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Districts Partner with Local TV Stations to Provide Educational Programming

  • Television time quickly evolved into learning time as districts and media groups across the nation formed partnerships to deliver daytime educational programming once schools shut down due to the coronavirus.

    As the trend caught on, local public television stations in all 50 states reported revamping schedules to support at-home learning, according to the APTS (America’s Public Television Stations) organization.  

    In Los Angeles, a plan for airing educational programming was hatched weeks before shuttering schools became a reality. The idea from the start was to create a model that would be of use to nascent partnerships elsewhere in California and across the nation.  

    Austin Beutner, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, proposed to Paula Kerger, CEO of PBS in Washington, and Andrew Russell, president and CEO of two local public stations, that they jointly create standards-based instructional content to be aired during the week.

    “We asked PBS to work with us with a simple goal: We know what good looks like, [so] let’s find a way to share it with our students,” Beutner said, according to a district news release.

    By April, the At-Home Learning initiative had attracted large audiences across California and beyond, with more than 70 stations in at least 30 states using the model. The Los Angeles stations delivered content to other stations far and wide via satellite feed.

    Teachers collaborated by subject matter and grade level to produce programming. PBS station KQUED in San Francisco developed a toolkit of digital resources aligning with state standards and offered online training sessions for teachers. Stations in San Diego and Sacramento signed on to air the programs in their regions.

    PBS resources included NOVA episodes, Ken Burns’ The Civil War and several PBS KIDS series including Peg + Cat and CyberchaseCyberchase Space Waste

    Programming was extensive – 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. for pre-K through 2d on PBS SoCal, 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for all grades on KLCS-TV, and daytime programming for secondary students on KCET. The stations’ content also was streaming on the free PBS app and on Samsung devices, YouTube, Amazon, Roku and Apple TV.

    In addition, user-friendly, bilingual programming grids (available at athomelearning.org) kept viewers informed of upcoming schedules by grade and subject matter.

    “Our goal here is for all students to have access to free educational resources,” said Russell, noting a surge in viewership in Southern California.

    Educational television programming appeared to be having a notable impact elsewhere in the country, especially in reaching children in low-income families.

    Amy Shaw, president and chief executive of Nine Network (KETC) in St. Louis, told Education Week that, with schools closed, the station counted as “the largest classroom in the St. Louis area.”

    Shaw lauded the programming being attempted by KETC counterparts and school districts across the country.

    “You could argue PBS is currently the largest classroom in the country at the moment,” she said. “That’s a very powerful idea—that we’re not just a nice thing to have. We’re essential and relevant to the learning outcomes of children across this country at this time of crisis.”

    Fort Worth Independent School District, Dallas Independent School District and Univision jointly launched Unidos Para Aprender (Together to Learn), an hour of daily instruction weekdays in Spanish for students in grades pre-K through 5. Teachers from both districts were creating the content, including lessons on emotional learning.

    “Every crisis brings an opportunity – to learn, to grow, and to work together in finding new ways of fulfilling our mission,” Fort Worth Schools Superintendent Kent Paredes Scribner said in a news release. Michael Hinojosa, Dallas Schools Superintendent, said the endeavor showed that “working together we can make a difference.”

    Chicago Public Schools announced partnerships with multiple stations, including Univision/UniMas, the Spanish language station, to provide supplemental programming, including content from the district’s Curriculum Equity Initiative content library. In addition, Chicago’s local PBS affiliate was airing content geared toward middle-grade students.

    The Cleveland Metropolitan School District partnered with CW43 WUAB television and the teachers’ union to offer lessons for one hour each weekday morning, with the focus on K-2 on Mondays, 3-5 Tuesdays, 6-8 Wednesdays and 9-12 on Thursdays, while “life skills” for all grades was being aired on Fridays.

    In Memphis, the Shelby County Schools’ own broadcast services team produced lessons featuring teachers that were being aired on the district’s cable channel, on the local PBS station and the commercial station, WMC-TV. The schedule included lessons, activities and resources for grades pre-K through 12, with a backup plan: the lessons were being archived, giving families access to the video library. 

    Shelby Schools Superintendent Joris Ray, noting “the potential for long-term school closure,” said it was “essential to find ways to address digital disparities and continue to provide learning opportunities and critical services to our students.”

    NYC Stations Deliver Programming

    Among the more robust efforts, two public television stations in the New York metro area preempted programming beginning in late March–a six-hour span on WLIW21 and a five-hour block on WLIW WORLD. Among other features, there was a midday segment, Regents Review, to prep high school students for the state test. The lineup for grades 6-12 on the WORLD channel – an offering pitched to educators nationwide – included a segment on news literacy/media studies. The programming was being supplemented with resources from PBSLearningMedia and aligned to curriculum standards in every state, according to WNET, the parent public station.

    In early May, more programming aimed at young learners (3-year-old kindergarten to second grade) was launched by the WNET Group. Episodes were airing weekdays, were aligned to standards and included “Parenting Minutes”--short videos with information on social-emotional and early childhood learning for families to use with their children.

    “Every weekday, our youngest learners will be able to participate in story time, interactive lessons, and hands-on projects all from the safety and comfort of their own homes,” said New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

    The partnerships were being touted as a way to bridge the digital divide and deliver educational programming to homes that may lack internet access or the devices necessary to log into online instruction. But a digital divide of another sort soon became apparent: the endeavor was relying on a medium – network television -- that the current generation of students, and even their parents, have little use for.

    And some students and/or their caregivers seemed at a loss about how to tune in.

    The Indianapolis school district took notice and, online, offered detailed instructions on “how to watch” using an antenna, or a converter box, or the HDMI input function, and publicized the email and phone number of a technician on call to assist families individually.

    The episodes produced by Indianapolis teachers filled a need, according to Indianapolis Schools superintendent Aleesia Johnson in a news release. The partnership “adds another layer” to distance learning and “increases access to families who need it most,” she said.

    DuJuan McCoy, CEO of Circle City Broadcasting in Indianapolis, agreed. “Free broadcast television can help fill the gap for those without access by providing a link to educational opportunities for all students, regardless of income,” he said.

    Stations were providing other resources too, offering training to teachers and aiming some programming toward hard-pressed parents. Detroit Public Television already was publishing a newsletter six days a week with games, recipes, the next day’s programming schedule and tips to parents and expanded that effort in the ongoing crisis.

    Rich Homberg, president and CEO of Detroit Public Television, said the station was consulting with educators daily.

    “We’re good at creating media,” Homberg told Education Week. “They’re the ground troops and we’re an air force looking to coordinate with them.”

    Lists of state and regional collaborative efforts can be found at the National Educational Telecommunications Association website and at the America’s Public Television Stations group website.