The Jones-Gordon School Pivots Successfully to Distance Learning

Photo caption: BOTH SIDES OF THE SCREEN—Jones-Gordon student, Gisele, works with her FLEX teacher, Certified Wilson Reading Program® Dyslexia Therapist, Lauren Nolan, M.Ed.


Paradise Valley, AZ  Operating a 1st- through 12th-grade school with a high number of students with learning differences (such as ADHD, dyslexia, and anxiety) presents a litany of obstacles before you even open the door. So what happens when those doors are unexpectedly closed?

Unexpected challenges produce innovative results. The announcement of school closures last month was shocking for students, parents, and teachers alike. For The Jones-Gordon School (JGS), the challenge was developing a way to re-shape a community that was never intended nor designed to be an online learning platform into a progressive, successful tool for both students and families during a desperate time of need. Best known as Paradise Valley’s “Campus of Kindness,” JGS took the challenge in stride and re-opened with a full online learning model just two days after going on hiatus.

“In an impossibly short amount of time they’ve been able to convert to 100% virtual classrooms while maintaining a high quality of instruction and most importantly, CARE for our student,” says the parent of a 9th-grader. “Someone better be taking good notes as this whole thing plays out because I see the future of education being shaped right now.”

Daily live classes, videos on, kids engaged

Before a single word regarding academics could be uttered, Dana Herzberg, Head of School, presented her staff with their top priority: “Every single student needs to have face-to-face time with someone every single day. There should not be a single child who goes an entire day without hearing from at least one person in this room.” And with those words began the planning stages of a social and emotional support system for 140 kids. Within a matter of hours, an around-the-clock, 360-degree plan was put into place.

Each JGS student has, at minimum, two immediate persons of contact at the school. Beyond that, the students are strongly encouraged to email or text (yes, text—a level of trust and commitment you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere) any faculty member they need at any given time. Each student is then additionally contacted daily for an individual check-in that covers social, emotional, and mental health support. When a student reports they are anxious or unwell, the staff immediately mobilizes to address the issue. Teachers also offer daily virtual Office Hours, allowing students an opportunity to get face-to-face help with classwork or simply to stop by and say hello.

“I think that it’s amazing that my teachers will take time out of planning or working on their next live class and their non-teaching lives to talk,” says one JGS sophomore, “just talk.”

As for academics, the goal for The Jones-Gordon School is simple: To provide as close to the real-life, on-campus experience as possible. What does that mean? It means students are provided the opportunity to gather with their classmates—their peers, their friends, their siblings—inside virtual “classrooms” and continue their learning with live instruction from their usual teachers, just like they normally would. It means they are not just receiving weekly “busy work” in an email from their teachers. It means they are able to ask clarification questions in real-time and discuss the material with other students. It means they get together online to study and just hang out.

Since Day 1 of distance learning, Jones-Gordon has been polling, researching, and talking to each and every one of its families to ensure that they are bridging every gap and providing their community with the most holistic, customized learning experience possible, even in these unprecedented times.

“No one has perfected distance learning yet, but we are doing better every day,” says High School Director, Samantha DePalo.

High expectations and engagement (grades!) 

A crucial aspect of the school closures across the state, and for The Jones-Gordon School in particular, was the timing. At the time of the announcement, JGS students were on the last day of their Spring Break. There’s a troubling symptom that came with the unfortunate timing: Students jumping from an “extended Spring Break” mindset to an “early Summer Break” mindset. However, for Jones-Gordon, learning and engagement remain high. This also includes awarding grades for the fourth quarter, unlike most other schools in the valley.

Parents are appreciating this decision. “I’m very impressed with how well JGS has transitioned and that they are ACTIVELY keeping the learning going,” reported one parent.

According to another parent, “My daughter actually said, ‘I’m learning more!’”

Reading interventions and electives continue

Among all items on the long list of questions facing the administration as the campus prepared for closure, one revealed itself to be especially challenging: “How does one proceed with hands-on instruction and tailored learning interventions through a computer monitor?” How can classes such as Cooking, P.E., and Guitar continue without an on-site instructor to lead the way? How can regression be prevented for students who’ve invested countless hours into their individualized reading programs? Where does one even begin, let alone without any prior online teaching experience?

Option number one was simple (and immediately scrapped without consideration). That option was to simply throw electives, individual interventions, and all other extracurricular activities to the wayside and finish the school year with students only participating in their general core classes. The Jones-Gordon School is not in the practice of doing the bare minimum for the sake of getting by­—not even in the face of an unexpected crisis. An opportunity was knocking for a more fulfilling, more meaningful response­—and it came.

Rather than directing orders and creating a uniform online school experience, JGS team leads instead handed each teacher the keys to their individual courses, allowing them to continue teaching material their way. This meant that Cooking continues—with students assisting with family meals at home and producing the ingredient lists and recipes. P.E. classes now receive a new workout routine each week and a daily log to record their physical activity. Guitar is being taught during a “Live Class” where students can see their instructor, receive coaching in real-time, and then practice what they learn throughout the week.

Clubs are thriving, too! More students than ever are participating in Minecraft club, for example. In fact, club members will soon be slaying an Ender Dragon—one of this semester’s most highly anticipated club events.

The hiatus from campus couldn’t even stop the school Talent Show. Students from all grades recorded and sent in video clips of their performances, and a (virtual) viewing party was held. It was so enjoyed that the school is planning a second show before the end of the school year.

The Jones-Gordon School embodies the mindset that, with teamwork and the right attitude, meaningful teaching and learning can happen anywhere.