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Kindergarten - Grade 9 in Southborough, MA
Fay Magazine: Summer 2020

Profile in Faculty Partnership: Julie Porrazzo and Steve Jensen

by Daintry Duffy Zaterka '88
Preparing for the future is hard; predicting it is next to impossible. However, those were precisely the challenges facing Julie Porrazzo, Director of the Educational Program, and Steve Jensen, Director of Innovation, as they created Fay’s Distance Learning Program (DLP) this spring.
Planning for the unknowns of how and when COVID-19 might impact the students’ educational experience was daunting.

“We went from trying to predict the future, to being pretty sure that we knew what was going to happen, to having to move very quickly in a short amount of time to keep our faculty teaching and our students engaged in learning,” recalls Steve. While the process was compressed into a few short weeks, it was grounded in due diligence that took place months before.

Back in January and February, Steve and Julie’s research was already well underway. They learned about the distance learning programs at schools in Asia and Europe, where students were already learning remotely. They gleaned best practices and identified what might work well for Fay as well as the technologies that would be necessary to support the program.

Julie notes that their process actually mirrors the design thinking process that students learn in Fay’s Creativity and Design courses. “We identified a problem, did our research, came up with a plan—or multiple plans all at once in our case! — gathered feedback, made some improvements—and then we implemented it.”

During the second week of March break, it became clear that students and faculty would not be able to return to campus, and from that point onward, Julie and Steve worked tirelessly and decisively to turn their contingency plans into a full-fledged distance learning program. 

Working in isolation over March break, Steve, Julie, Director of Marketing and Communications Erin Sullivan, and Fay’s technology team logged long days identifying tech requirements, testing software and other tech tools, writing training plans and new policies to safeguard students’ online security, and then exhaustively documenting everything. “We were constantly asking what would be best for the School and for the student experience,” says Steve, “and that’s what guided all our decisions.”

Fortunately, during Steve’s two years at Fay, the School had already invested in many of the technologies that would be critical to distance learning including a reliable VPN, softphones that would enable staff to work from home, and software-based document cameras that teachers could use in their lessons. A vast whiteboard tracked their progress as they divvied up tasks and methodically worked through installations, testing, program and policy writing, and the creation of training materials. Anything on the board that they didn’t feel they had the time to do correctly was crossed off. The guiding principle was “Keep it simple.”

Recognizing that faculty would need adequate time to learn how to use the tools, Rob Gustavson delayed the start of school after March break by one week. “Our timing worked well,” says Steve. “We didn’t know when the stay-at-home order was going to come, so on a Friday night we decided to accelerate the handout of student technology to the following Monday, and it turned out that that was the last day we would have been able to do it.”

As Julie worked into the wee hours of the morning typing up the formal distance learning program to share with division and department heads, she incorporated the principles of keeping it simple, keeping it “Fay” so that routines would feel familiar to students, and keeping it balanced so that students weren’t being asked to do too much or too little. 

When the faculty started their training on Monday, March 30, Steve and Julie’s careful planning and the faculty’s willingness to adapt to teaching and using technology in ways that they never had before laid a successful foundation for the students to return the following week. “The faculty saw what we had done and recognized the thought and work that had gone into it—and they embraced the plan,” says Julie. “It went as smoothly as it possibly could have.”

One element that was critical to the program’s success was making sure that it maintained the look and feel of Fay for students as well as parents. “Like our in-person program, there was an expectation of excellence for our distance learning program,” says Julie. “It had to offer high-quality content, function smoothly, be engaging for students, and match the strength of our in-person program.”

With the long days (and nights) behind them, Julie and Steve look back on the spring with a mixture of awe at what they were able to achieve in partnership with each other, and pride at how everyone—faculty, the tech team, and other support staff—worked together. “This experience strengthened our relationships on both personal and professional levels because we saw what we were all capable of in a challenging time,” says Steve.

“From my perspective,” adds Julie, “everyone worked so well together. There were no egos and nobody wanted credit. It was the true definition of collaboration.” 

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