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Barack H. Obama Magnet University School

Susan DeNicola, Principal of The Obama School; Peyton Northrop '20, teacher at Obama School; Justin Pelazza, SCSU graduate student, elementary education; and Haley Dattilo, current SCSU undergraduate
Left to right: Susan DeNicola, Principal of The Obama School; Peyton Northrop '20, teacher at Obama School; Justin Pelazza, SCSU graduate student, elementary education; and Haley Dattilo, current SCSU undergraduate

We have come to view technology as a blessing, a miracle of our modern times. Its ubiquity is a testament to its astonishing popularity and scope of influence in our lives — it has become less a luxury than a necessity. Yet for all its benefits, when it comes to teaching grade schoolers, technology is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction, collaborative learning, and, most of all, flesh-and-blood teachers.

When the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School opened on Southern’s campus on Jan. 7, 2020, it was impossible to imagine that it would shutter its building two months later. Citywide closures to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus sent administrators and teachers scrambling to pivot lessons online, and although the Obama School aims to integrate the latest educational innovations into its curriculum, no one could prepare it for an overnight transition from one mode of instruction to another.

“This has been a real learning curve for everybody,” says Principal Susan DeNicola, ‘86, M.S. ‘90, 6th Yr. ‘99. “Even for the people who were extremely tech savvy, this has definitely been a real shift in the way we were teaching prior to the pandemic.”

But teachers at the Obama School have more than adapted to the new setting; they have embraced it in an effort to advance the school’s mission to serve as a nationwide model in pedagogical practices. This includes an opportunity for Southern education majors to immerse themselves in experiential learning.

This year, however, student teachers Justin Pelazza, who will be graduating with an M.A. in teaching, and Haley M. Dattilo, an undergraduate in early childhood education, have had to fulfill their student teaching requirements “without ever setting foot into a classroom with students,” as Pelazza puts it.

While both Pelazza and Dattilo are permitted to teach live from empty classrooms, it was a different story back in March; teachers simply posted assignments online and expected students to complete them.

“We couldn’t get a handle on what was happening then, but once we became live in September we got a chance to see the kids’ faces,” says DeNicola.

Susan DeNicola, Principal of The Obama School; Peyton Northrop '20, teacher at Obama School; Justin Pelazza, SCSU graduate student, elementary education; and Haley Dattilo, current SCSU undergraduate

Of course, live instruction brings with it a new crop of challenges. In the first weeks of school, students spent time familiarizing themselves with the features available on Google Suite and Google Classroom, their new homeroom, so to speak.

“It was a lot of teaching them how to do simple tasks, like copying and pasting or creating and resizing a text box,” says Pelazza, whose fourth-grade class had no trouble operating a computer.

Although logistics may burrow into class time, Pelazza admits that, generally speaking, lessons tend to move at a slower pace online. Not only must he toggle among four separate devices, he now spends twice as long getting through mini-lessons as he would in a traditional classroom setting. That is, a 10-minute lesson may now take up to half an hour.

That’s just the beginning. There’s also the inevitability of distractions now that students are grounded at home and the question of how to ensure their focus remains on the teacher. “It was very challenging to keep [students] interested in what we were doing because they had more unrestricted access to the Internet and got distracted by what was going on around them,” according to Dattilo, who student teaches kindergarten and third grade.

This potential for distraction is mainly why teachers like to use interactive online tools to keep students engaged throughout the day. Each morning students log into their Google Classroom accounts and check a digital notebook displaying their schedule for the day, complete with links to assignments and various activities. Sometimes these links direct them to sites such as Padlets, an online notice board; DreamBox, which incorporates math lessons into games; or Epic, an extensive digital library. “We use a variety of different programs to supplement the education in all areas of the curriculum,” says DeNicola.

Online learning resources also provide ways for teachers to give incentives to inattentive students. For instance, Peyton R. Northrop, ‘20, who student taught at the Obama School last spring and later subbed for fourth grade, says the most obvious sign her students were slacking was when they kept their cameras off. In turn, she decided to use a reward system to motivate them—if they handed in their work on time, then they would each earn ‘Dojo Points.’

“Kids would earn points toward a goal. Before the pandemic we would watch a movie or maybe have a pajama day. When we went virtual, we did little things, like play trivia games on Kahoot! at the end of the week,” says Northrop, who was recently hired as a pre-K teacher assistant at the school.

