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NYC School Without Walls' Approach to Student and Family Engagement

How one hybrid program fostered student and family engagement in a virtual setting


Between January 2022 and June 2023, the district featured below was one of 20 participants in The Learning Accelerator (TLA)’s Strategy Lab: Virtual & Hybrid program to address a problem of practice related to virtual and hybrid learning environments. Through their participation in Strategy Lab, this team was guided through a multi-step process to identify their unique goals and gaps before determining and designing measurable solutions to their challenge. The Strategy Lab program was based on the Real-Time Redesign (RTR) toolkit, which takes participants through a rapid, research-based, and field-tested process for making targeted improvement toward more equitable, effective, and engaging virtual/hybrid learning and included:

For approximately 18 months, this district worked in Strategy Lab’s cohort model to identify and address a problem of practice specific to their virtual program – in this case, family engagement. The district team gathered data, explored potential solutions, and then designed, implemented, measured, and reflected on a pilot program created to address family engagement.

To learn more about TLA’s research on effective instruction as it relates to family engagement, please visit our Insight: Family Engagement in Virtual and Hybrid Learning.

NYC School Without Walls

A hybrid program based in New York serving 60 students in grade 9, the NYC School Without Walls (SWOW) launched at the start of the 2022-23 school year. Their instructional model offers a combination of virtual and in-person classes with a focus on student-created passion projects and place-based learning (outside of the traditional classroom). They joined Strategy Lab because they wanted to build a robust hybrid program that facilitates independent inquiry and passion-project development.

Understanding the Challenge

The team identified two challenges:

  1. The need to increase engagement with asynchronous learning; and

  2. The need to provide clarity for students and families about expectations for learning in a virtual environment.

According to their team assessment, district leaders indicated that although the school had both a student and family handbook as well as a family and community engagement plan, they were still in the early planning stages of articulating clear expectations to students and families about virtual and hybrid learning. In addition, they noted on their team assessment that they would need to better share information in a way that would be easily accessible by families. As an initial step, they did have a plan in place to use technology tools that would enable families to monitor their child’s academic progress. In fact, when the team navigated the early stages of launching their hybrid program, they also recognized that communication and family support correlated with student attendance.

The team documented a student attendance rate of approximately 80% for the first and second semesters. However, they noted that attendance rates tended to drop right after school breaks as well as on Fridays, which are required off-campus fieldwork days – an especially concerning trend. In conversations around the evidence collected to better understand the problem, the team relayed that attendance felt “like a game of whack-a-mole,” with teachers conducting a lot of outreach to students but not seeing any direct effects.

Continued conversations around current policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of increasing student engagement and attendance for the required fieldwork by improving communication efforts to families and students. To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program that provided multiple opportunities to communicate expectations to teachers, students, and families.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution

The leadership team piloted a redesign of the fieldwork – an overnight camping trip – which included classroom-based lessons and elements of increased communication for students and families. As the pilot team consisted of all eight teachers at the school, they prepared students for their fieldwork by incorporating lessons with shared targets and readings as well as opportunities to debrief after the camping trip. The pilot team then held two student informational sessions during the school day and via Zoom. The advisors for the overnight camping trip also attended the student sessions to answer questions. In addition, the pilot team hosted two family information meetings to further encourage attendance.

Taking Action

The pilot featured two key components:

  • Family Outreach: The pilot team conducted two family sessions to provide information about the expectations for fieldwork as well as details about the upcoming camping trip. The purpose of these sessions was two-fold: to inform families of the upcoming camping trip and increase parental buy-in and support for fieldwork.

Learn more about using a family contract.

  • Fieldwork: SWOW’s instructional programming included off-campus fieldwork as a key complement to coursework for the purpose of supporting youth in designing and implementing passion projects.

    Learn more about implementing genius hours to support student-driven projects.

    As a result of the student and family outreach, 80% of families submitted the required medical forms indicating an interest in attending the overnight camping trip – with 57% of those students participating in the overnight fieldwork. Although the attendance rate was lower than anticipated, those who did participate provided valuable feedback that will help inform future fieldwork opportunities.

    The reactions to the camping trip were largely positive. Student survey results indicated that they enjoyed the activities offered during the trip (e.g., completing a ropes course, hiking, participating in games) as well as the opportunity to bond with their peers. However, quite a few students seemed surprised by the realities of camping, noting their experiences with cold weather and insects. Of the seven teachers who completed the post-trip survey, the majority found value in this type of fieldwork. They mentioned that students formed bonds with their peers, resulting in some displaying a higher willingness to try different activities.

    The data collected by the district team offers valuable insights for improvement regarding family engagement, noting an opportunity to build on the experience from the pilot to enhance the frequency and accessibility of outreach efforts to families. In their team assessment, the district indicated that they do have a plan for communicating with families in an accessible manner as well as their preferred language. Of note, they also indicated that since the start of Strategy Lab, they have made improvements, progressing from “We're starting to plan for this” to “We have a plan for this,” with regards to articulating clear expectations for virtual/hybrid learning to students and their families. The team noted that “teachers have outlined expectations and communicated them to students AND families, and have worked individually with students to develop a plan based on any individual needs.”

    Story of Change

    As shared by the district team: “One student who was never fully engaged [e.g., low attendance/participation] and had a hard time opening up and accepting help from students and the teacher went on the camping trip. His parents were worried about the trip and weren’t sure they would send him. But the parents decided to let him go after we (pilot team) held information sessions and consistent communications about the purpose and expectations of the trip. From the moment he arrived for the trip, he was in his glory! He participated in all the team building activities and assumed a leadership role. Being out of the classroom revealed some of his strengths and gave him more confidence and motivation to engage with his peers and at his school.

    His parents were so glad that he went on the trip and were proud of his accomplishments. The fieldwork camping trip also solidified the bond between this student and his teacher. He is now responsive, checks in with the teacher, hands in his work and is trying harder. There is a noticeable difference in behavior.”

    The district leadership team is planning to use the lessons they learned from this pilot to design a new one. Next year, they plan to offer the camping trip as well as expanded outreach efforts to better inform families of the value of fieldwork and its connection to the mission of SWOW. This plan aligns with the reason why they joined Strategy Lab: to improve their practices around building a robust hybrid program that facilitates independent inquiry and passion-project development.