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In the Wake of a Wild Year

As it reopens to in-person learning, Vertus High School chooses a Word of the Year

Vertus High School in Rochester, New York, was never fully remote during the pandemic year. Half the students whose families agreed to a hybrid model had in-person learning Monday and Tuesday; the other half were in person Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was all remote.

But for a school that serves young men with difficult lives—30 percent are in the juvenile justice system—the hybrid system was too remote, says Chief Educational Officer Julie Locey. “Some families are transient, some kids were kicked out of their homes, some were staying with their girlfriends. Outreach took on a whole new dimension. We found ourselves scouring neighborhoods for our students. There was food scarcity. Safety and well-being took precedence over whether they were getting their credits,” Locey explains.

The personal disconnection inherent in remote learning was particularly worrisome for a school whose model is highly structured, featuring small groups led by precepts, online and group activities, and transparent discipline, codified as the Five Rules.

“The whole premise of our model is to build strong relationships and leverage those to get kids into school and engaged,” says Locey. The pandemic, along with social and environmental factors, interfered.

But not for long. Locey terms the student disengagement “learning interruption.” While she foresees issues around attendance (“some students have not been in the building for 500 days,” she notes), as well as academics and behavior, she is confident that the model Vertus uses will restore the pre-pandemic equilibrium. Vertus students pass the comprehensive New York State Regents Exams at twice the rate Rochester’s public-school students do. The graduation rate for its young men is more than 10 points higher than it is for young men across the state.

The model—when it’s in person—works. “I’m grateful that I work in a school where our kids are on teams, interacting with each other and authority figures,” Locey says. “Of course, I’m worried that the students are out of the habit of using their academic skills. But the learning isn’t lost. We need to reset and retrain, reuse what’s been learned.” Accordingly, she has chosen a Word of the Year. “It’s regrow,” she says, “to grow after interruption or injury.”