As one would expect, preschoolers and kindergarteners require a less rigorous approach to online learning. Their school day is broken up into smaller, more manageable chunks, and, unlike older students, they mainly rely on weekly packets and crafts sent to them by their teachers.

“Because we’re not there with them, they cut and paste, draw pictures, and now they’re learning to write sentences and sound them out,” says Dattilo. “They don’t know that in kindergarten you’re supposed to come into the class and sit on the carpet.”

The amount of time students spend sitting in front of a computer is based on grade level. Preschoolers and kindergarteners assemble for their morning meeting, go off to work asynchronously, and then return for their next lesson. They’re on and off all day. Older children break off for lunch and recess, but they’re on until their 2:45 p.m. dismissal. Always there is a teacher available during breaks to address questions and offer additional support.

Sadly, remote learning is not as easy as firing up Google Meet and switching on a webcam — with students’ home lives flashing through a screen, there is also the legal matter of privacy. “Once you become live in a classroom, you’re seeing into students’ homes, and they’re also seeing into yours,” says DeNicola. “We had to make sure that, legally, everything was being done correctly.”

Teachers completed a Mandated Reporter Training at the beginning of the school year to learn about ways to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. “When we are virtual, it is a window into our lives, but it’s good to have that background knowledge on their home lives,” says Northrop.

It is amid challenges, however, that a sense of community grows. The relationship between parents, who have been crucial in their children’s education, and the Obama School has been greatly strengthened, says DeNicola. Teachers, as well as student teachers, have been handling the conversion to digital format gracefully, and, as DeNicola points out, the experience is preparing student teachers to thrive in any environment.

The ultimate blessing in disguise, though, may be that the pandemic struck at a time when our society enjoys a high level of technological sophistication. “We made sure that every student had a device, whether it was an iPad or a Chromebook. The district even provided hotspots and Wi-Fi,” says DeNicola.

Of course, students at the Obama School seem to be adapting equally well, if not better, to the changing times. Roughly ten percent of the student population is absent daily—a number that mirrors pre-pandemic attendance rates. “Growing up in such a tech-fluid world, I think our generation was better prepared for it and was able to readily incorporate more tech into their lives,” says Northrop.

The days of traditional education may not yet be behind, but innovation is certainly on the rise.

Principal Susan DeNicola, '86, M.S. '90, 6th Yr. '99, with some of her charges. Student uniforms will be Owl blue next year. The school's mascot is an owlet.

Designed with the latest educational advances in mind, the Barack H. Obama Magnet University School opened on Southern’s campus on Jan. 7. By March 13, both the Obama School and the university had temporarily shuttered their buildings and were moving to remote/online learning in response to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker’s call for citywide closures to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. (Campus is opening for the fall 2020 semester.) But while students — both elementary age and Southern education majors — had worked in the new building for only a few months, the potential had already been demonstrated, and it’s a win-win for all involved.

For Southern students, the Obama School provides an opportunity for all-important experiential learning. The elementary school’s students and their teachers, in turn, benefit through additional support in the classroom from student-teachers and field workers — as well as the experience of Southern’s staff and faculty. An over-arching goal: to serve as a national model, highlighting best practices and promoting educational innovation.

The new elementary school is a collaboration between Southern, the New Haven Board of Education, and the city of New Haven. As such, it is a rarity — uniting a public university with a public school system.

Charles Warner Jr. meets the children in the school’s welcoming entryway.

“A lot of times, the schools found on college campuses are private enterprises, so they are selective. You pay tuition to go. The faculty’s kids attend,” says Stephen Hegedus, dean of the College of Education. In contrast, the Obama School is part of New Haven Public Schools, a magnet program that accepts students from regional school districts but primarily serves New Haven. The Obama School is designed to educate close to 500 students. It opened with classrooms for kindergarten through fourth grade. Looking forward, three preschool classrooms will be added, bringing 60 three- and four-year-old children into the fold.

“Part of our social justice mission is to create access for all kids. It just makes sense to me for the Obama School to have this connection with Southern, a public university in New Haven that has had a 100-plus-year mission dedicated to teacher and educator preparation of the highest-quality,” says Hegedus.

