Alternative Education – Virtual learning and innovative curricula signal the dawn of a new era

The year is 2020 and education is evolving at a more rapid pace than anyone anticipated. Count it among this year’s many forced evolutionary leaps: Virtual learning is no longer a crutch but a commodity. In place of classrooms and books, there are Zoom links and PDF downloads; in-person camaraderie is bowing to internet etiquette. While change is often unsettling, it doesn’t have to be distressing.

“There’s a shift happening to make learning online more impactful,” says Shana Ostrovitz, executive director of 1909, a community incubator based in downtown West Palm Beach. “Up until this point, virtual learning has been very lecture-based: People tune in and listen. People had recorded webinars they could use all the time. I don’t think that works right now. Virtual learning has to adapt to what people are dealing with in the moment—it can’t be canned content.

“We’re all learning how to make the digital world feel more like real life, where people are interacting and discussing, versus just being on the other side of the screen and receiving information. Moving forward, everything will need to be more interactive, with ways to work on assignments or ‘white boards’ together online—human connection, but digital. I think technology and programming will be built to reflect this.”

Case in point: As the pandemic relegated people to their homes, 1909 transcended from material space to virtual community. Leading the charge—and, along the way, upending outdated perceptions of what “must” be taught in person—1909 pivoted to emphasize digital programming, banding together on-screen with a dynamic roster of web classes and workshops on topics ranging from houseplants 101 to mind mapping, finances, parenting, real estate, and even how to cook arepas.

All online events and educational opportunities are led by members or, through community partnerships, local thought leaders and entrepreneurs. Take, for example, a three-part design series in collaboration with branding studio Gather & Seek or the midweek Zoom “coffee breaks” with the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, which engaged in-the-know speakers to assist downtown businesses in adapting to the changing commerce climate.

Other area businesses and institutions have followed suit. Despite being between locations, The Station partnered with local artist Amanda Costa Marino to offer a watercolor workshop on Zoom. Likewise, arts organizations have made educational materials readily available to download and also conceived of totally tech-based initiatives to engage digital audiences. Over the summer, the Kravis Center introduced a Kravis @ Home database of streaming concerts, lectures, and activities; the Lighthouse ArtCenter in Tequesta introduced ArtCamp in a Box, delivering weekly supplies to participants and having them share their creations online; and the Palm Beach Opera began a weekly digital recital series titled “An die Musik” (“To Music”) that was geared toward the populations served by the YMCA, Alzheimer’s Community Care, and Palm Beach Habilitation Center but also free for all to view online.

Further blurring the lines between virtual and tangible, 1909 members Andrés Espinoza and Ryan Walden are developing a gamification technology to create a video game–like competition environment for startups participating in the second annual 1909 Accelerator, which provides instruction and mentorship to burgeoning entrepreneurs.

Of course, COVID-19 facilitated a migration to online learning and engagement not just for professionals, but for students as well. Such a model has long been available to Palm Beach County children through Palm Beach Virtual School, but the pandemic forced the closure of schools across the state, resulting in students completing the 2019-2020 school year at home. This shift led to concerns over how the digital divide—which is defined as the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not—would impact growth and performance.

The School District of Palm Beach County responded with numerous tools to help make distanced learning more accessible and successful for all. It distributed more than 60,000 laptops to students, and Comcast also stepped up to the plate with an Internet Essentials package that included 60 days of free service. The Education Foundation of Palm Beach County began a Rise to the Challenge campaign to help fund the purchase of electronic devices and other necessary supplies, as well.

As Google Classroom sessions became the norm, the district launched a website of resources to support at-home learning and aired educational content on YouTube and certain television channels. Junior Achievement of the Palm Beaches & Treasure Coast also got involved, creating more than 50 digital lesson plans designed for specific grade levels, including a multilingual career series with inspirational professionals. These tech efforts continued into the summer, with the district broadcasting videos on key concepts and sharing links to virtual field trip experiences, summer camps, and more. In July, the school board unanimously agreed to start the 2020-2021 public school year with online-only learning for the time being.

While virtual elements will most likely play a large role in education moving forward, area schools are redefining what in-person learning looks like, too. The curriculum of the IDEAL School in Wellington centers on brain research and incorporates emotional intelligence, meditation, and multiple-intelligence philosophies rather than solely academics and cognitive skills. “IQ will get you in the door, but it’s your ability to be resilient, intrinsically motivated, goal-achieving, and risk-taking—the emotional quotient—that sets you up to excel,” explains founder Wendy Soderman.

Delray Beach’s Space of Mind describes itself as “a boutique educational experience designed for our modern, social world.” Its hybrid program blends principles of homeschooling with a communal environment, using the entire city as a classroom but also featuring hands-on spaces like a kitchen, engineering lab, music studio, and student-run weather station. Wednesdays are reserved for activities such as surfing or visits to the horse barn.

FAU High School – Jupiter Campus in partnership with Max Planck Academy is a science-based high school at Florida Atlantic University’s John D. MacArthur Campus, where accomplished STEM-skilled high schoolers can work side-by-side with scientists at one of the world’s leading neuroscience research institutions.

The Greene School in West Palm Beach provides a cross-curricular and personalized approach to learning, catering to students’ passions and refining the skills they’ll need for their future careers. “The focus and attention provided by the teachers are crafted to facilitate achievement at the highest potential for each individual child,” says former student Ross Skillern. “The guidance extends beyond academics to include social and emotional development.”

In recent years, school gardens have also become popular at both public and private institutions, offering an out-of-class space to learn about agriculture. But its benefits go beyond that, with studies showing that participation can improve students’ test scores, behavior, and food choices. A firm believer in their transformative power, part-time Jupiter resident and certified master gardener Dianne Venetta launched The BloominThyme Collaborative to expand the school garden network.

“A child will eat a vegetable they grew themselves, which is especially important for children living within food deserts,” Venetta explains. Food deserts are geographic areas where access to healthy and affordable food is limited or nonexistent; recently, activists have employed the term “food apartheid” to acknowledge the systemic shortcomings at the heart of such inequities.

Venetta notes that, by working in these school gardens, children gain a sense of empowerment and pride. “The ability to grow your own food easily transitions from school to home, engendering increased self-worth and independence. They’re excited by every discovery and eager to share their knowledge. Does education get any better?”

Whether in person or online, education in Palm Beach County has officially entered the twenty-first century. Virtual learning has no home save the incorporeal web, yet its impact is felt on the ground and across generations. School gardens and innovative approaches to curricula are changing how we think about the very nature of knowledge. By embracing these shifts and responding to the needs of students and professionals alike, the Palm Beaches will be poised to not only lead this charge, but act as a beacon of creativity and progress.

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