Uncommon Schools Built Online High Schools in One Day


While New York State has abolished state exams for this year, the College Board has moved Advanced Placement exams to online-only versions that students can take at home this Spring. For high school students thinking of their dream college, the AP exams are often a gatekeeper.

That’s why it was so critical for Uncommon Schools to transition its 4,140 high school students to remote learning as quickly as possible after the organization decided to close schools to keep students, staff and family safe from the coronavirus. The charter school organization–the largest in Brooklyn with 10,000 K-12 students–completed the feat in a day. The facilities of the network’s four Brooklyn high schools were shuttered on March 16, and opened fully online the morning of March 17.

“Of course, our number one priority is the health and safety of our students, staff and families, and that’s why we had to close our schools,” said Jesse Corburn, Assistant Superintendent for Uncommon NYC High Schools.  “But we also have made a commitment to the students and their families, and have nurtured their goal of getting to and through college, so there was no way we could let the learning stop.”

For students, it meant they could continue their learning–only weeks away from the national AP exams–uninterrupted. Indeed, the schools are learning, a silver lining is that many students are quickly developing new skills they will need to be successful in college.

“The best part of online learning is having complete independence of your learning environment and your surroundings while actually learning virtually,” said Junior Alex Bishop. “This is really helping me get ready for college.”

It wasn’t easy to transition several thousand students to a totally online school so quickly. When the decision was made to close the schools on Friday, March 13, staff scrambled to survey over 3,000 students to determine their access to technology. More than a third didn’t have what they needed, and the schools loaned out 1,400 Chromebooks and 50 hot spots so that all students were ready to learn Tuesday morning and not miss a single class.

Teacher Elise Topazian jogged to one of the Uncommon high schools to pick up Chromebooks and deliver them to students at another Uncommon high school.

Now in its second week, Uncommon’s online high schools are seeing over 90% attendance rates daily, nearly rivaling typical attendance rates at the brick and mortar sites.

The architects of the online high school program kept it simple. Each day, students access a 20-minute instructional video on Google Classroom for each of their core academic classes and view it during the scheduled one-hour class period. During the remaining 40 minutes, students work on the classwork handout. Teachers are standing by on Zoom for any extra help or question and also for classroom discussions.

Some teachers are also employing creative video editing techniques to keep their students engaged. Zack Allen, who teaches AP Chemistry at Uncommon Prep Charter High School in Canarsie, used a green screen to virtually place himself in his classroom.

“All the joys of South Shore, from the comfort of your home. Just kidding, I’m not actually at South Shore,” he said, before letting his students in on his green screen video chicanery.

Parents also recognized how hard the staff has been working to ensure every student continues to receive the same quality education.

“I know it wasn’t easy,” one parent wrote. “Your action and dedication is proof to me that my son is part of a community that cares about his education…you ensured that scholars did not miss a beat.”