Ways to Build Community in Online Classrooms

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Keep online school students and families engaged 

An essential part of learning is the interaction that happens when students have the opportunity to connect with their peers and with their teacher. Effective online learning—especially in the formative elementary years—requires finding ways to make these interactions a reality. Let’s look at four ways ASU Prep Digital builds community and keeps students and families engaged.  

Parent involvement

Families are a critical component to the success of any learning program, even more so in the virtual learning environment. At a brick-and-mortar school, you may not hear from your child’s teachers after parent/teacher conferences unless your child is struggling in a class. In online schools, there are many opportunities for parent and family involvement.

One idea is to create training courses for parents. Emily Mulvihill, M.Ed., online elementary school assistant principal, shared how ASU Prep Digital created sessions for families to help keep them engaged and support their children with digital learning. Based on feedback from parents, Family University consisted of two different professional development sessions a week. From offering tips on how to help students navigate assessments in a virtual environment to time management to building growth-mindset in students, they share many ways to support online students.

Mulvihill, a 15-year education veteran, the last 10 with digital learning, said, “Family University was another way to give families a voice and connect with one another—it provided a way where they may have not met with one another.”

Set aside time to build community

Socialization is very important, especially in the digital environment. ASU knows it may take a minute or two for a student to warm up, so they have built time into the day to socialize. In fact, elementary students spend the first hour of each day in what’s known as huddle time. Recognizing the importance of building community, teachers have reserved that hour for students to share stories, review academic content, play games, and engage in emotional/social activities. LSC Homeroom, typically held weekly, is another opportunity. Academic in nature, it’s a time to read stories, have group discussion, or hear from a guest speaker.

Mulvihill said teachers hold virtual holiday parties and other community building events that support the calendar year where students engage in activities such as crafts for Mother’s Day. “We’ve hosted a cultural diversity day where students are invited to speak to their different backgrounds and tell their story. They have fun while learning and building relationships,” she said. 

Learning Success Coach

Each student at ASU Prep Digital is assigned a Learning Success Coach. The Learning Success Coach gets to know the student’s needs and learning style, establishes individualized short- and long-term goals, and works closely with the child’s teachers and family. Communication among coaches, students, and families is frequent, regardless of whether the student is excelling or needs a little extra help. This personalized approach is another way of creating a community of support.  

Clubs and pods

ASU Prep Digital offers a variety of online clubs for students to join. From STEM, Chess Club, Spanish, Art, and more, students have many opportunities to engage outside of the classroom in interests. There are even occasions to gather in person at community events, such as prom. This year, ASU Prep Digital is piloting pods where parents lead the location oriented and organized pod and plan regional virtual or in-person family/student meetups or study sessions.  

“We are always looking for ways to connect students in and out of the classroom,” said Mulvihill. “We take seriously the social-emotional aspect of our students’ lives as it helps develop them academically as well.”

Partner with ASU Prep Digital

ASU Prep Digital is an accredited online K-12 school providing districts with single online courses, full-time virtual programs, innovative learning recovery solutions, and professional development options. We would love to collaborate and develop a customized program for your school’s needs. For information about partnering with ASU Prep Digital, please email partnership@asuprep.org.

Addressing Online Learning and its Shortcomings During COVID

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Shortcoming (noun): “A fault or failure to meet a certain standard, typically in a person’s character, a plan, or a system.”

COVID-19 reshaped the world in many profound ways, one of those being the effects on traditional schooling and education. Millions of teachers, students, and families faced the uncertainty of how to continue learning amid a myriad of disruptions. School shutdowns. Teacher shortages. Mask mandates. Social distancing. Rising fear. Isolation. 

Among the first shortcomings noted was the scramble to ensure students had technologically sound devices and could connect to the internet. Concurrently, there was the surge of trying to get brick-and-mortar teachers up to speed on remote learning so they could captain their own ships. And of course, families had to quickly create the space, structure, and supervision necessary to help their children navigate the online learning seas.

Homeschooling, while not new, experienced a rise during the pandemic, and the national homeschool population doubled in growth with a large increase in minority families.

“The way digital learning ‘went down’ during the pandemic—I would not have wished that on anyone,” said Kay Johnson, Director of Strategic Communications, ASU Prep Digital. “I have huge empathy for all teachers who were not familiar with digital learning. Those teachers were heroic.”

The rush to pivot to online learning was swift, and many schools and districts were thrust into murky, uncharted waters without proper tools or training.

