Coping with changes at Niagara Falls High School

James Neiss/staff photographerNiagara Falls High School buses head out a little earlier with their students after school in this Nov. 9 photo. 

Use of a cloud-based team collaboration software called Microsoft Teams at Niagara Falls High School is receiving high marks from teachers as it helps them deal with several recent changes.

From Covid-impacted instruction, to changes in the school’s bell schedule made at the beginning of the school year and the recently announced early dismissal time, instructors have been dealt several curve balls this fall. Relying on professional development, administrative support and the new software has helped teachers in difficult times.

As a communication aid, Microsoft Teams gives students, who are spending less time in each classroom, whether as a result of remote learning or changing schedules, a way to stay connected with teachers.

While the school began using the software as a result of remote learning due to the pandemic, its impact has continued with the return to more regular educational settings.

Fredia Cowart, a special education teacher who instructs both 11th- and 12th-graders at NFHS said, “Microsoft Teams software means that students can “chat” you, they can spend more time on the chat than they would have with teachers in the classroom with three-extra minutes.”

At the beginning of the year a change in bell schedules made it possible for students to get in an extra class, but it also cut eight minutes out of the length of each session.

The extra class could be used to make-up work that may have been adversely affected by remote learning and other Covid-related challenges. Or, to take electives, which Cowart said have been increased.

Amy Chiavella, who teaches English to NFHS seniors, including Advanced Placement (AP) classes, agreed that the increased offerings required shorter periods.

Falls Schools Superintendent Mark Laurrie said he struggled with the idea of early dismissal for a while, out of concern for reducing instruction time, but eventually made the recommendation to go ahead with the change as the end of Daylight Savings Time and winter weather closed in.

“The class times are now right-sized, I would say,” said Chiavella pointing to the fact that more attention is being given to spending time-on-task while in classrooms.

When asked if she had concerns about how early dismissal would impact the performance of AP students she teaches, Chiavella said these pupils already do much of their work outside the classroom, for example reading books at home, while their class time is used to sharpen skills.

In addition to teaching at the school, Chiavella is also a parent whose fourth child is now going through the system. She said the added technology, as well as the scheduling changes, have increased the school’s capacity to serve students and improve school safety.

“Just today I heard (via a Microsoft Teams chat) from a student who let me know their dad was in the hospital,” she said, pointing to how the new technology is empowering both teachers and students.

Chiavella talked about how schooling has changed over the 26-years she has been in teaching, as well as how Covid has impacted the educational landscape.

“We are having more conversations now about mental health and serving the whole child,” she said. She also said recent changes, including early dismissal, have positively impacted student safety, which she called, “our first priority.”

“This is a transition year in getting students back to school,” said Cowart. She said there has been an increase in student social service and counseling needs as a result of the challenges students face dealing with life during a pandemic.

Terese Loiacano, who teaches Spanish to freshmen at NFHS, said that Principal Cynthia Jones has put into place a new team-oriented approach that ensures students have the same administrative, counseling and support staff assigned to them throughout their years at the school.

“This is consistent with the family-first approach,” said Loiacano, “Superintendent Laurrie always talks about that.”

“Early dismissal gets the students home sooner, it leads to less chaos and makes everybody feel much safer, it helps with positive motivation,” Loiacano said. “Overall the kids and teachers are happier.”

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