Education Futures Podcast 20: Sandra Powell, Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy

by | Sep 23, 2020 | Education Futures Podcast, Featured

“In the past, there were a lot of things that students didn’t get to do simply because of where they lived. That to me, I think, is probably the most exciting thing about education is that the doors are opening wide for every student.”
After spending time in the classroom and as an administrator, Sandra Powell has found the perfect role for her: Graduation Coach. In this interview with Dr. Rob Reynolds, Sandra talks about giving hope to students who are struggling to finish high school. They also talk about the opportunities students have now with the flexibility of online courses and resources.

Full Transcript

Rob Reynolds:

Hey everybody. Rob Reynolds here, and I’m joined today by Sandra Powell who’s a graduation coach at Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy. I’m really happy to have Sandra here with me. She’s just got such great energy and such great experience with kids and teaching. It’s a pleasure to be with you Sandra, and I can’t wait to have our conversation to hear all the great things you have to share with us.

Sandra Powell:

Thank you. Thank you. I feel honored today to get to be here.

Rob Reynolds:

So I always like to start these conversations off with having my guest tell me about their own personal education journey. So how did you get to here? What did you learn along the way, both formally and informally?

Sandra Powell:

Well, I was not going to go into education. I grew up in a family of educators. My dad was a band director and then a principal and then finished out his career as a superintendent. My mom always worked in the schools, so I knew what education was like. I knew how rigorous it was for those that are in it.

I liken education as a four-lap race. Every year it’s nine weeks and each lap gets harder and harder and you’ve always got to be on. We can’t shut the door and not be there one day because we have students that are relying on us. So it’s an all-in type of job and I just didn’t know that I was going to do that.

I kept getting called back into education though for different things. As I was in college, I would get asked if I would substitute. I would get asked to do those sorts of things. So I finally realized that education was where I really had a passion.

I have a daughter right now that’s finally decided that education is her passion, and you can just see it when you get your passion. You have to work so long in your life, if you can find the passion that every day you get up and you think, “Oh, I’m excited to be here.” Now that doesn’t mean every day I’m excited to be here, but every day I’m excited to be a teacher and be in education and doing those sorts of things.

I taught science for many years and then found that my own son was struggling in a traditional brick and mortar school and started looking at some options that we had. Number one was homeschool. So I pulled him. I was going to homeschool him, and realized that even though I have a lot of math and a lot of science, I do not have a lot of English and a lot of history, and I felt like I wasn’t going to do him a service to not allow him to have really highly qualified people.

So I started searching and found K-12 and Oklahoma Virtual Charter Academy and got him enrolled. Couldn’t believe it was a public school and that it was free. They still tease me that I was that parent that kept saying, “When are you going to need my credit card? How much is it going to cost?”

I was very lucky that the year that he was in eighth grade Oklahoma allowed OVCA to have a high school. So I, in the process of this entire marathon that I was running, they approached me and asked me if I would be interested in teaching their physical science and biology. So I did that for two years and then transitioned into the middle school principal when we created a middle school. Now I’ve shifted back to become a graduation coach at the high school because I really love being with kids. That is my passion, not administration. It is working with those kids and giving them real hope for the future. So that’s kind of how I got here.

Rob Reynolds:

No, that’s awesome. So what do you do as a graduation coach?

Sandra Powell:

My only goal, my boss says, is to make sure students graduate in four years, and I need to figure out how to do that and work with them. When this position opened up, I was like, “This is written for me. I want to be able to do this.”

I’ve been able to implement some things that as a principal all those years and as a high school teacher, I would think if somebody could just do this that would be great. Well, now I got somebody. So I’m able to reach those kids, and I will tell you they get behind for so many different reasons. This world is different than it was when you and I went to school. It’s just a whole different world.

My job is to make that contact, engage that student. I say I’m the hope giver. I’m the person that can contact you and say, “Hey, you know what? I know you’re eight credits behind, but let’s get started. Let’s eat this elephant one at a time and I can walk you through it and we can get this done.” At the end of every day, that’s just a really great place to be.

Rob Reynolds:

I don’t think people realize how often students get pretty close to the finish line and don’t finish. I think when the average person thinks about somebody not finishing, we’ll say dropping out, they think of somebody who made it maybe through their freshman year. But there are a lot of circumstances that can happen in a person’s life, a family, a student’s life, that can really interrupt what’s going on. So what are some of the things you’ve seen that have really contributed to students falling behind or not being able to stay up?

