As many schools face uncertain times, Rockford Lutheran School is fully embracing this year’s unusual situations, choosing to see this as an opportunity to fulfill its mission while engaging students.
This school year has been unlike any other for many school districts. In these uncertain times, receiving an education is one thing that many students across our region can count on. For Rockford Lutheran School, though, it’s not just about “getting through” this tough season. It’s about growing through the changes together as a community.
“There are a lot of schools that just want to get through the virus – they want to survive it,” says Don Gillingham, executive director of Rockford Lutheran School. “We’re not doing that – we’re saying we’re going to take the opportunity to really change.”
During this time of change, Gillingham sees students’ parents as the consumers of the business that is Rockford Lutheran School. During this time where students have had to be at home more, parents have had to be more active in their children’s education in order for them to succeed.
He sees that as an advantage. It allows students who may have been passive toward their education to now understand that they own their education, he says.
“Whatever they learn, they own, and they’re taking that for themselves and they’re going to use it,” explains Gillingham. “Teachers who have historically been the dispensers of all the information become facilitators, helping students and guiding them to where they’re going.”
Changes at Rockford Lutheran involve making classes available online. Students can benefit from being in front of a teacher, but they can also go to their cabin in Wisconsin, where they have internet, and successfully get assignments done on time, Gillingham adds. All Rockford Lutheran Junior/Senior High School classes use a learning management system called Canvas, which allows teachers to build their class and store documents and presentations that students can view as they work on their homework or a project. Students may access the system whenever they are able.
“If a seventh grader talks to a parent and says, ‘I’ve got a lesson. I need to learn how to divide mixed fractions,’” says Gillingham, “the parent says, ‘I don’t remember mixed fractions.’ The student can go right to the Canvas page and look at the resources and watch that 5-minute lesson. We’re going to give you everything you need to do this.”
The Rockford Lutheran School District currently has around 713 students, and around 160 students spend either part of their day or their entire day online. Those who learn remotely fall into three categories, Gillingham explains.
One group is homeschool students who take a few classes through Rockford Lutheran. These students work through a collaborative cooperation or a blended school, taking Rockford Lutheran classes two or three days per week online. Many homeschool students enjoy working with Rockford Lutheran in order to take part in extracurricular programs, Gillingham explains.
Other students are fully at home, learning remotely. A third group includes students who are going to in-person classes for half a day.
“If I don’t think I can wear a mask for 7 hours, I might only take four classes here, and I can take three at home,” says Gillingham. “We give them flexibility because the class is mobile, and they can choose how to do that.”
Many students in this category are either juniors or seniors who are on the path to college and are thinking ahead. Or, they may have a part-time job they can do in the afternoon, after attending school in the morning. Students have the flexibility to work on their assignments when time allows, so long as they meet their deadlines.
The school even has a fully accredited dual credit program with Concordia Universities in Nebraska and Chicago, aimed at those who want to get a head start on college. The program enables these students to earn college credits while still in high school.
“You can be in college, taking a full year of college credit, and you can still go to homecoming or the prom and still play basketball – whatever it is that you’re supposed to do age-appropriately and socially with your peers,” says Gillingham. “You can do all those things while academically moving at a different pace.”
When a student signs up to be full-time and in the classroom, they go into a class that may only fit 18 students due to social distancing guidelines. A group of students may also spend time at the school’s C.O.R.E (Center of Research and Engagement) where they can do their work. There, they may use Zoom to participate in class virtually, but some may not have to because the objectives and resources may already be online for students to access.
“For that day, they’re not physically with the teacher, but they’re physically in the building,” explains Gillingham. “This has allowed us to keep our kids in the building, so they can have face-to-face education and keep them connected.”
The online setup has helped when students or staff are feeling unwell. If someone has to quarantine at home for two weeks, they can still Zoom into the class virtually. Teachers can still teach from home if they are quarantined due to the virus or are otherwise feeling unwell.
Rockford Lutheran also emphasizes participating in its different programs. According to Gillingham, the school has more athletic teams than any other school in its conference, the Big Northern Conference, despite being the smallest school. The orchestra program, as well as athletics like football and bowling, have received heavy recognition.
Part of the experience that truly sets Rockford Lutheran apart, though, is being Lutheran, Gillingham adds.
“In Lutheranism, we talk about the balance between the law and gospel,” he says. “Academically, it’s the same thing. If I think I can speak French, I don’t need to take a French class. If I say I want to speak French, now I’m motivated to learn.”
Around the school, four core values are on display in multiple classrooms, including above Gillingham’s desk. The staff came up with the values around four years ago on a school board retreat: “Christ-Centered,” “Excellence,” “Service” and “Harmony.”
“A Bible verse supports each one of the values. We try to include them in a number of our writings that we share with the public,” explains Gillingham. “If we’re starting a new program, we go, ‘Where does this fit?’ We have a big service component, because when you’re in school you can either train kids for the future or you can show them how to impact the world now.”
Outside the classroom, students are involved in a number of community organizations. One result of the Service Learning & Community Engagement curriculum at the Junior/Senior High campus has been the student-led “Crusaders in Action.” This group drives a monthly mission that recently featured Miss Carly’s, a Rockford-area nonprofit that provides free meals to the community.
“We pay attention to what’s happening in the city,” says Gillingham. “We really want to be the Christian school for the city.”