“The tragedy is that we’ve had the tools in place for digital learning and we could have responded to the pandemic in a much more fluid way given how many schools have been providing online education successfully for decades,” said Johnson. “A remote program is vastly different from one in which the content and instruction were designed from inception to be delivered in an online environment.”

One example she shared is project-based learning, such as science labs. There are ways to collaborate online, but brick-and-mortar schools were not given the time to consider “how.”

Now, three years after the pandemic’s emergence, studies show the depth of academic disruption: Decreases in academic learning and declines in test scores.


Many states are looking at what happened during the pandemic and are addressing online learning and its shortcomings during COVID. Texas was the first state to publish a full set of student test scores. The results were grim—large learning losses in both reading and math—not only wiping out learning gains, but setting them back to 2016 and 2013 levels, respectively. 

Nationally, research shows that the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps by race and economic status with younger students seeing some of the biggest declines in learning. Additionally, income-based academic gaps in elementary schools widened 20 percent in math and 15 percent in reading since the pandemic began.

High-tech, High-touch Helps Address Learning Gaps

In an attempt to address those racial and economic disparities, the Arizona Governor’s office recognized they needed to train all their teachers how to properly use digital tools. At the onset of COVID-19, they formed the Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute (AZVTI) in partnership with the Helios Foundation and Arizona State University. ASU Prep Digital, ASU’s K–12 online school, provided training to districts and emergent sites to help teachers navigate their new virtual world. Educators received free, web-based training on relevant topics anytime, anywhere to fit their schedule. To date, they have trained more than 15,600 teachers.

With a core commitment to putting students first, ASU Prep Digital addresses academic gaps through a high-tech and high-touch approach to learning. “It comes down to the human element and support of students,” said Johnson. “We’re not waiting for a student to call with a problem. Our staff is proactive, and we actively reach out with multiple touchpoints.”

And the human element is working–ASU student’s test scores are 23 percent higher in English Language Arts–21 percent higher in Math, than State of Arizona high school averages. ASU Prep Digital instituted a research program in August 2021 to measure programmatic effectiveness. Using a rigorous standardized test, a longitudinal study of achievement growth scores revealed that students in ASU Prep Digital made strong positive progress in the academic year in both Reading and Math. Additionally, 70-80 percent of students in each grade finished the academic year with higher achievement than they started with. Researchers found consistent evidence of growth not only for high achieving students but for students who need improvement. The quantitative magnitude of growth either meets or exceeds reputable growth benchmarks for schools across the country.

Johnson added that offering a robust digital experience is just one component. “There are online learning tools that give us amazing feedback and data and content…but having someone shepherd those kids along is critical. That’s what it takes to get the next level of quality.”

Find the Right Digital Learning Partner 

Being “forced” into remote learning because of the pandemic has been a wakeup call for many, but one thing is certain: Digital learning is not going away, and it doesn’t have to be an either-or mentality. Finding the right partner to provide training, digital curriculum and even remote teachers is the key to school success. 


ASU Prep Digital provides K–12 school districts with single online courses, full-time virtual programs, innovative learning recovery solutions, and professional development options. It is ranked at the top of the 2022 Best Schools List

For information about partnering with ASU Prep Digital, please email partnership@asuprep.org.


Summer + Boot Camp = Thriving Teachers

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When you hear the word “summer” what do you think of? For many people, summer means vacations, time with friends, and travel. Warm nights after hot days. Thoughts of a less hectic schedule, to sleep in, lounge about, enjoy the pool, read, go to art and music festivals. Summer is viewed as a reward for all the rushing around we do during the school year, but it is also the perfect time to continue learning. 

Enroll Now in AZVTI Summer Boot Camp

The school year may be ending, but educators and leaders can take full advantage of Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute Summer Boot Camp. This training is provided at no cost to Arizona K-12 educators through the generous investment of the Arizona Department of Education, the Governor’s Office, Helios Education Foundation and Arizona State University.

This year’s Summer Boot Camp series offers 18 unique training sessions to choose from. Participants will be immersed in collaborative discussions and engaging tech tools during these live, guided workshops. Sessions begin June 7 and continue through July 14.

For just a few hours a day, three days a week (there are some 2-day sessions), attendees will earn professional development credit while gaining and strengthening the skills they need to succeed next year. Here are three of the training sessions offered this summer: 

  • Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma-Informed TeachingThrough a trauma-informed teaching lens, teachers create a healing environment where those who have suffered varied levels of trauma will feel supported and empowered. Learn how you can make your classroom a place where you and your students want to be together.
  • Understanding and Supporting Diverse Learners Teachers encounter a wide range of learners and learning styles. Participants will develop dispositions and skills which support all learners, ensuring increased access to equitable education for diverse students.  
  • Ed Tech Essentials: Collaboration with Digital Tools The intersection of technology and education allows teachers to deepen opportunities for student engagement and collaboration in the classroom. In this session, participants will gain hands-on experience with tools that allow students to work in real-time on projects and activities.