Sandra Powell:

Well, a lot of families don’t realize is that it’s not a four and done. High school works with credits, and so credit hours build up, I tell the kids all the time like marbles in a jar. At the end of every semester, you hope you get some marbles and you put them in your jar.

In Oklahoma at OVCA, when you get 23 credits of specific things, you can graduate. So if you fail one class a semester for your entire career, you’re a semester at least behind in graduation. So we see that. That is probably the quickest way for a student to get behind.

But we have students having children. We have students being the primary breadwinner, especially with COVID. I helped some young men this summer graduate that should’ve graduated in the spring. But in March their mother and sister, and maybe father all lost their jobs and they were working at Walmart part-time and got approached to say, “Hey, would you like to work 60 hours a week?” Well of course, they’re going to say, “Yes, I have to help my family. I have to put food on the table. We have to make the mortgage or the rent.”

So immediately school dropped down, as a, well, I’ll just do it later type of thing. We had a lot of those students that we were reaching out to and saying, “If you’ll just let us know, we can work different hours for you. We can say you don’t have to come to live class. You can work on your own.” There’s just a lot of ways to do that.

We just have a lot of students that have things that happen in their lives. They’re living out of a car. They’re homeless. Maybe they did, they got behind and they just never can see a way out. So we have to look at every student as an individual and figure out what it is that they need and how we can help support them.

Rob Reynolds:

No, that’s amazing. It’s just so wonderful that you’re doing that. So I’m guessing you work with students across the state, is that right?

Sandra Powell:

Yes. Our state, the state of Oklahoma, is our school district. So we have students in every county in the State of Oklahoma.

Rob Reynolds:

Wow. So what do you do if you have a student, for example, you mentioned homeless or their family is struggling financially and they don’t have much technology access or don’t have internet, et cetera. How do you, I know you’ve got individualized plans to get these students and help them. So how do you work with that?

Sandra Powell:

Well, we are pretty unique. We have, I’m going to say two-prong but we actually have multilevels here, but we have teachers who actually teach live classes. But then we have a group of support that we call the community family advisors. The community family advisors are within about 50 miles of where the student lives, so we have them spread out across the state of Oklahoma, and they really are that student’s single point of contact and the learning coach, which often is the parent. But that’s who, if you need something, that’s your first call.

So those people, because they live in the communities, they can say, “Hey, you know what? Here is a place that you can go to get food. Here is a place that you can do this.” We do provide hotspots for our students that are free and reduced lunch and we have a large group of students. So they can get a computer or a laptop, and they can get a hot spot as long as they’re doing their work and doing all those sorts of things.

But the support for that social aspect, the food, the clothing, we do have a counselor who serves as our social worker. We have, if we do find a student and a family that’s in that situation, she can hop in.

But really those community family advisors are the bread and butter of how to do it. They’re always looking at food banks, and I know they’re there right now sending out information about Salvation Army and the Holiday of Hope program that they do. Now is the time when families sign up and they don’t really think about that in September. You’re not thinking, “Am I going to be able to provide a toy for my child at Christmas time?” But the community family advisor is thinking of those things and sending those things to them.

So we really try to work … You can’t teach a child unless you feed a child. If they’re hungry and they’re having to go do their wifi in the parking lot at McDonald’s, that’s a stressor on the family. So we try to really look at all those other things and be able to help them.

Rob Reynolds:

Oh, that’s tremendous. To just add to that, when you’re the family and you’re under duress, you’re not thinking beyond today, generally. Sometimes this week, but those things like Christmas, Easter, all those other things, that’s way far in the future. You’re just trying to get by. So that’s just awesome that you’re doing all of that. I love that, having a social worker and some community support people, I just think that’s such a tremendous thing that you’re doing.

Now you’ve obviously had tremendous experience in education. You’ve seen it from all different levels, and now like everybody else you’ve seen it in COVID-19. So first of all, I just want you to address this from an OVCA perspective, and then we’ll talk about it in a broader more personal way. But from an OVCA perspective, how did you react and what did you do or have you done to try to provide? It sounds like you’re doing a lot of the things you would do anyway, but to try to help maybe even additional families who wouldn’t have been considering OVCA previously.

