Living the Spirit of Progressive Education

By Tim Bazemore, Head of School

The definitive story about how Catlin Gabel responded and adapted to COVID-19 cannot yet be written, but the outline and themes are emerging as we head into spring 2021. It is a story best told with humility and gratitude, and recognition that for all our carefully developed systems and plans, nature is in control.

Similar to all Oregon public and private schools, our K-12 students have been learning remotely since March of last year, requiring teachers to redesign our experiential, inquiry, and relationship-based curriculum for a digital platform and requiring our students to engage and interact with “school” in different ways. (Throughout the fall semester, our preschoolers were able to learn on campus, thankfully!) It has been a necessary and unique adaptation, new to all, and created and improved along the way. Across the grades, some students have thrived, and others have struggled. Nevertheless, I am proud of the way community members have supported each other, how students have persevered and achieved, how parents and guardians have partnered with us, and how teachers have continued to foster “compassionate and curious citizens of the world” amidst a global pandemic.

The sudden pivot to remote learning last spring provided a three-month trial period during which teachers quickly redesigned lessons and class formats and learned new skills. Over the summer, as COVID-19 took hold, they had the opportunity to refine the curriculum and their methods.

The dispersion and isolation of our vibrant community has been difficult. Because learning is a social activity and healthy relationships are essential for all of us, we worked creatively to keep connections alive. Efforts included on-campus athletics training; scheduling no-contact pick up for art supplies, library books, and lab materials; organizing drop-off food and clothing drives; holding virtual assemblies, club meetings, new parent coffees, employee social gatherings, and more. Teachers mastered new technologies to record videos for class, monitor student wellness, and engage students for whom remote learning was difficult. We adapted as much as we could to digital school life, missing the physical company of friends and mentors, but grateful for every moment of personal connection.

Financially, we anticipated significant cost increases this year due to COVID-19. In spring 2020 we revised our projected $24.5 million budget to identify over $1 million in revenue that could be reallocated to support student learning and campus operations. This shift in funding required salary freezes and reductions for school leadership, employee furloughs, freezing almost all budget lines, and identifying opportunities for operating cost savings. To date, we have spent over $1 million to provide additional financial assistance for 48 students, to purchase new technology hardware and software, and to manage campus health and safety needs (such as building ventilation improvements, PPE, safety systems, cleaning services, tents, a new health coordinator, testing, etc.). As we worked to balance our budget through these changes, we were keenly aware of the wide range of economic and social effects that families were experiencing, and continue to experience, during this sustained pandemic. Depending on the age of their children and their work and home situations, parents have had to stretch their time and resources to support remote learning and their family’s well being. There has been an undeniable cost to families, both financially and emotionally.

In late December, after eight months of remote learning, Oregon’s Governor updated the COVID-19 case metrics for in-person instruction from mandatory to advisory and several weeks later the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) revised its metrics. This immediately caused all schools, including Catlin Gabel, to assess their capacity to return to in-person instruction, factoring in a wide array of variables: the ability to implement comprehensive health and safety protocols; campus, space, and technology readiness; family and employee confidence; equity and access considerations; financial resources; and more.

As I write this, we have begun to transition all grades back to campus in a “hybrid” model, meaning students will attend classes in-person two to four days per week, depending on grade level, from March through June. A tremendous amount of work has gone into developing this complex plan, which is designed to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission and maximize the joy in learning together.

As we prepare for in-person instruction, I believe we have gained enough perspective to recognize several factors essential to sustaining our students and the school through this pandemic. The first has been a commitment to schoolwide guiding principles, allowing us to transcend case trends, learning modes, shifting politics, and personal preferences. In setting policies and determining how we would provide educational services, we committed to:

  • Prioritizing health for our community
  • Following ODE, Oregon Health Authority (OHA), and CDC guidelines
  • Prioritizing well-being for students, colleagues, and families, on and off campus
  • Emphasizing relationships, connection, and community
  • Designing with our mission and progressive education tenets in mind
  • Designing with remote learning as the foundation for place
  • Scheduling classes and activities for on-campus and remote work

The second was identifying the criteria that would inform our transition plan and operating details, from classroom preparation and transportation to return dates. Those criteria included tracking local COVID-19 case numbers and metrics (even after they were made “advisory”), readiness to implement all health and safety protocols with fidelity, high vaccination rates among employees, and positive family and employee opinions regarding in-person learning.

Finally, a vital focus during the pandemic has been our effort to live by the spirit of progressive education. At Catlin Gabel, being a progressive school means we educate the whole child, we are inquiry-based and experiential, and we educate for democracy. These progressive principles infuse the school with a dynamic spirit, born of and upheld by curiosity, compassion, kindness, integrity, and inclusion. We see learning as a joyous adventure, an exploration of what can be, and what we can create and understand. We work hard, we try new things, we take risks, we make mistakes, and as is true on any journey, we learn and grow along the way. Over the past year, we have needed to embrace the imperfect, redefine success, and forgive ourselves and each other, given the unique circumstances of the pandemic and the challenges it creates. This spirit, so evident in the culture of Catlin Gabel, has perhaps been the most important factor of all.

Originally published in The Caller, Spring 2021