Check the AZVTI Training Calendar to view full session descriptions, dates and times offered, and to register. Arizona teachers can also find resources and training sessions at https://training.asuprepdigital.org/ 

Champions of Change: Education leaders of the year

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Julie Young, vice president of education outreach and student services and managing director, ASU Preparatory Academy and ASU Prep Digital, was listed as one of five education leaders of the year by AZBusiness Magazine. This bi-monthly magazine identifies and analyzes the trends and issues that impact Arizona’s business environment and economy. Read the full article below. 

Never before has the Arizona business community needed leaders who are agile, adaptable, and innovative more than they are needed in today’s rapidly expanding economy. That’s what the Champions of Change awards are all about — recognizing those dynamic innovators and trailblazers who are changing Arizona’s economic environment through leadership and visionary thinking.

“We created the Champions of Change Awards to recognize those innovative leaders, for-profit companies, and nonprofits who are changing the landscape of Arizona business,” says AZ Big Media Publisher Amy Lindsey. “These awards shine a spotlight on the state’s true game-changers and thought leaders. This is an award that is unlike any other the state has even seen.”

Champions of Change: Education leaders of the year 

José Luis Cruz Rivera, president, Northern Arizona University: Cruz advocated before Congress for increased investments in Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs). He offered five policy recommendations to equip HSIs and other Minority Serving Institutions to better serve their students and the communities they represent.

Jay Heiler, CEO, Great Hearts Academies: Heiler — along with Dan Scoggin and Bob Mulhern — created Great Hearts nearly 20 years ago with 130 students in a leased church building. They have grown the liberal arts academies to more than 22,000 students and 2,500 teachers in Arizona and Texas.

Deborah L. Helitzer, ScD, dean, College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University: During Helitzer’s tenure, the college has increased grant funding by 75% and has grown student enrollment by 28%. CHS now collaborates on research and innovation with the arts, engineering, journalism and business schools at ASU.

Brian Mueller, president, Grand Canyon University: Under Mueller’s watch, the university’s ground campus enrollment has jumped from about 1,000 students to about 25,000. Enrollment in online programs is over 70,000. Mueller has also helped tremendously expand the campus and rejuvenate the area surrounding GCU.

Julie Young, vice president of education outreach and student services and managing director, ASU Preparatory Academy and ASU Prep Digital: As a visionary CEO, educator, and entrepreneur, Julie Young is passionate about leveraging technology and building innovative education models that help students reach bold goals and achieve extraordinary outcomes.

Source: https://azbigmedia.com/business/champions-of-change-education-leaders-of-the-year/ 


Teacher Attrition, The Great Resignation, and What Comes Next for Schools

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Teacher shortages are not new and they’re not solely due to the pandemic. However, the pace of teacher resignations has been accelerated by COVID-19 to the point where education sector resignations are dramatically outpacing other professions. The Wall Street Journal cites federal data to note that from January to November 2021, quits in the educational services sector rose 148%. For comparison, another employment sector beleaguered by the pandemic—retail services—saw quits rise 27% in that same time period. As a result, a veritable cottage industry has emerged around helping teachers transition their skills to private industry and other sectors. Relevant keywords on job search platforms yield thousands of results for teachers leaving the profession.

Impacts felt beyond the classroom

The immediate impact of so many teachers and school support staff leaving their jobs, especially in the middle of a school year, is felt by students. In fact, researchers who study the effects of mid-year teacher turnover cite learning loss for students as between 32 to 72 instructional days. In addition to disrupted student learning, losing teachers creates a dearth of peer leaders within a school. According to national surveying, many of the resigning teachers are 15-year educators, often mid-career teachers who commonly serve as new teacher mentors, department chairs, and curriculum committee members. With more veteran teachers taking early retirement during the pandemic and decreasing enrollment in teacher preparation programs around the country, all areas of the teacher pool seem to be drying up at once.

What comes next?