Sandra Powell:

We did see quite a bit of growth over the summer. This all hit in March, right at spring break for Oklahoma, and the state asked that every school take two weeks, and they included the virtual schools as well, that they make a plan. Our families were really frustrated because that was something that they expected to just continue on. We’re set up. Our families have wifi. They’re ready to go. Even though now everybody is at home, they were wanting to be able to have that normalcy of a school day.

So after those two weeks, we really just hit the ground running. We used all the state guidelines of we didn’t start a lot of new material and we allowed students, just like everybody else in the state of Oklahoma. We looked at attendance differently and all of those things.

But then we also had to shift our own thinking because we now suddenly had teachers who had all of their family at home. So what is it like? In the past, it wasn’t acceptable to have a child running in the background behind you, but now all of a sudden in this new world, and we’re all working from home, that is something that could potentially happen.

So we did shift a little bit in our class connects, which is our live sessions. We lengthened them to allow more social time for the students to be able to get to know one another and just really reach out to one another. OVCA has traditionally, we do outings, and so we are using those CFAs to do local outings. Well, that’s not happening right now. So we are including a lot more virtual.

In fact, I’m a beekeeper, and last Friday I had CFAs at my house in suits, in bee suits and we were videoing down inside a hive for our students so they could get to see some things. So we’re trying to provide as much as possible. We’re trying to provide additional social time for our students.

Rob Reynolds:

That’s tremendous. I love that. Now more just from a personal, from an educator perspective, someone who’s seen how we’ve done things in the United States, et cetera. What has surprised you maybe or not surprised you about the way, particularly in K-12, that we’ve responded to COVID-19? What are some things maybe you’ve seen that were covered great and some things that have not been so great?

Sandra Powell:

Well in my mind, we were able to really identify the fact that technology is not something that education has embraced. We had to shift to Zoom and we’d been using Zoom so we were fairly familiar with that.

But just watching other friend’s children and then friends that I have that are in education, in brick and mortar, the lack of technology that we’ve been able to buy. I’m not going to say that that’s the school system’s fault. I’m going to say that that’s because they don’t have the money and the funding to do it. That technology has been something that we’ve really struggled with. Everybody keeps saying, “Well, you can’t do this in this world. You can’t educate a child in this world.” But we’ve been doing it fairly successfully for quite some time.

Yeah. It is a shift though. That’s something that we do tell new teachers is that all those tools in your tool belt from brick and mortar, you can still use them in a virtual world, but it’s going to be slightly tweaked a little bit.

This generation of students are digital natives. The rest of us are immigrants to this world, but they’ve grown up with a cell phone in their hand. So they shift a lot easier in this situation than we do. We’ve got to learn to shift a little faster. I think at my age it’s hard to shift a little faster, but I do recognize that education is never going to be the same as it was post-COVID, or pre-COVID I guess.

Post-COVID is going to be something completely different, and we’re going to have to learn to use our technology, which is a good and a bad thing. But our students have been wanting to use technology for a very long time. I think that’s the biggest thing.

Rob Reynolds:

Yeah, I totally agree. I remember I was doing a consulting gig with the State Department of Education a couple of decades ago, and I was talking to language teachers and was taking them through the progression of education. We had a stick in the dirt and we just drew things and we kept going.

At some point, we thought we were being really innovative because we had an overhead projector and we provide that. Then we had PowerPoint, got a computer.

But as you look at it, all of that was still pretty much the same as drawing pictures with a stick. We embraced technology in a way in education, but we really didn’t embrace it. We kept using it to do what we had been doing. So we get to COVID and all of a sudden we have to change what we’re doing and technology, we don’t know how to do that. So the model shifted, and for some of us, it was hard to shift. I think that’s a great observation, and certainly one that we’ve seen played out.

I agree with you too where certainly things will be different. Expectations have changed. It’s fascinating.

So if you, I have two final questions to wrap up, so if you could have the ear of anybody who could help make decisions and make things different, and you could tell them, “Man, if you could just do this or these two things to really make the lives of our students and their families better, you could help.” Something they could do to help, what could you imagine that you might tell them?

Sandra Powell:

Well COVID has really made it very clear to me that especially in the State of Oklahoma, I don’t know about other states, we need a consistent high-speed internet available to all of our students across the state of Oklahoma. It’s not okay anymore that I have friends that live less than a mile away from me and their children have to come to my house to do some of their schoolwork because they can’t upload things.

