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Reflecting on Hops, Skips, and Leaps at Taos Academy Charter

Elizabeth Leblanc

Elizabeth LeBlanc

Taos Academy Charter School, Institute for Teaching and Leading

TLA’s ongoing Hop, Skip, Leapfrog Project seeks to identify and codify new strategies that emerged during the pandemic. Our team has been working with districts and experts across the country to make sense of what we’ve learned as a K-12 sector to help advance towards more personalized models of learning that support mastery and whole-child development. We challenged schools to consider how this work has a bearing on their own context, asking, “What new muscles have you and your team already built? What will you do with them and how can you go forward?”

Elizabeth LeBlanc is the Director for Teaching and Learning at Taos Academy Charter School and Co-Founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl). She took us up on our challenge, sharing some of the hops, skips, and leaps Taos Academy has made during the pandemic.

School Overview:

Taos Academy Charter School (TA), which serves grades 5-12, is a school in rural northern New Mexico using blended learning to improve student outcomes across diverse measures such as student achievement, career and college readiness, and graduation rate. In a state that consistently ranks near the bottom of most education inventories, the school’s high achievement results over time have drawn notice. At the center of this work, an intense focus on relationship and connection helped chart the school’s adjustments throughout the year of pandemic teaching and learning. When staff reflected back on what they wanted to leave behind and what to take forward into the coming year, they realized that they had made several hops, skips, and even a few leaps in growing their learning model to better serve students. Below are some of the approaches and strategies that worked – and that they plan to carry forward.

“Hops” represent small tweaks or improvements, usually through implementation of single tools or specific instructional strategies.

Homework Hotlines:

If anyone was a “latchkey kid” back in the 1980s, this strategy will ring a bell. Basically a higher-tech version of a 1-800 number that students could call to receive help with their homework, this was simply a Google Meet link that students working from home could access for just-in-time academic support or to create standing micro-tutoring sessions throughout the school week. Teachers reported that they could work one-on-one with students whom they usually struggled to accommodate in the busyness of the regular school day. Similarly, students reported that they liked the availability of the hotline and the anonymity of asking for help in a way that did not draw the attention of their peers. Explore additional strategies that support students in “Targeted and Relevant” ways.

Targeted Family Outreach:

Staff, students, and families alike at TA requested that the school continued to support a schoolwide system of pointed and deliberate family outreach at the start of each semester. In order to accomplish this, TA created a Family Outreach Team and repurposed some of their yearly weeklong back-to-school in-service time. Every staff member, from instructional staff to administrative personnel, was assigned a list of 10 to 15 student families and a script with questions to ensure that every TA family received direct communication by phone prior to the start of school, setting them up with supports and preparing them to engage in the school year successfully. A phone log hosted on Google Sheets allowed the school to share information among teachers and classes and to alert social workers, counselors, and community liaisons when follow-ups were needed to connect families with resources. More than any other change that the school made in response to the pandemic, families appreciated this outreach the most. In addition, TA staff appreciated that it allowed them time to connect with families they ordinarily may not work with directly, strengthening their ties as a learning community. Lastly, TA grew their own connections as a school with community organizations and resources that directly served families as they worked to connect them with Internet access and devices. Explore additional strategies that support students in “Actively Engaging” ways.

"Skips” required educators to adopt new systems of practice, changing student experience at a greater scale (either in terms of sustained, consistent change within an area or across a greater number of students and classrooms).

Alternate Assignments:

Since TA was designed and created as a blended learning school during its inception 12 years ago, TA shared they did not have as big of a “lift” ahead of them in some ways as schools for whom digital learning was not part of their toolkit prior to the pandemic. This allowed TA to grow and evolve their curriculum over the course of the year in a thoughtful way that reflected the emerging needs of our students. While TA prides itself on maintaining high expectations combined with high degrees of student connection and support, one change that they made was in response to students’ differing needs. While some students thrived on working independently – with a few even taking on additional classes and graduating one semester to a full year early – other students missed connecting with one another in more collaborative, interactive ways. At the same time, TA’s digital curriculum often presented students with one-dimensional and sometimes repetitive mastery projects – for example, multiple standard, five-paragraph essays in ELA classes, lab reports in science classes, and performance tasks in math classes. TA teachers began collaborating across their individual advisory groups and classes to offer “alternate assignments” that could be used to replace more traditional ones. These enrichment classes were completely optional in the school’s virtual learning model, but at the middle school level, more than 50 percent of students opted to engage in these richer learning opportunities. As an example, instead of writing an argumentative essay in an ELA class, a student could attend a week of one-hour classes exploring the different types of argument, researching a topic, and engaging in formal debate with their peers to explore and demonstrate mastery on the same standards covered in a more traditional approach. Explore additional strategies that support students in being “Growth Oriented.”

