‘The way they learn’: A nonprofit school’s approach to education in the pandemic

Bozeman Daily Chronicle:  by Liz Weber, Chronicle Staff Writer | March 7, 2021

A unique nonprofit school in Bozeman focused on teaching students with special education needs has continued to offer individualized instruction to its in person and virtual students throughout the pandemic, families and educators said.

Erin Kirt, a parent to twins with health concerns, said her children have learned entirely virtual since the pandemic started when her family made the hard choice to self-isolate. Despite this, Kirt said her twins’ learning and development has continued to progress.

She credits Cottonwood Day School for meeting her children where they were and supporting their individual learning needs.

Cottonwood is a private, nonprofit special education elementary school, the only of its kind in the state, according to executive director and founder Meredith Scully.

The school is in its seventh year and Scully credits its small class size and nonprofit status with greater flexibility in preparing for the pandemic in early spring 2020 and rolling out an online platform for the students who opted to remain virtual. The school returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2020.

“We anticipated it was not going to resolve quickly so we applied for a lot of grants in the spring and summer and updated our technology and our HVAC system,” she said.

Scully said it’s easier for private schools to accommodate the COVID-19 changes and be flexible to what students might need during this time.

“Also, COVID has really changed how a lot of families are looking at their children’s education. There’s more out of the box ideas and more conversations about what education can and should look like,” she said.

Individualized education

Kirt, whose twins are 13 years old, said her family was first drawn to the school because of its ability to offer small class sizes and personalized support to each of her children.

“We were in a public school system and felt like they were getting a little bit lost,” she said. “We wanted more individual education and didn’t feel like the public school system could fulfill the needs that we have.”

Kirt’s son and daughter have attended the school for the last five years. They were some of the first students into the new school.

“We chose it for the individualized education that catered to each child’s needs,” she said. “… They have a lot of special needs and health challenges.”

Kirt’s twins were micro preemies and were each just over a pound at birth, she said. Due to that they both have different health conditions, including lung disease.

“We need to be super cautious about not being in public now,” she said. “We haven’t seen one person since (last) March.”

With her twins’ health concerns, Kirt said her family has had to be extremely careful on their exposure level. Kirt and her husband both have the ability to work from home and her children have transitioned to Cottonwood’s online option.

“… For us, it’s been challenging but everyone has been challenged. We just make it work the best we can,” she said.

Cottonwood caps class sizes at eight students.

Instead of getting lost in the mix of a larger class of students that might not have the same learning styles, Kirt said her children are seen as individuals and given a remote educational support system molded to their needs.

“Cottonwood doesn’t see challenges, they see solutions,” she said.

Virtual learning at Cottonwood

Even with online learning, Kirt said her family has been happy with Cottonwood’s schooling. Her twins’ teacher livestreams each day from the classroom, so there’s in-the-moment interaction instead of watching a video.

“They’re able to see their teachers so that’s familiar to them,” Kirt said. “The social component is the hardest but seeing familiar faces is good.”

Kirt said Cottonwood has been able to maintain the personalized education, support and community in an online platform that first drew the family to the school.

Each day, Kirt’s twins wake up, put their slippers on and sit at their desk in their bedrooms to begin school. Since they’re 13 years old, she said, they’re fairly independent with their learning. The class will take sporadic “brain breaks” for the children to get snacks, recharge or go outside and play.

To encourage interaction between remote and in-person students, the school does have an option where her twins can request in advance to have lunch with one of their classmates and the teacher helps to facilitate.

Scully said a child with a disability might not do well in a standard remote learning structure so Cottonwood was deliberate in ensuring each student still has individualized support and attention from their teacher.

“They’re being taught live and not through a video and they’re not being given independent work to complete without supervision,” she said.

Michelle Bjelland, a teacher at Cottonwood, said teachers try to incorporate as much nonverbal communication into working with their virtual students as possible, including holding up picture signs during lessons to cue their behaviors instead of saying the same things over and over.

“Like onsite, we try to use all of our senses and build multisensory lessons as a break to the monotony,” she said. “We’re trying to break it up as much as we can to get them moving in their rooms.”

Cottonwood also typically doesn’t assign homework or hold classes on Fridays. In non-pandemic times, the school would take experiential learning trips to places like Bridger Bowl and Spire Climbing Gym on Fridays.

Bjelland said the Fridays off and the small class sizes are crucial to the success of the school’s students.

“It’s super important because it’s all so individual,” Bjelland said. “There’s no way a teach could meet the needs of 9 or more students in a class.”

She said Cottonwood integrates a holistic approach to educating its students. The classes not only cover typical reading and math skills but also social skills and executive function, like time management and organization.

“Many of the students had experiences in previous schools where they felt dumb or like they can’t get things done the first time,” Bjelland said. “Now they have a true joy and a sense of belonging. It’s the first school I’ve ever worked at where every student feels that way.”

A new building

With their individualized in-person and online learning, the school has seen an increase in enrollment during the pandemic. The school, which moved all classes online for two weeks in the fall after multiple teachers were quarantined, has implemented social distancing and mask rules in all of its classrooms.

“Our enrollment has increased over the course of the year which has been great for us but the reasoning isn’t great,” Scully said of the COVID-19 enrollment bump.

As of February, enrollment was around 24 students and the new school building, which was completed in January 2020, has the capacity for 64 students. The building was designed specifically to meet the needs of its students, a majority of whom have sensory needs, Scully said.

“There are kids on the spectrum that have a high level of anxiety and they just have an immediate reaction to it in a positive way,” she said of the building.

From how light and sound travels to the building to the curve of the walls and the paint colors, Scully said the building was designed to be a calm environment for their students.

“We used really soft, muted colors on the walls because there’s been a lot of research on how color can impact your mood and your ability to focus,” she said.

Bjelland said she’s noticed a difference in how her students react to the new building, adding it’s provided them a space to not feel overwhelmed.

Kirt said each child and their learning needs are different and families need to make the best decision for them. Cottonwood has been the answer for her family.

She paraphrased a quote she said summarizes her family’s decision: “If a child can’t learn the way you teach, you teach your child the way they learn.”

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