The Obama School — formerly known as the Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet — has evolved dramatically over many years. About six years ago, aided by grant funding, it became a magnet school with an educational focus on communications, technology, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Students receive instruction in Chinese and American Sign Language — and the elementary school was named a “School of Distinction” by EdSight.CT.gov for 2018-19, the most recently available data.

“With our technology, we’ve been able to open up the world to the kids,” says Susan DeNicola, ’86, M.S. ’90, 6th Yr. ’99, principal of the school for the past nine years.

But while the curriculum changed, the school, which had moved numerous times, was still located in an old building on Grand Avenue. It was welcoming and homey, teachers say. But there were serious issues. The building, situated on four streets, had a roof plagued with leaks. The playground was dilapidated, too dangerous for the children to use. Most-often mentioned: a lack of natural light. “In the other building we had very few windows — and what windows we did have were clouded up, so the kids could not see out. We had no ideas if it was pouring,” says DeNicola. “We had no idea if there was a hurricane.”

Now located on campus at 69 Farnham Ave., the Obama School is designed so sunlight streams into all interior spaces. A multistory, outside STEM room is lined with windows to stream light into the interior, including the cafeteria. Most classrooms are situated to provide views of West Rock and the surrounding forest of 200-plus-year-old trees. Cozy, built-in seating is located outside of classrooms, providing an ideal spot for tutors to work with students who might need additional support. There are dedicated music and art rooms as well as a STEM resource laboratory.

A multistory, outside STEM room is lined with windows to stream light into the interior, including the cafeteria.

A sensory room houses a ball pit, trampoline, and other activities, for students who need a physical outlet or support. There is a gym with basketball hoops — and an age-appropriate playground is adjacent to an outside STEM classroom with space for growing plants.

The building also is designed with Southern students and faculty in mind. A centrally located Faculty Innovation Lab visually demonstrates the school’s focus on teacher preparation. “I think of the school as a course textbook in a lot of ways,” says Laura Bower-Phipps, professor of curriculum and learning at Southern. In addition to inviting her students to tour the building, Bower- Phipps teaches a course — “Responsive Curriculum and Assessment” — in the Faculty Innovation Lab space. In the spring 2020 semester prior to the shift to online learning, 16 Southern students were placed at the Obama School: six were student-teachers and 10 were completing field experiences, the final step before taking a student-teacher assignment.

The partnership extends to Southern’s Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders. “They have helped us out quite a bit. Training our teachers and bringing support to the school,” says DeNicola. The Obama School has two self-contained classrooms for students who are on the autism spectrum, serving up to 24 students. The collaboration between Southern’s Center of Excellence and New Haven Public Schools was established years ago by the center’s cofounder and former director, Ruth Eren. Services include professional- development opportunities for teachers, support-service providers, and paraprofessional as well as training and information sessions for parents and caregivers. “Our center team and the larger college community are eager to continue this collaboration, and excited about the myriad possibilities that exist for ongoing, bidirectional learning,” notes Kari Sassu, 6th Yr. ’15, associate professor of counseling and school psychology, and director of strategic initiatives at the center.

Hegedus concurs: “Having a presence there is important not only to help the teachers and the families but also to try to advance our overall knowledge of helping students who are on the spectrum.”

On World Read Aloud Day, the elementary school students had numerous visitors from the university, including Southern President Joe Bertolino (left) and Roland Regos.

These and similar goals have the educators at Southern and the Obama School eagerly looking to the future and students’ return to campus. Like their peers, fourth grade teacher Kayla Seeley, ’12, M.S. ’17, and second grade teacher Karissa L. O’Keefe, ’04, M.S. ’13, have thoughts about potential initiatives. Among their vision: Mentoring visits from Southern athletics teams. Collaborations with the Department of Communications Disorders. Halloween trick-or-treating on campus. Visits to Buley Library, the new science building, and the Lyman Center for the Performing Arts. Both stress the importance of showcasing college as the future to their young charges.

Principal DeNicola looks to the future as well: “We hope to really utilize campus, so our students get the most benefits . . . and we want to involve our student-teachers to the point that they feel like this [points around the school] is home. We want to be the teaching school. The school that teaches teachers.” ■

Cover of SCSU Southern Alumni Magazine Summer 2020Read more stories in the Summer ’20 issue of Southern Alumni Magazine.