Lessons from Apollo 13

NASA’s Apollo 13 mission to land on the moon has been on my mind lately. Jim Lovell’s book about the mission (he was the Mission Commander) was made into a movie starring Tom Hanks, if you’re looking for something to read or watch. During this mission an explosion in the oxygen tanks changed the goal from a carefully planned landing on the moon into an improvised scramble to bring the astronauts home safely. Gene Krantz, Flight Director, led NASA’s response through the crisis and ensuing dilemmas. He kept his teams focused on the bigger picture as they wrestled with the details and difficulties of their improvised mission.  At one point Gene declared, “I don’t care what it was designed to do, I care what it can do!”

As I sit at my computer and try to parse through the unusual problems of this socially distant semester, Gene Krantz’s utilitarian advice comes to mind.   Des Moines Public Schools is attempting something that has never been done before.  We are now relying on our district systems (Canvas, Teams, Virtual classes, students email)  in ways we never anticipated. Moving so quickly to distance learning has been a test of our creativity and persistence as much as a test of our values.   I am profoundly grateful for and exceedingly proud of the effort and resilience of our community in a time of crisis.  Our students, families, teachers, and support staff have been so gracious and courageous through our necessary transition to distance learning.   To paraphrase Apollo 13, we are trying to bring this semester home safely.

“But now, we gotta get ‘em in.  Tell me about the power up procedures.” – Attributed to Gene Krantz.

Because of the unusual situation, we are operating under the ‘voluntary enrichment’ model instead of a ‘mandatory’ model of school.

What voluntary distance learning means for DMPS high school students:

Technically, if students lock in their grades for the semester right now and stop, that is disappointing but acceptable.  Grade and credit reporting is the immediate work that must come first. We started last week with seniors since they are under the tightest time constraints.  April 20th we started with 9 – 11 grade students. On Thursday, April 23, we start with 8th Grade Academy and on Monday, April 27, we start K-8, including Prep Academy.

This is the transactional phase that we are in at the moment– it is all about the credits and the grades.

But what about AP and DMACC courses?

The College Board has cut down the amount of material that will be tested and they have shortened the tests from about 3.5 hours to 45 minutes.  Continued preparation for AP tests can be accessed from the College Board, which is providing test preparation lessons online free of charge and asynchronously. Starting this week, Academy teachers are also providing test preparation materials that do not count towards a grade and are completely optional.  However, many are providing feedback to students about their learning on these optional assignments. Learn more about AP EXAMS in DMPS.

DMACC courses must finish the semester because they are college level courses. Some classes were very close to finishing all the course competencies and others had already finished all the course competencies.  So, how much remains depends on the class.  Students have the choice to stay enrolled and finish, withdraw from DMACC credit but keep the high school credit, or withdraw completely.

Options for DMACC & AP Courses

Will there be any new content?

Almost all Academy teachers are offering enrichment and new learning that is totally optional and will not change students’ current semester grades.  (Just a few teachers will not be able to do this because of personal circumstances.) This learning is simply for the joy of learning. Students participate because they are invigorated by new learning, are interested, are preparing for AP, finishing DMACC, or simply because they don’t want to feel left behind later.

This will be the transformational phase to which we are striving– it is all about the learning.  

Is it required? No.

Is it beneficial? Yes.

Is it accessible to any student who wants to participate? Required. DMPS is working very hard with business and community partners to make this a reality.

What do I do if I miss a class meeting?

We are working to be as flexible as possible. Some teachers are only offering asychronous materials that students can access whenever the student needs them.  Some are offering “office hours” when students can meet them in a Microsoft TEAMS meeting to ask questions and get support. Others are holding optional class meetings. But it has not been an uncommon experience to find a teacher had to change one of these optional meetings to a different time than they expected or that students may have two class meetings at  the same time. It can be so frustrating!

If your teacher changed the time of a meeting unexpectedly or if you have two class meetings at the same time, please email your teacher(s) and ask, “Will you please record the meeting and post it in our Team Site or on Canvas so I can watch it later?” or “Will there be an opportunity to get that information in another way if I missed the meeting or can’t attend at that time?”  Remember, your teacher may be learning how to have Teams meetings or utilize Canvas.  So a question, asked kindly, will help them realize the problem you’re experiencing and motivate them to find a solution.

At Academy, teachers have been helping each other quite a bit learn and discover features of Canvas and Teams. Teacher leaders are making videos and hosting PLC meetings to share insights and tips.A schedule  is too restrictive in this environment that requires maximum flexibility– we have to navigate not only what happens at Academy but at each of the 17 DMPS schools and numerous out of district students we serve.

Remember in Apollo 13, when they started implementing their solutions to critical and urgent problems, they often created new problems to solve. “We gotta find a way to put a square peg in a round hole,” said Gene when they had to figure out how to use square CO2 filter cartridges from the shut down Command Module with the CO2 scrubber machine (takes round cartridges) on the LEM Module which was acting as their lifeboat. Well, it’s like that. As we begin to create and use new tools and strategies in ways we’ve never done before, it is likely going to be some quirks, irritations, and new problems to solve. We just have to keep giving each other grace while we work through this crisis.


Students may have discovered that their passwords were reset. The reset password is the student’s birthday (mmddyyyy).  When they log in they will be prompted to change their password.  Why would the district reset passwords now?  Well, it turns out that some students never logged into their student email accounts this year.  And, the way our security system was configured, you must use a school device on the school WiFi network to sign in to your email for the first time.  But that is just not possible right now. So, the system had to be reconfigured so students who had never used student email (primarily younger students in K-8) could get logged in and start getting their emails.

Your School email has a “Focused” and “Other” inboxes.  Mass messages sent from a district account will automatically go to your Other inbox.  Learn more about it HERE.   Or watch this VIDEO.

And remember students, when you use Canvas, Teams, or school email, you have agreed to the acceptable use policy.  Keep it professional and appropriate for a school setting.


Book online 20 min Counseling appointments on Tuesdays & Thursdays from 9 – 11 AM.  https://tinyurl.com/ydag3alk


We’ve added a page to our Academy website to consolidate COVID-19 information:  https://ca.dmschools.org/covid-19-information/


The Collaborative “Place that Picture” Game is a chance to have fun and evoke a sense of place and belonging.   Anyone can play, but only students can win prizes!

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