flexible as stated earlier.

5. Administration must model the way and go the extra mile for their students. Develop a model with high expectations, but a high level of support.

(Relationships, Accountability, Data, Delivery of Instruction)

  • Teachers have to perform in new ways, but Administrators have great power, too. At GTH, administrators us. As we closed the 2019-20 school year in June our takeaway came down to this sentence: struggled with behavior, academics, attendance, and are having social-emotional issues. The administration must go above and beyond to make students feel like their leadership cares. Showing up is one of the most important things you can do in your student’s life. Showing up and consistently caring is what leads to changed behavior. You have to want to win for your students so bad that you make them believe you won’t allow them to fail. Going the extra mile also builds community with parents and shows the parents that they have a partner with their child’s education. In these visits, go over all expectations with the students and parents, but more importantly, help them believe they can overcome all obstacles and that you care.

Approximately 74% of our students did well and were fully engaged during quarter 1, comparatively to 84% last year during a normal school year, whereas, colleagues within the industry self-reported that approximately only 30% of most 6-12 programs were actually engaged and doing well with virtual learning. We are outperforming national averages by 150% and climbing. We still prefer regular school, but if you incorporate these steps, you can protect your teachers, protect your students, and deliver success and well-being to your students. They deserve it.

Dr. Paul Miller is an educational success expert with more than 21 years of experience creating systems and tackling approaches that help Black young men graduate. He is a speaker and the author of We Need To Do Better: Changing the Mindset of Children through Family, Community, and Education, and Cyberbullying: Breaking the Cycle of Conflict.

Comments or Questions? Want to share your educational experience with COVID? I cordially invited you to reach out! All respectful, on-topic comments are welcome.

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