I don’t live in a rural environment. I live in a small town. So that to me is where we need to be putting our eggs in the basket in terms of funding and things like that.

Probably the second thing if I could do, I would open the schools up more to get parents back in. We need parents involved. I’m not going to blame the teachers, but the schools for a very long time pretty much said, “I got this. Thank you, guys. We’ll take care of your kids from here on out. You drop them off. We’ll do everything inside the building.”

That has led to a couple of generations of families who don’t know what their job is in terms of education. I’ve always told families that we’re like a three-legged stool. There’s parents, there’s students and then there’s the educational staff, and we’ve let our parents off the hook a little bit. We complain that they’re not here and we complain that they’re not involved yet we make it very difficult sometimes for them to be involved and almost look at them as someone that we don’t want to know what’s going on.

I was listening to something and some school was asking parents not to listen in to their video classes. I used to tell my students all the time, everybody can come to my classes. I had parents that still will tell me I came to your class because you wore a funny hat.

In brick and mortar, I would tell the kids, “There’s a video camera up in the corner even though there wasn’t.” I like to tell them stories all the time.

But I always felt like everything that happens once I close that door everybody should know. Every parent should have access to what I’m doing and what I’m saying. I think if I could do two things, it would be those two things.

Rob Reynolds:

I think those are great things, and I wish we could give you the magic wand and have you wave it and make it happen. That would be awesome.

So last question, as you look out just through the years of your experiences with students, and you look at today’s generation and you look at where we are. A lot of people I know, I interact with, they have this sense of gloom and despair. That’s generally not how I’m wired. I am always looking for hope in everything that certainly we do here, but others do and I love our partners like OVCA. I get so much hope and I love your particular passion. So what gives you hope about your students and where they’re going?

Sandra Powell:

Well, I am the hope giver. I tend to be a bit of a Pollyanna. I don’t think that kids are going down a bad path. My daughter and I were having this discussion this morning. I said, “In today’s climate, I look back at 1970.” Where were we in 1970? Well, we had a young generation that wanted to change the world and we had an old generation that thought the world was coming to an end and they came together and we moved on. Now we have the same thing except for that young generation in 1970 that was wanting to change the world are now the old people and now they’re worried.

So I don’t think that we’re in a situation where we’re in crisis mode. What excites me the most about going forward in education in our students today is the fact that everybody has the ability to do great things, to attend a great school, to go to college. They can do it online, and with Tell, that’s something that you’ve heard me say before. I’ve got a kid that lives in Bokashi, Oklahoma and they can attend college maybe as a first-time student in their whole family and they never have to leave their house. Where in the past, there were a lot of things that students didn’t get to do simply because of where they lived.

That to me I think is probably the most exciting thing about education, is that the doors are opening wide for every student. It’s equitable now. You’ve got rural students that can attend college and career tech and all of those things that we’re doing in Oklahoma that I think are just fabulous and wonderful. We’ve got those things in place for every kid to be able to do that.

Where when I was in school, you had two options if you wanted to do concurrent and one option if you went to career tech and the option to career tech was not very great. I had to drive more than 30 miles to get to any college to go to school, so in high school that was out, and now my daughter’s taking classes online and it’s baffling to me. But it’s also very exciting because I think we’re going to see more students take advantage of these sorts of things as we go forward and there’s going to be that expectation that that’s offered.

So I think about all those kids that maybe didn’t get to do that in the past. How many of these are we reaching right now that are going to get to go do great things? That’s exciting to me.

As an older person, it’s very exciting because I see our future and it’s very, very bright. That to me is probably my passion. My goal is I want every kid to feel like they can do anything that they want and it’s accessible now.

Rob Reynolds:

That’s great. So the message of hope from Sandra Powell, more equitable opportunities than ever for education and keeping that journey going and growing up and growing out in life. That’s awesome.

If you’ve been listening, I’ve been joined by Sandra Powell, master educator, graduation coach, and most of all beekeeper and mom. So all of those things, a passionate educator and like she says a giver of hope and such a positive person. Sandra, thank you so much for joining us.


Sandra Powell:

Well, thank you very much today. Again, hope is we’ve got to have hope and our new generation that’s coming up is they’re just fabulous kids.

Rob Reynolds:

Indeed. Thank you, everyone.

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