Lynbrook ACT program adapts to remote learning

Anusha Kothari

Baking dog biscuits at the district office, emptying recycling bins on campus and counting money for practice are just a few of the activities that Lynbrook Academic Community Transition (ACT) students could have been found doing before the coronavirus pandemic. Due to the shelter-in-place order, they are now limited to watching instructional videos of such activities and practicing their skills over Zoom. Nevertheless, program instructors have made efforts to adapt their curriculum to continue promoting student engagement and development. 

Established more than ten years ago, the program helps high school students with moderate to severe learning and behavioral disabilities to transition into the community, by teaching them life and vocational skills. After graduating from Lynbrook, the students would participate in the FUHSD Post-Secondary program for ACT students, which would further foster these skills. 

“We exist in order to work with differently-abled students, so they can function in the community with as much independence as we can get them to develop,” ACT instructor Dave Herz said. 

As the ACT program focuses on academics in a community-based context, the curriculum for ACT upperclassmen before school closure involved volunteering at off-campus organizations for up to four days per week. These volunteering opportunities included helping in the cafeteria at Queen of Apostles School, sorting and hanging clothes at Goodwill or making dog biscuits for local veterinarians at an FUHSD-run business called Canine Crunchies. While freshmen and sophomores stayed on campus, they still served the community by emptying recycling bins from classes, among other tasks. 

 In the classroom, activities would also focus on developing skills that can be used in the community, such as counting money to pay for food or learning how to ride the bus. Students can also be found curiously opening vocational boxes, shoe boxes with tasks for them to complete inside, such as assembling or sorting items. 

However, such hands-on activities are no longer possible due to the school closure. In addition to limiting hands-on activities and the community-based aspect of the ACT program, distance learning also limits students’ development of social and communication skills. As a result, Herz, along with ACT instructor Iris Garcia, created a modified curriculum that takes advantage of available technologies to prepare their students to go out into the community.

“We have had to get really creative using online apps in order to recreate that community-based learning experience,” Herz said. “Is it the exact same thing? Absolutely not. But we’re still trying to work towards building that community awareness and developing their ability to navigate through the community and be as independent as possible.”

For example, Herz’s class meets on Zoom during class periods two through six to maintain the personal interaction that is vital to the students’ social growth. 

“We stay online for 90 minutes for each session, engaging in social and academic activities and watching videos about the community,” Herz said. “We can’t go out and ride the bus, but we can watch a video that tells us how to ride the bus.”

In the ACT program, since every student faces unique challenges, they each have an individual plan that the instructor, student and paraeducators, who are responsible for providing additional support to the students. However, online learning has made it difficult for students to receive much individualized attention. To combat this, Herz makes use of Zoom’s breakout room feature. After teaching a concept, Herz sets up breakout sessions for students to practice the concept in smaller groups. In each session, one paraeducator is typically paired with no more than three students, with students that require the same type of support assigned to the same group. The paraeducators are vital in providing each student with the unique attention and instruction they need. 

“We have some of the best paraeducators I have ever worked with at Lynbrook, we are very very lucky,” Herz said. “Their work goes a long way into supporting students and the students’ growth. This [transition to online learning] could not be done without them.” 

One positive consequence of online learning for the ACT program is the students’ growth in digital skills. Prior to the shelter-in-place, the ACT program had little emphasis on teaching students to type, navigate technologies such as Google Drive and become familiar with the internet. 

“By teaching students how to navigate the internet so they can be effective learners, we have prepared them for what their life is going to be in the future as technology takes a larger role in our lives,” Herz said. “We’re giving them a good solid foundation of digital skills right now, which is a good thing, because that is their future.”

In the early weeks of shelter-in-place, many students struggled with joining Zoom meetings, but now, most of them can independently navigate through the app. Moreover, since distance learning began, the ACT classes adopted a program that focuses on digital skills for vocational development, and as a result, students have grown increasingly comfortable with using Google Calendar and Google Drive, among other platforms which posed challenges at first. 

Recently, the program introduced its students to typing.com to build typing skills and Digitability to build basic computer skills. Additionally, ACT students have continued to use learning platforms that they utilized before sheltering-in-place as well, including IXL and Unique, which is specifically for special needs students. Through these, students continue to work on basic subjects such as English and Math. 

With COVID-19 drastically altering many aspects of the world, special needs individuals are presented with additional challenges and uncertainty. 

“Even though we’re teaching these concepts, strategies and skills so the ACT students can be independent and have some level of automaticity as they operate in the community, we don’t know if they are going to utilize them or not, because the it’s going to be a completely different setting,” Herz said. 

Regardless of the unpredictability regarding the situation, the ACT department works hard to continue preparing students for the future.