What will the start of the 2022-2023 school year bring for schools and districts across the country? Faced with the reality of teacher shortages, many states are reducing requirements for teacher credentialing. While these kinds of measures can certainly accelerate access to the profession, oftentimes they’re designed for individuals untrained in education. There is much to be said for a local entrepreneur coming in to teach business or marketing electives, or a native Spanish speaker being able to fill a gap in a high school’s world language department. However, modern classrooms come with brand new challenges. Professionals seeking to transition into teaching must navigate and build new skills such as classroom management, ESE and ELL strategies, navigating the social-emotional needs of students, and even developing curriculum for online, hybrid, and in-person formats.

Finding solutions

Given the likelihood that districts will receive fewer applications than ever before for vacant teaching positions—and the likelihood that many of those applications will be from candidates without education training or experience—teacher mentoring will be more important than ever before. Research has long demonstrated the efficacy of strong mentoring programs on both teacher retention and student achievement. However, in schools already suffering from personnel shortages, asking peer teachers to design and implement a mentoring program for new hires will not be practical. As the saying goes, modern problems require modern solutions.

School leaders who think outside the physical school building for solutions to teacher readiness challenges will benefit from the resources available, such as virtual mentors. A virtual mentor can be the personalized connection new teachers need while unburdening a mentoring time commitment from your current faculty. Virtual mentoring may include weekly one-on-one meetings, live classroom observation via simulcast, lesson development review, and individualized coaching feedback.

What to look for in a virtual mentoring program

When considering virtual mentoring, look for high-quality programs rooted in education, not profit, that will partner with your staff in delivering weekly sessions, lesson planning support, data deep dives, and peer-to-peer mentoring. One way to vet potential partners for mission alignment is to look up their executive leadership bios and learn about their backgrounds (Were their previous roles at software companies or school districts? Do they hold MBAs or MEds?). Once you are ready to partner on new teacher mentoring services, ensure all expectations are mutually determined ahead of time for a smooth implementation. When executed at a high level, new teacher mentoring provided by remote master teachers will impact teacher retention, job satisfaction, and student achievement.

In a school year rife with uncertainty, school leaders who provide virtual mentoring can rest assured in the knowledge that teachers new to the profession in their school are getting the training, scaffolding, and support to deliver high quality instruction all year.

Partner with ASU Prep Digital
ASU Prep Digital is an accredited online K–12 school providing districts with professional development options customized for their needs, including virtual teacher mentoring. For information on ways ASU Prep Digital can help with teacher shortages and other needs, visit our Teacher Mentoring webpage or email partnership@asuprep.org.

How to Teach from a Trauma-informed Mindset

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Trauma is a physiological and psychological response to any threatening or deeply upsetting situation. These situations vary—the death of a loved one, child abuse or neglect, financial uncertainty, ongoing discrimination or bullying, a car wreck, being witness to community violence—there is no shortage of stressors.

In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, close to 63 percent of adults said their life has been forever changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 167,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver to the coronavirus.

One thing is certain, most have experienced some form of trauma at some point in time.

What is trauma-informed teaching?

Being trauma-informed means that one has a level of understanding about trauma and its impacts on an individual’s brain, body, emotions, and behavior. Trauma-informed teaching means viewing and embracing the individual as a whole child and not quickly judging the child or teen’s behavior in the classroom. It’s a commitment to learning and recognizing that the undesirable behaviors are attempts to soothe emotional dysregulation, which a trauma-impacted individual often does unconsciously.

The trauma-informed mindset shifts the question from “What is wrong with this child?” to “What has happened to this child?”

Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute’s Trauma-informed Teaching session recognizes and approaches teaching K-12 students who have experienced trauma.

“When you teach from a trauma-informed lens, you approach differently. You don’t assume,” said Caree Heidenreich, Lead Training Specialist at ASU Prep Digital. “Think of carrying an invisible heavy backpack on your back—all the time. When a student comes into your classroom, they don’t just shut off life.”

This professional development session is free for Arizona teachers and explores the impact of different types of traumas: acute, chronic, complex, and the correlation of trauma and its effect on body and behavior. Subject matter also includes the link between social-emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed teaching.

With an emphasis on finding the “why” behind behavior, the training provides relationship-building tools to help break down barriers and perceptions.

Heidenreich said, “We may not know that a student’s parent passed away last year. Yes, we’re here to teach, but we need to take a step back and ask ‘I’ve noticed things seem a little different lately. How can I help you? What do you need?’ Everyone has been through hard times and secondhand trauma is also a struggle right now. People need to know that you care about them.”

