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Teaching ceramics on Zoom

Ceramics teacher Mona Seno leads a virtual art class. 

The Start-up School

How the pandemic led NMH to create a bold new program to “meet its students where they are.”

By Jennifer Sutton

Six years ago, NMH introduced a new course in social entrepreneurship, in which students identify social problems and try to solve them — with nonprofit start-up enterprises that provide services to specific audiences. 

Nhu Gonzalez teaching via Zoom

Chemistry teacher Nhu Gonzalez Hoang on Zoom with her students.

Last year when the pandemic hit, and schools around the world had to re-envision how to do their jobs, NMH followed the lead of its social entrepreneurship students. It launched a start-up.

The NMH Lab Program, as it’s called, was introduced last fall to serve students who could not come to campus because of COVID-19. Twenty-five percent of NMH students are international, and in 2020, many of them were facing travel restrictions or visa difficulties, or their families were reluctant to send them away from home during a pandemic. NMH wanted to “meet those students where they were,” said Head of School Brian Hargrove. 

“The guiding question was ‘How could we take the pillars of an NMH experience and translate them into a virtual environment?’”

NMH developed the Lab Program — named for its experimental nature — as a school within a school. Assistant Dean of Faculty Grant Gonzalez, who directs the program and who also teaches the social entrepreneurship course, says it was built to be flexible, molded to the lives of students who’d be learning from their homes while also resembling, as much as possible, what was happening on campus. The guiding question, Gonzalez says, was “How could we take the pillars of an NMH experience and translate them into a virtual environment?”

Answering that question was a “visible manifestation of NMH saying, ‘we’re going to get some valuable lessons’” out of the pandemic, Hargrove says. Those lessons actually started more than a year ago, in March 2020, when NMH closed the campus and shifted classes online. Those two-plus months of remote learning got NMH through the school year, but “we certainly recognized there was an opportunity for improvement,” Hargrove said. When it became clear that the pandemic would affect schools for months, if not years, to come, Hargrove and Bea Garcia, the assistant head of school for academic programs and dean of faculty, along with Gonzalez and other administrators, began to imagine what a more robust online program could look like. 

Computer screen of class on Zoom

NMH's Lab Program was designed around students’ lives at home.

Under normal circumstances, creating something new from the ground up could take a school a year or more, but NMH gave itself only a couple of months. The Lab Program had to promote innovation and accessibility, maintain challenging academic standards, and, above all, support students whose worlds had been turned upside down. 

Armed with feedback from students, faculty, and parents about those initial months of remote learning, Gonzalez knew a few things. Students needed carefully planned class periods: shorter than NMH’s typical 80-minute on-campus classes, which felt too long for Zoom, but longer than the brief 30-minute classes the school put in place when everything first went remote. They needed to attend live classes, not just pre-recorded sessions, to establish stronger connections with teachers and peers. They needed frequent check-ins with their advisors, and access to athletic training and cocurricular classes. They also needed the option to transition from the Lab Program to in-person classes on campus, and to have those transitions feel smooth and manageable.

Gonzalez spent much of last summer meeting individually with every potential Lab student and family, explaining what the program would look like. NMH had already decided to replace its two-semester schedule with more flexible trimesters for 2020–21, with all students taking two classes at a time instead of three. But otherwise, “we wanted to be clear that the Lab was going to be different,” Gonzalez said. “This was a dedicated educational experience for a particular group of students.” 

While NMH opened the school year last fall with in-person classes on campus, nearly 190 students — a third of the student body — opted to enroll in the Lab Program. Most of them participated for part of the year, moving onto campus for at least one term. More than 62 NMH faculty members taught in the Lab in addition to their on-campus classes, teaching early in the morning because Lab students were coming to class from disparate time zones — Russia, China, Vietnam, Europe, New Zealand. With compressed 50-minute classes, students spent more time outside of class on homework assignments and collaborating with each other on projects. This new way of teaching and learning wasn’t easy. But it worked. 

History department chair Tim Relyea observed that leading a Lab class at the beginning of the school year was so unfamiliar that it “felt almost like my first year teaching.” Yet he also saw his pedagogical skills deepen. In an interview with The Bridge, one of NMH’s student publications, he said Lab classes made him “really think through the goal of my subject and the purpose of each project, so it’s helped me maintain focus and be very intentional.”

Students were challenged by the amount of independent work they did outside of class — Teresa Chang ’22 told The Bridge that she sometimes felt like “a studying machine” — but they also experienced success. “I made good progress, and I really appreciated how much effort the teachers made,” says Bryan Ho ’22 of Hong Kong. “My chemistry teacher made detailed videos to cover extra content, and my Government and Civil Liberties teacher also prepared an elaborate curriculum.” Aigerim Orynbassar ’23, who’s from Kazakhstan, reported that teachers made sure she felt connected and prepared. “When I had questions, they did individual Zoom meetings with me to explain the material.” 

“Seeing other Lab students in their homes made me feel like we were in this together. I was surprised in a good way.”

And Zoom turned out to be … decent. “Seeing other Lab students in their homes, either when we were in class or in an online meeting, made me feel like we were in this together,” said Jina Lee ’22 of Korea. “Whenever I wasn’t sure about something, I just asked another student, or the teachers, through text, email, or a call. I thought there would be less communication under the circumstances, so I was surprised in a good way.”

NMH will run the Lab Program for another academic year to provide flexibility for students who may still have COVID-related health, travel, or visa challenges that prevent them from coming to campus. Like any start-up, it’s continuing to evolve, according to Gonzalez. “We want to be immersed in the idea of constant iteration and growth, for both students and adults,” he says. The experience of the past year “has been some of the best professional development NMH faculty members could have had. We want to get better as educators, and the Lab gives us an opportunity to learn side by side with our students in ways that serve the students in the Lab, and, ultimately, here on campus.”

And what happens to the Lab Program after next year, when — hopefully — COVID-19 and the constraints it placed on NMH and schools everywhere have subsided? Hargrove deems the program such a success that he sees it living beyond the pandemic. “It’s about access,” he says. “Is the Lab Program a way for us to bring an NMH education and our commitment to a set of values to a wider audience? NMH is a residential school, and we believe deeply in the residential experience, but we also honor those ideas that can be adapted to an online platform.”  

The Lab Program is a way to imagine new possibilities, Hargrove says. “It’s easy to just protect the status quo. But we can’t do that. We have to keep agitating. We have to keep dreaming.”

Fontis Hsieh ’23 contributed reporting to this story.

All quoted material from Brian Hargrove and Grant Gonzalez comes from the “Enrollment Spectrum” podcast (episode 84) hosted by Peter Baron and Hans Mundahl of the Enrollment Management Association.

Photos by Glenn Minshall