On the move! Clear Creek-Amana literally gets rolling to serve all students
When ideas gain traction
Necessity is the mother of invention, so when the pandemic served up enough necessity to go around, Clear Creek-Amana Community School District staff wasted no time being inventive to continue educating their most vulnerable students.
Last spring, when Iowa’s schools closed to cope with a burgeoning global pandemic, and when school districts grappled with developing Return-to-Learn plans, some things were crystal clear to Barb Hunt, director of special services for the school district.
“We knew the usual way of putting a student in front of a computer wasn’t going to be effective with our most medically fragile students, who often have additional language difficulties,” Hunt said.
Hunt also knew the caliber of the 34 professionals comprising her special education team. While brainstorming about how to reach all students, teachers asked the question, “If students can’t come to us, why don’t we take school to them?”
“My teachers are awesome,” Hunt said. “They are a very cohesive, talented group. Throughout this whole pandemic, anything involved with supporting and serving the students, I always know they will be right on board. They have all really embraced making sure our students receive a quality education.”
Inspired by teachers, Hunt approached Superintendent Tim Kuehl with the idea of converting a van or bus into a mobile classroom that could travel to the homes of students who could potentially face extreme outcomes should they contract COVID-19. Kuehl was encouraging, saw the idea as viable, and directed the staff to continue investigating and produce a proposal that would work.
Hunt met with the district’s Director of Transportation Denny Schreckengast and Director of Buildings and Grounds Maury Gallagher to see if district fleet vehicles might work. They looked at vans and small buses with wheelchair lifts but, ultimately, those vehicles were needed for routes and could not be taken out of circulation, or were too cost prohibitive to retrofit.
Undeterred, and aware the vehicle needed to be wheelchair accessible, the team considered the possibility of a trailer.
“My husband is a very savvy online shopper when it comes to looking for equipment,” Hunt said. “So I put him to work to find us a toy hauler.”
Equipped with a large ramp-door for access, a bathroom and a kitchenette, toy haulers are frequently used to accommodate all-terrain vehicles. After locating a toy hauler at a great price, Hunt took the idea to the superintendent and school board for approval.
“They thought it was awesome, so the district purchased it and brought it home,” Hunt said. “Turns out, that was the easy part. Now I had to staff it.”
Traction in action when the rubber hits the road
Keeping the mobile classroom safe meant minimizing health risks by preventing numerous teachers who worked in the comprehensive school setting from going out to students’ homes. Hunt looked at her teaching staff rosters and was able to move people around to free up a special education teacher and a paraprofessional exclusively for the mobile classroom.
The mobile classroom teacher kept her school building classroom where she could go plan and create instructional materials, but no students entered that classroom. She also utilized a building entrance that was not around other staff. This kept the teacher isolated and reduced the potential for contracting or carrying the virus to students out in the homes.
“For the mobile classroom I wanted to make sure I had a Stat II ID certified teacher,” Hunt said. “With alternate assessments and understanding communication devices and the high level of needs, I wanted a teacher who worked with making those modifications for instruction and did so every day.”
The mobile classroom currently serves 17 students, including preschool, and covers a fairly large geographical area that includes Amana, North Liberty and Coralville. Class is scheduled on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays reserved for preschool special education students who are otherwise 100 percent virtual learners.
Upon arrival at a student’s home, the teacher sets up while the associate goes to the door, gets the student and brings him or her to the mobile classroom. Just as parents don’t enter the school building, neither do parents enter the trailer which helps keep down the germs. Once the student is back in the home, the teacher disinfects the entire trailer.
Each mobile classroom student receives one hour of face-to-face direct instruction, twice a week. While the teacher works in-person with the student in the trailer, the associate also delivers some virtual instruction to students who are at home.
“Some people would say an hour is not that long, but when it’s one student with one teacher you can really focus the learning,” Hunt said.
The same as a regular classroom, there is a printer and a hot spot on the mobile unit so students can be on their Chromebooks accessing various sites.
“We can even teach life skills to high school students because we have a small kitchen,” Hunt said. “We have high school students needing to do life skills work from their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Whatever goals are identified, the teacher is able to address them in the mobile classroom space.”
In addition to a kitchenette, there is a bathroom for staff and students, and a refrigerator to store medications for students with medical needs. A space originally equipped with a mattress and designed for use as a bedroom has been transformed into a large area that houses a printer and individual storage bins for student supplies which eliminates cross-contamination. Every student is provided with their own materials and anything they would need for their instructional time.
“Students have done an amazing job participating in the mobile classroom,” Hunt said. “They have been totally engaged working with the mobile classroom teacher. It’s a unique thing. Students feel like, ‘This is all for me!’.
“We have closed gaps that we knew had been created when school closed last spring. We knew that group of students was going to lose skills quickly without direct instruction. The mobile classroom teacher has moved the students forward.”
Hunt acknowledges the mobile classroom was intended to serve specifically identified students with IEPs with the highest need whose learning mode would not render successful instruction and assessments if done strictly virtually.
Prior to acquiring the mobile classroom, Hunt reached out to parents and caregivers to see if it was something they would be open to doing. Part of the virtual piece is teaching parents and caregivers how to continue reinforcing activities and instruction at home. Hunt emphasizes the collaboration and partnership with parents or caregivers has made a huge difference, and she reports parents and caregivers have been thrilled with the experience.
“Our whole district has seen it as caring about all students,” Hunt said. “There have been zero negatives. It’s been more about the positive. Parents are glad our district cares that much about all of our students that they are doing something to make sure all students are getting instruction.”
The open road ahead
What if the school district had to shut down again, close school buildings and go virtual for a period of time? What about students who have been on site but then have to quarantine, who disengage or who are not able to access or navigate the technology?
“The creativity that we had to start with actually snowballed into thinking outside the box of how we can serve a lot of our students if something happens where students cannot access the school,” Hunt said. “What we have learned and realized over the course of this past year is that we needed to figure out how to do this on a larger scale.”
Hunt is already working with the transportation director on plans to retrofit four large conversion vans if regular routes cease due to a shut down. Removing center seats, adding folding tables, interlocking floor mats and having hot spots all help turn vans into mobile classrooms for preschool through 12th-grade students with IEPs or English learning students who need face-to-face instruction. The teachers have identified students for the mobile classrooms, and Hunt has put together routes to share with the transportation director, staff and parents.
“I can move teachers and students around, put together a schedule and create routes, but if my teachers aren’t ready to take on the challenge, it won’t work,” Hunt said. “It’s so empowering to see our staff excited about supporting all students and saying, ‘All right, let’s do it! We’ll figure it out.’ They come through every single time.”
Hunt says that comes from building a culture of doing everything possible to support students, and she credits Superintendent Kuehl with setting the tone.
Kuehl says the mobile classroom is one example of the many ways Clear Creek-Amana staff are implementing new strategies to keep students safe and learning.
“While we aren't perfect, I am extremely proud of how Clear Creek-Amana (CCA) staff have met the challenges of the COVID pandemic,” Kuehl said. “Although challenging and stressful, CCA staff have pulled together and exemplified their commitment to CCA students and families by providing meals in new ways, providing technological resources to families, implementing sanitization practices, developing instructional strategies that are effective in person and virtually, and supporting the social/emotional needs of our students.”