Collaborative Planning Time:

To move their success forward, and continue larger scale collaboration, the school is also building in collaborative planning time for all teachers to meet in teams and develop these alternate projects across the curriculum prior to the start of the school year. Whether students opt to return virtually or to in-person learning in the fall, they can maintain their connection among one another as they engage in more active learning modalities through these opportunities. This collaborative planning block also allows teachers to team up and divide their teaching time, with one teacher thinking through the “live” instruction component for the in-person group and the other teacher focusing their work on the more flexible, virtual tutoring support (either on a one-to-one or small-group basis). As a team, the teachers can decide to switch roles daily, weekly, or on another cadence that best suits them. Having targeted time set aside during the day means that the TA instructional team stays connected as well, maintaining a deep sense of community across virtual, hybrid, and in-person instructional models. Explore additional strategies around “Professional Development and Learning.”

“Leaps” were systemic, longer-term changes to the “grammar” of school, where traditional organizational structures for learning such as use of time, space, grade-levels, and progress assessment were fundamentally altered.

Taos Education Collaborative:

One of the single biggest leaps that the school made was the inspiration for the Taos Education Collaborative (TEC) – a leap that will be moving forward in an even larger way as the field emerges from the pandemic. This community-based initiative and call to action was incubated at TA through a grant from the New Mexico Public Education Department. Originally intended to expand career and technology education opportunities for students by opening the campus to the community after hours and on weekends, when school buildings were shut down, TA leadership shifted to thinking about how to catalyze equitable, high-quality, technology-mediated opportunities outside of the school building in ways that were not specific to any one school or district, but that served all students in the area. The team pulled together a cross-sector Advisory Council to guide the work, bridging diverse perspectives from early childhood, K-12, higher education, local utilities, economic development, and area businesses.

In the year since its inception, the TEC has identified more than 100 area Wi-Fi access points to keep TA students learning and has supported 75 student families across Taos County in both attaining home internet access and providing financial support to struggling families to maintain their home access. Through a grant from OutSchool.org, the organization also partnered with Taos Community Cares, Taos Behavioral Health, Taos-HIVE, and other area nonprofits to expand services and community learning pods to older siblings, bilingual students, and historically disadvantaged populations in this small rural town – in all, helping 50 diverse families stay connected to and engaged in their students’ education.

Early partners in the work of the TEC, along with Taos Academy, included: Kit Carson Internet, Town of Taos, UNM-Taos, UNM - TECC, Kit Carson Electric Co-op, Taos Ski Valley, Comcast, Choice Broadband, Taos Municipal Schools, Vista Grande Charter School, Anansi Charter School, Taos Charter School, Taos Integrated School of the Arts, Taos Pueblo, Twirl Taos, AuraFitness, Smith’s Grocery Store, Albertsons, Taos Landscaping, and Taos Youth Heartline, among many others. Explore additional strategies around “Technology and Data Infrastructure.”

Call to Action

Now it’s your turn! School leaders, what new muscles have you and your team already built? What will you do with them, and how can you move forward leveraging that experience and expertise? Reach out to info@learningaccelerator.org if you, your school, or your system has made hops, skips, or leaps during the last year and a half that you hope to push forward into the new school year.

Elizabeth Leblanc

Elizabeth LeBlanc

Taos Academy Charter School, Institute for Teaching and Leading

Elizabeth LeBlanc is the Director for Teaching and Learning at Taos Academy Charter School and Co-Founder and CEO of the Institute for Teaching and Leading (i4tl).