A strong focus during this training is placed on being kind to yourself and to engage in self-care practices, for failure to prioritize your well-being can lead to burnout or secondary traumatic stress. While providing a safe and caring environment which supports students and allows them to gain social skills and develop healthy resilience is the goal, educators are reminded that it is not their job to do the work of professional therapists.

During this collaborative learning session, educators will learn ways they can make their classroom a healing place and will have an opportunity to share best practices for creating trauma-informed classrooms.

If you’re interested in bringing ASU Prep Trauma-informed Teaching Training to your school or district, please visit asuprepdigital.com/training 

Supporting Online Students: Best Practices for Grades 6–12

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If you’re an educational leader running or building a virtual program for your school or district, you already understand what may work in the classroom won’t always work in an online setting. Effective virtual instruction requires a different approach to teaching with strategies that consider how social, emotional, and academic learning can best be delivered in a virtual environment. In a previous post, we discussed best practices for supporting online students in grades K–5. Now we’ll take a closer look at students in middle and high school, sharing best practices for supporting online students in grades 6–12. 

Keep the lines of communication open with students. 
Communication is one of the most important aspects of any student-teacher relationship. Start by regularly staying connected with your teen and pre-teen students by reaching out to them using methods they’re familiar with, such as texting. You can use texts to send reminders, conduct quick check-ins, and send celebrations and kudos. “Celebration texts are like a remote high five,” says Megan Grothman, Global Partnership Manager for ASU Prep Digital. “This form of validation makes kids feel really good, and it helps to keep the lines of communication open if and when they are struggling.” 

Create authentic opportunities for group work. 
For older students, small group work is a solid strategy often used in online learning. It allows students to dive deep into a concept, work together, and understand how concepts connect to the real world. Plus, today’s video conferencing software makes grouping your students into breakout rooms easier than ever. However, you want to ensure you have a plan before group work begins. “Think about scaffolding the group work over a series of days or weeks so that students can learn how to work in a group dynamic and get things done,” advises Grothman. She recommends providing students with a list of tasks so they have a clear idea of the goal and encouraging students to work together to divide up and complete tasks. “What we don’t want is students getting in a breakout room together, saying, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. Do you know what we’re doing?’” 

Use technology tools to provide feedback and encourage discussion. 
Discussions are one classroom practice that translate quite well into an online learning environment. However, developing open dialogue during a video call takes some practice and guidance. Many older students may feel self-conscious about speaking up, so be ready with prompts for students to use and share. Nowadays there are also technology tools that can help teachers build a welcoming learning environment so students feel safe sharing. One of the tools Grothman recommends is Pear Deck, which integrates seamlessly with most online classroom environments, making it easy to connect with students and collect feedback to see where they are in the learning process. “Teachers can use Pear Deck to pose questions to their class and ask for feedback,” says Grothman. “Since student responses are anonymous, it is a great tool to help students practice and begin inserting themselves into the lesson in a non-threatening and comfortable way.” 

Provide asynchronous activities for deeper learning.
Because students in middle and high school are capable of working independently, it’s a smart strategy to create asynchronous tools you can use to enhance and personalize your online lessons. A good place to start is with hyperdocs and playlists, which allow students to work independently while they explore concepts, think through problems, work on projects that interest them, and more. However, Grothman advises balancing asynchronous activities with plenty of feedback and communication. “The most critical factor in an online environment is maintaining the teacher-student relationship and the relationships between students and their peers,” she says. “It’s the conversations you have, the feedback you give them, and an instructor’s unique understanding of the bigger picture that will make an online learning environment successful.”

Guide students in becoming thoughtful, autonomous learners. 
One major benefit of online learning is the flexibility. But that freedom can also pose a challenge for students who need routine and structure to thrive. That’s why it’s so important to help students understand themselves as learners and practice how to manage their schedules and set goals for themselves, especially when they’re not in a physical classroom environment. Try setting a weekly or daily routine where students review their schedules and check in on their goals. In addition, provide opportunities for students to analyze their learning strengths and struggles. “Help students reflect and identify what activities are working and add value to their learning,” advises Grothman. Start by asking questions such as “How is this activity helping me to learn?” or “Did this game help me understand the concept or was it just fun to play?” This will help your students practice becoming thoughtful and intentional with the ultimate goal of becoming lifelong learners. 

Partner with ASU Prep Digital
ASU Prep Digital is an accredited online K-12 school providing districts with single online courses, full-time virtual programs, innovative learning recovery solutions, and professional development options. We would love to collaborate and develop a customized program for your school’s needs. For information about partnering with ASU Prep Digital, please email partnership@asuprep.org.