Smoke Rise Prep Executing Hybrid Ed Strategy During COVID Outbreak
Sometimes being small can have its advantages. Just ask the administration of Smoke Rise Prep, a private K-8 school on Hugh Howell Road here in Tucker. On August 19, thanks to its small class sizes and modest student enrollment, the school was able to open its doors and welcome students and teachers for the 2020-’21 school year.
“The parent reaction has been super supportive right now because they have an option,” explained principal Sherrie Waddell. “For the parents who have to work or have other issues, they have a place for their child. For the ones who are not comfortable, they have a place for their child and can do it at home.”
Waddell and her administrative team met with parents during the summer and distributed a parent survey to gauge interest in a return to in-person instruction. Despite the ongoing pandemic, many parents were open to the idea of sending their children back into the classroom. Still, others were hesitant. So, Smoke Rise Prep devised a compromise approach to education: elementary age students can attend in person, they can connect via Zoom, or they can take it day by day. As for the middle school grades, they started the year completely virtual, a status that could soon change.
“We kind of call them the Roomers and the Zoomers,” Waddell said. “The kids in the room are the Roomers and the ones who are at home are the Zoomers because they’re Zooming in. We anticipate it’s going to take until Labor Day to get used to that new way of teaching.” Speaking of teaching, one of the groups nationwide that has been most hesitant to a return to normal has been educators. In DeKalb County, a survey of teachers showed the vast majority did not feel comfortable returning to the classroom this fall; that’s one of the reasons new superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris cited for beginning the year virtually. But at Smoke Rise Prep, Waddell says it was just the opposite.
“The majority of our teachers were begging to come back into the school just to have that sense of schedule, to have some sense of normalcy,” she explained. “We are so blessed to have teachers here who feel that teaching is their passion; it’s what they were created to do. So, we really did not get a lot of pushback from the teachers.”
This grand experiment of in-person education has by all accounts succeeded thus far. But, according to Smoke Rise Prep Assistant Director Tascha Bevins, this is not a case of a one size fits all approach to education.
“If I was in a public school, there’s no question: I would shut down, I would go virtual, I would not want to come in,” she said. “It’s difficult enough with 80 students for us to give that one-on-one [instruction] and we do, and we make that happen because of our numbers.” “We’re very small. We don’t have buses. We don’t have to fool with a lot of things,” Waddell added.
The administrative team says one of the unexpected benefits of the decision to reopen has been increased interest from parents outside the Smoke Rise Prep community who want their children in school, driving a small uptick in enrollment inquiries. As for the students themselves, Bevins estimated that about 20 of their elementary age youngsters are in class, a fact that warms her heart.
“These kids have been through the ringer this summer. To come in [the first day] and see how excited the kids were to see each other, you could see the light behind their eyes again,” she recounted. “They didn’t care that they were wearing a mask. They didn’t care that they were on [socially distant] tape. They didn’t care that they had to eat outside. They were so happy to be with each other, to see each other. And so now our goal is to work really hard to build that community between the kids who are here and the kids who aren’t and this time next year, no matter what, hopefully we’ll all be together.”
If the experiment taking place at Smoke Rise Prep ends up a success, Tucker may not have to wait until this time next year to have all of its students together back in a classroom.