How Learner-Centered Education Serves Even Our Youngest Learners Well During COVID-19

Q&A   13 May 2020
By Alex Roosenburg, Capitol Learning Academy


Within our community, we instill the belief that there is never just one way something can be done or one way the world will always work. This has been very beneficial during this moment we find ourselves in.

Alex Roosenburg
Founder & Executive Director, Capitol Learning Academy

Q: How did the Capitol Learning Academy community—which serves young learners ages 6-10—prepare for distance learning?

Alex: This might sound weird, but while pursuing a master’s degree in International School Leadership, one of our required courses was all about emergency preparedness—it covered things like what to do if the country is experiencing guerilla warfare or a tsunami hits the shores. Ultimately, if your school is no longer accessible, will you be prepared?

This course didn’t seem immediately relevant for someone leading a school in the U.S., but here we are. 

In the early days of COVID-19, as the news started reporting more and more about the virus’s spread, we were already communicating with parents about the “what ifs.” So, when we ultimately had to close, parents were super supportive and appreciated being kept “in the know.”

Nobody was mad that we were making plans ahead of time, and it felt nice not feeling rushed with anything once we moved to distance learning. We had already taught the kids how to log on and off of Zoom, Google Docs, and other relevant online tools. We did all of that in-person, so we didn’t have to put any of that responsibility on parents.

The final week before we started staying home—right when the first case hit Washington, DC—we started sending laptops home every night in case closing our facilities needed to be an overnight decision. That way, every learner would already have their materials with them at home, so that it wouldn’t be a scramble or we wouldn’t be caught assuming anything about what learners had access to at home.

Q: Did you make the decision to close independent of what was happening with local districts?

Alex: On Thursday evening, March 12th, I had an emergency board meeting to discuss whether we should close the building. At that point, DC Public Schools hadn’t called it and districts in Maryland hadn’t called it. Virginia was the only nearby state that had started acting.

My board said, “Let’s not wait until it’s too late. Let’s continue setting the example of what should be happening. Let’s say Friday is our last day and that we’ll be moving to distance learning for at least two weeks.”

I composed the email to send to families that evening and readied it for sending Friday morning. Then, I woke up Friday morning, and DCPS and Maryland had called it—that Friday would be their last day in-person. That made it easier to send that email because parents already saw it happening everywhere else in the region.


Part of our foundation as a learning community is adaptability. We know we can’t predict the future, so we need to teach our students how to be flexible.

Alex Roosenburg
Founder & Executive Director, Capitol Learning Academy

Between that Thursday evening and Friday morning, knowing the decision we were making, was super stressful. Even after the decision was made, I kept going back and forth wondering if it was the right call. It’s not just closing a school building. We utilize facilities like an arts workshop, a karate gym, and public parks. Our decision to move to distance learning was going to eliminate access to all of those opportunities.

But, we needed to think about the larger good, which is what our school is all about. It was emotional getting everything prepared for our families and staff that Friday.

I’m so lucky that I have such an organized learning facilitator. She put together tote bags for all the kids with folders that contained laminated schedules for at-home learning—something we had created in our contingency planning. One part of the folder was for offline work; another was for online learning and all the websites they would be accessing along with the personal passwords they would need.

Our learning facilitator met one-on-one with every student to go through all of that before they went home that Friday. And, she ran through it again with parents when they came to pick their children up. It was a very busy and crazy Friday to get those final pieces put together, even when we were as organized as we were. The difficulty bigger school districts must have faced in trying to make this transition without any preparation is unimaginable to me.

Q: Beyond the planning ahead and transparent communication with parents, what allowed your learning community to make a smooth transition to distance learning?

Alex: Part of our foundation as a learning community is adaptability. We know we can’t predict the future, so we need to teach our students how to be flexible. New technology comes to the market? Great. Let’s figure out how that works. Entirely new jobs are invented? Great. If a student wants that job, what do they need to learn in order to be one of the first candidates?

Within our community, we instill the belief that there is never just one way something can be done or one way the world will always work. This has been very beneficial during this moment we find ourselves in. Because this is at the foundation of our model, when we had to move to distance learning, the kids just rolled with it. On day one, they were online, and they were doing it.

The other part is that we work really hard to ensure (and feel it’s important) that every student knows themselves as a learner. We have weekly task lists that are unique to each student. Rather than coming in on a Tuesday and thinking you will repeat the same thing every time Tuesday rolls around, you have a brand new set of tasks that match where you are in your learning. 

By working through these checklists independently and at their own speed, they know what they’re capable of accomplishing in a day and where they can push themselves. Once things were moved to at-home learning, it didn’t feel much different. Those checklists were still there, and they had all the online and offline tools they needed to get right to learning.

