How Compass Rose Public Schools Is Reopening Schools in 2020–21

Compass Rose Public Schools student with mask

Compass Rose Public Schools has stayed focused on its mission, even while growing and facing the challenges of educating students safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are leading by example with their innovative approaches to planning, curriculum, and communication.

Over the summer, we spoke with Paul Morrissey, Founder and CEO; Ryane Burke, Executive Director; Parker Couch, Senior Director of Austin; and Dr. Chawanna “Chae” Chambers, Senior Director of Curriculum and Assessment. Also, we have been following their hub, a site where they have gathered information such as their in person learning plan, their virtual learning plan, and their reopening plan.

For Compass Rose, as for all schools during these times, the details of their plans keep changing. What matters is the thoughtfulness and care of the people who are making and carrying out the plans, and their commitment to transparency and building relationships with stakeholders.

Planning at Compass Rose

“This is by far the most challenging crisis that schools in this country have faced in decades,” said Morrissey. The team—Burke, Couch, and Chambers—praised Morrissey for reacting quickly to the news that schools would close. They have worked hard to make plans and stay true to the mission.

In March, when schools closed suddenly, Morrissey had “a borderline paranoid urgency” about setting up COVID task force, reported Couch, a skilled project manager who now leads the task force. As they made arrangements for distance learning for the rest of 2019–2020, and began planning for 2020–2021, Morrissey helped his team think the unthinkable. “Every single doomsday scenario that Paul had thought of has come true,” said Couch.

Chambers, the expert on curriculum and tech, appreciates Morrissey’s vision. “If your leadership doesn’t anticipate, or have the capacity to think beyond, and see a picture bigger than even your senior level team, then your kids and your teachers will suffer,” she said. “One of the things I appreciate about Paul’s leadership is being able to see things that other people may not see, and then push a team to get to the place where he knows we need to be.”

Before the pandemic, Compass Rose was already in growth mode. As we described in our Compass Rose enrollment guide, the network added two new facilities: a high school at Brooks for the growth of Compass Rose Legacy, and a new campus at Port San Antonio for Compass Rose Ingenuity. Compass Rose had one principal in 2019–2020, and now they have five principals, all of whom report to Burke. They added over 900 students over the summer. They also added new grade levels, in K–5, that they had never served before. “We have the right team in place, and we are confident in our plans,” said Morrissey. “We just have to execute all of these plans in a whole new world.”

The Compass Rose campuses are purposefully located in low-income areas of San Antonio to provide educational opportunities for students in historically underserved areas. “COVID-19 is not just a public health crisis. It’s also an education equity crisis,” said Morrissey. “We know that low income students are disproportionately adversely affected by distance learning. We are making plans that not just tread water, but that also close gaps.”

Because Compass Rose has been ahead of the curve in planning and adapting to the pandemic, they are part of a task force of 20 or so superintendents who work with the Texas Commissioner of Education to share best practices. The other charter school networks on the task force are Uplift, KIPP Texas, and IDEA Public Schools.

Rather than trying to wait out the pandemic, hoping that they can make up gains later, the Compass Rose team is working hard to innovate and develop new curriculum. “This is certainly a challenge, but this is an opportunity as well,” said Morrissey.

Compass Rose Public Schools classroom social distancing

Curriculum and Innovation

Because the leaders at Compass Rose are honest and realistic about the challenges of the situation, they have been bold about looking for ways to do better. “If we look at this as a long term thing,” said Morrissey, “we have to think about how we can drastically improve what we do under these new circumstances.” His hope is that by doing a good job of serving underprivileged students, then they can get a “slingshot” or “leapfrog effect.” They want to close the gaps and make sure their students are prepared for distance learning. “How do we prepare our kids for a brave new world?” asked Morrissey.

Chambers joked that, in spite of her title, her “role is all COVID.” She makes sure that all of their curriculum has a way to integrate with Google Classroom, and that there is an online component to support what the teachers are doing. Teachers use Google Meet to connect with their students, and Zoom for professional development. For assessments, she makes sure that they can still collect good data, such as by doing MAP testing remotely.

To make things simpler for families, Chambers started using Clever, a single sign on app, that works with 80 to 90 percent of the distance learning materials. “It’s a portal or hub for all of our apps so parents don’t have to go searching all these different places for the apps that their kids are going to need,” said Chambers. They asked the developers to add a feature to make sure that all of the staff (including instructional coaches and admins) can access it, not just students and teachers. The software also automatically populates the class rosters. “Hopefully, it will make it a lot easier for teachers.”

Even before COVID, Chambers was already working on adding more blended learning to the Compass Rose curriculum. The pandemic has challenged all the stakeholders—students, families, teachers, principals—to use online tools in new ways for sharing information and building relationships.

Compass Rose Public Schools teacher with mask

Communication and Relationships

So much of the work that the Compass Rose leadership team is doing in response to the pandemic is directed towards effective communication with students and their families, as well as with staff.

