In Practice: Building an Online School for Girls

Spring 2024

By Justin Curtis

This article appeared as "Making Virtual a Reality" in the Spring 2024 issue of Independent School.

As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, The Bryn Mawr School (MD), like many other schools around the world, shifted to virtual classes. The challenges were undeniable. But our school community was engaged and open to doing things a little differently. We knew students would be learning online for a while, and our head of school, the board, and our senior administrative team started to think about how this could be a moment for innovation and flexibility. How could we begin to reimagine our core educational experience—and deliver it beyond our Baltimore girls school? Bryn Mawr is in an extremely competitive market of independent schools, and if we truly wanted to meet our mission and deliver a powerful education experience where girls are, how could we meet the moment?

In summer 2019, we had piloted a summer session with 24 in-person students. The next summer, we decided to move forward virtually. We wanted to continue to offer girls a chance to catch up and get ahead, and this time, summer online learning would be a chance for teachers to hone their online teaching skills, learn best practices, and use innovative pedagogical strategies. With no additional marketing dollars, 127 students (the majority were from Bryn Mawr) enrolled. That’s when we started to see that online learning—with accessibility, flexibility, personalization, and enhanced support—was a game-changer for some students. 

With a community eager to commit to online learning even after we returned to campus in fall 2020, we knew we were onto something with our online offerings. Plus, it had the potential to help the school become less tuition dependent by building a mission-aligned auxiliary revenue stream. That’s when we began building an online program that offers students near and far an online version of Bryn Mawr.

The Approach

Using the blueprint of Bryn Mawr’s campus-based school and embracing our 140-year-old mission to meet the needs of today’s students both academically and from a social-emotional perspective, we began to build the online school from the ground up. I became the head of the program and worked with teachers and administrators to adapt the Bryn Mawr curriculum with best practices in online teaching and learning to allow for flexibility, accessibility, and community building. 

We identified the types of students who would most benefit from the online program, including elite athletes, performers, homeschooled children, those who travel frequently, and others looking for flexibility and strong academics with many supports. We started with students in grades 8 to 10, with the plan to build another grade year in the future. Students could participate full time or supplement their existing academic courses. The program’s sequence could be customized to each student.

Then, we started to build the schedule. Classes would meet synchronously Monday through Thursday, with optional afternoon programming. Fridays would be reserved for club meetings, activities, speakers, office hours, and other chances to connect with peers or faculty. Classes would be discussion-based, and student participation—including keeping their camera on—would be expected. They’d participate in live Harkness discussions or a historical salon, using a class-specific group chat thread, shared programming projects, gallery walks with student feedback, breakout rooms, and much more. Accelerated opportunities in educational technology, including interactive whiteboards and tools to support science labs, would allow us to use multiple methods for student engagement. 

We planned to keep much of our program, including handbook policies, grading, and graduation requirements, the same, and because of these consistencies, our existing accrediting body, the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, views the online school as a division within Bryn Mawr. We also received accreditation through the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges, a six-year cycle of quality in which schools demonstrate the capacity, commitment, and competency to support student learning and ongoing school improvement. With our program designed and accredited, we used a combination of market research and financial forecasting to determine tuition, which is $15,000 less per year than our in-person school.

The Process

In August 2022, Bryn Mawr Online School (BMOS) opened its virtual doors with seven teachers, some of whom were former Bryn Mawr teachers who moved out of the area and returned to teach online. Faculty members are a school’s most valuable asset, and with national teacher satisfaction at a low, prioritizing the development of a healthy faculty culture was essential. Faculty culture greatly impacts the student experience, and we examined the traits of effective teams and prioritized implementing structures and practices that fostered communication and collaboration and empowered faculty to embrace a founder’s mentality. 

We revamped faculty onboarding, creating a comprehensive system that includes a learning management system (LMS) training course before a week of professional development and orientation. We focus on best practices in online learning, technology usage, and how to troubleshoot and seek support. Like our students, BMOS faculty can easily seek assistance from the teaching community and promptly receive answers. This robust support network encourages faculty to take risks in the classroom—trying new technology tools and not worrying about the lesson failing—knowing they have technical and pedagogical backing.

We seek input from our faculty every day. At our weekly faculty meetings, we prioritize our live meeting times to discuss issues pertaining to pedagogy, which may include specific professional development, trends in our classrooms, and student support strategies. Announcements are communicated via our chat thread before meetings, and discussion material is shared in advance. This “flipped” approach to faculty meetings encourages prepared, collaborative discussions rather than a unidirectional flow of information.

Online school faculty use a standardized template in our LMS, with consistent syllabi and submission policies. Simplifying teacher-student meeting scheduling, we’ve introduced a two-click system for quick and efficient arrangement. Our primary communication mode has shifted from email to a threaded chat system. Our “faculty room” lives in this space, along with groups created for each class, club, activity, etc. Through this approach, we are meeting the students where they prefer to communicate. 

Each BMOS student is assigned a “student success coach,” who partners with the student and parents to navigate the online learning experience, discuss academic goals, and monitor student progress. Coaches are the first point of contact for our families and are another way the voices of our students reach our weekly faculty meetings. This model allows us to deeply know all of our students, their motivations, and the best ways to support them in achieving their goals. 

While strong academics are essential, building a community of learners is equally important. Our community programming is carefully designed to strengthen connections among students and faculty. Various initiatives, such as weekly all-community meetings, wellness activities, a speaker series, and student-led clubs, also align with student interests, including multiweek activities such as improv, self-defense, AI art creation, music composition, and drawing. Like many schools, BMOS celebrates spirit weeks, Halloween, fitness competitions, and other events, leveraging the unique advantages of online learning to make these occasions special and memorable. 

In April 2023, BMOS students and faculty met on our Baltimore campus for four days of community-focused activities. We saw the power of our online community and how it transcended into a physical meeting with not an inkling of awkwardness. Students and faculty built lifelong memories during the retreat, and the biggest feedback we heard was to make it longer. 

We are continuously asking for feedback on classes, activities, parent programming, and more, and we share the results of the surveys with our community. Short and simple survey forms have helped us refine our programs and offer new programs based on student interests and parent input. 

The Takeaways

Launching BMOS has been filled with highs, lows, and continuous learning. While we leverage our brick-and-mortar school when feasible, BMOS stands as an independent institution. Despite its smaller size, it still requires completing the same tasks to support students, faculty, and parents effectively. However, this also presents an opportunity for a reciprocal flow of learning between our campus-based school and the online program.

For instance, online learning could supplement traditional schedules, allowing students to engage in daytime activities like internships and community service and then attend classes in the early evening. Innovations in our classrooms can be shared between the schools, enhancing experiences for both sets of students. We see BMOS as an incubator for innovative ideas and practices, eager to explore new concepts beyond just teaching methods.

Schools venturing into online education should recognize that while they may have a strong local reputation, they might not be recognized nationally. In Bryn Mawr’s case, the school is well-known in the Baltimore region as an excellent school for girls, but we face the challenge of establishing our reputation as it expands into new markets across the country and globally. Educating families about our school’s history and mission is crucial and demands additional effort during the admission process.

In two years, we are seeing the impact of our school on students and their families. A recent survey showed unanimous willingness among families to recommend BMOS to others. Comments like “This experience has changed my daughter’s and our family’s life” and “We are immensely grateful for discovering your school” are not only heartening but also motivate us to keep cultivating an educational environment that revolutionizes student experiences. As we prepare to graduate our first BMOS class in two years, the feedback we receive is a powerful driving force. 

Justin Curtis

Justin Curtis is the head of Bryn Mawr Online, which was established in 2022 at The Bryn Mawr School (MD).