The biggest thing we had to teach them was when they encountered a question or felt in need of a mini lesson, the adult closest to them (e.g. mom, dad, or another family member) was not their source for assistance like in a regular classroom. Rather, we had to build their habit of logging onto Zoom to ask our learning facilitator, Ms. Sadie, to do that lesson with them. For six-year-olds, it’s not immediately clear that mom or dad isn’t now playing the learning facilitator role. But, they quickly gain that understanding, and it’s been amazing to see their independence.

Q: It’s a bold stance to entrust our youngest learners with agency and independence. Do you believe these characteristics are innate?

Alex: Many people often think younger kids aren’t ready for it. When we set out to create Capitol Learning Academy, my big argument was that anything we can do with the older kids, we can do with younger kids. I do believe it’s innate. I think kids always want to be independent. If you observe any two-year-old, they’re always like, “Let me do it.”

There is a desire to be independent. One of the things we saw in our opening months was just how independent they wanted to be. They liked being able to do things at their own pace and they really started to shine. But, it also revealed an interesting challenge.

Because our learners were driving their learning, they were frequently encountering new topics or skills they had yet to master—a far less common occurrence in previous settings. Now that they were learning at their level, they were having to suddenly deal with the challenge of being challenged and being asked to work through those frustrations.

This has looked different for each student.

Q: Are you at all surprised by the pace at which your learners have picked up these skills?

Alex: It’s great to see, but I’m not surprised. Before opening, I had visited other learner-centered environments and done the research on child development. I knew this was possible. Honestly, my biggest fault is that I’m impatient. In our first year, I sometimes expect us to be accomplishing what has taken three to five years at the other sites I’ve visited.

I have to remind myself, in year one, we need to take it slow, let the kids get into the rhythm of things here, and watch it happen naturally. I was told many times by other educators and facilitators that it would probably take half the school year or more for some kids. It was very helpful to get this guidance so I could be operating from a realistic timeline and view of the road ahead.

Having said that, on average, our students have adapted more quickly than expected, which I think is the luck of the draw with the students we have and how adaptable they already were before enrolling. And, having 100% trust from the parents has helped this even more—letting us do our thing and believing it was best for their children.

Q: What were Capitol Learning Academy parents looking for when considering to enroll their children?

Alex: A big thing we found from parents, especially parents that were currently in conventional schools, was that they didn’t feel like their child was being seen as an individual learner. We were also appealing to families whose kids were a little bit ahead of their peers and were just kind of being made into a teacher’s assistant, while the rest of the class “caught up.” The fact that we could see their child at their level and provide them the structure to move at their own pace really appealed to a large group of our parents.

When our parents came across our learner-centered model, it was really a case of them saying, “Well, we didn’t know there was another affordable option out there that could really be doing this.”

We’re also lucky that we have one set of parents who were previously homeschooling. They weren’t planning to make a change until they saw our advertisement. It so resonated that they immediately bought into our model and now see it as where their kids will continue learning far into the future.

Even though they came from different situations, our first group of parents are all aligned around the kinds of beliefs we are founded on. That has allowed me to not shy away from what we set out to do.

Q: Do you think this current moment will lend itself to more parents exploring what other type of learning environments might be out there for their children? Is this an opportunity for Capitol Learning Academy to enroll more families?

Alex: I have new applications coming in as we speak—during distance learning. Shockingly, some have come as recommendations from other families who ultimately decided to leave us and try something different with their children. Even though they didn’t see it as a fit for their family, they are still recommending Capital Learning Academy to others.

I believe what parents are seeing right now is that learning can and does happen anywhere, at any time. Even if we aren’t facing a pandemic, if a situation arises that means a child can’t come to school, this shouldn’t be an issue from a learning standpoint. We can send you a couple of things, and your kid can have their school day from home. We see that learning doesn’t have to be physically in our building all the time. If learning is happening, why does it matter where it is happening?

We have a big opportunity right now to show how learning for our kids is still happening—and that parents aren’t needing to sit by their kids while it happens. During regular school hours, the kids can hop online and interact with their facilitator whenever they need to. She’s doing individual check-ins with the kids, whiteboard lessons, and going over things via screenshare. The collaborative hour of research we always had is still happening. We’re still having art, music, and karate online every day.

Our school day is still completely happening, and our parents are not being tasked with becoming full-time teachers. Our kids can be flexible with what’s happening because that’s just how we are as a learning community and it’s how they will naturally be as learners operating in the world no matter what comes their way.

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