“Every decision that we have made thus far, we have prioritized tending to our flock—making sure that every stakeholder is accounted for,” said Morrissey. “We are keeping in mind the needs of our staff as much as our students and their families.”

As the leader of the task force, Couch is “thinking exclusively about COVID.” He joked that his temporary title is “Senior Director of Pandemics.” His job involves a lot of reading. “It feels like information goes out of date by the week, the day, the time of day,” said Couch.

Couch’s intense research is reflected in the richness of the hub, which is the school’s main communication channel for COVID updates. There are links to external websites that the task force has found helpful in staying up to date about public health and regulations. The hub contains written information, including the reopening plan, the in person learning plan, and the virtual learning plan.

The hub also hosts video resources. The team has turned each chapter of the plans into webinars using slides and voiceovers. In addition, Nancy Cruz, the Family Engagement Specialist, has made short videos, 60–90 seconds long, for sharing on social media. By offering information in different lengths and formats, “parents can go as deep or as shallow as they want to,” said Couch.

For families who are accessing virtual learning from home, the hub contains links to Google Classroom. In addition, Chambers has made videos about how to access the virtual learning portals. The hub is designed for Compass Rose families, but the resources are applicable to families with students at other schools that use these platforms.

Burke has an important role in communications because she supports the principals, who in turn reach out to families. “Families want to feel connected with their child’s school leader,” said Burke. “Even before I meet the teacher, I want to know that the person leading the campus is the right person to lead the school in the right direction.” Since May, principals have been holding small group sessions and virtual coffee chats. “We want to make sure our families are able to access information and have a clear understanding of the environment and the people with whom their child will be interacting,” said Burke.

The communication strategy also includes early touch points from teachers. “We want relationship-based learning from the very start, even before classes start,” said Burke. Every student has an advisor or homeroom teacher who is their “person”—the point of contact that students and families can reach out to. “It’s a relationship of real trust.” The leaders want families to be confident that in person and virtual learning will both be high quality and safe; when families have questions about the details, sometimes they want to talk it through with someone they trust. Some of these calls from team members to families have lasted up to 45 minutes. Burke added that they want to “make sure that families know that safety and high quality learning are priorities.”

Compass Rose Public Schools Blaze Your Trail

Experiencing Compass Rose Public Schools in 2020–2021

Chambers is not just a network leader at Compass Rose—she’s also a parent. This is her son’s second year of middle school. She and her husband feel comfortable with what the school is doing to maintain high academic standards, to minimize risk for people on campus, and to communicate how to use educational technology. She knows that families want schools to be transparent about what’s going on, and to share information so the parents can make plans.

Compass Rose Public Schools has been working since March to make the August 2020 school reopening a success. The network leaders faced the tough realities of educating students during a pandemic and embraced technology. They have worked hard to over-communicate with families and staff and be transparent about the challenges. “There’s no perfect solution here. What they want to know is that we’re not making off-the-cuff decisions,” said Morrissey. “The decisions we’re making are with the mission and vision in mind. We take care of all of our people. We tend to our flock.”

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Paul Morrissey, Founder and CEO of Compass Rose Public Schools, and Dr. Chawanna Chambers, Senior Director of Curriculum and Assessment, speak with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on September 15, 2020 at 4 PM Central live on Facebook and YouTube.

Paul Morrissey is the Founder and CEO of Compass Rose Public Schools, where he has quietly built one of the strongest academic programs serving students in San Antonio. Compass Rose operates two schools—Compass Rose Legacy, a College Prep school focused on Entrepreneurship, and Compass Rose Ingenuity, a College Prep school focused on STEM and Aeronautics. Prior to founding Compass Rose, Paul completed a Fellowship with Building Excellent Schools, a national nonprofit dedicated to supporting leaders as they open great schools in areas of high need across the country. He started his career as a teacher and school-  network-level leader at BASIS.

Dr. Chawanna B. Chambers is a national award-winning and board-certified PK–20 career educator with teaching experience spanning primary, secondary, and higher education. She has taught K–12 English online, coordinated Title I after-school tutoring programs, served as a reading intervention teacher, planned and facilitated advisory programs, developed curriculum, supported teachers as an instructional coach, published educational research, and served in several other leadership capacities. In addition to being named New Teacher of the Year in 2009, the National Council for Teachers of English awarded her with one of its Early Career Educator awards, and she received the Principal’s Award on her campus in 2010. Chawanna is a class of 2018 New Leaders Council San Antonio fellow, member of the 2019 Leadership SAISD class, and contributor to Alamo City Moms.

Chawanna, known as Dr. Chae to many, thrives at the intersection of educational theory and practice. Understanding students’ experiences in school is integral to delivering what will help create a lifetime of meaningful success and joy for each of them. Using research and relationships as the cornerstone of her work, she works to design learning environments that encourage belonging and mastery for K–12 students. Currently, Chawanna serves as Senior Director of Curriculum & Assessment for Compass Rose Public Schools.

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