October 1, 2020

A Very Different Back-to-School Season — and What We Can Learn from It

This post was co-authored with Jenee Henry Wood of Transcend, a national nonprofit working with communities to build and spread extraordinary, equitable learning environments.

As anyone in education knows, the first few weeks of school are absolutely critical. The relationships, routines, and community established in those early days serve as a foundation for the rest of the year. We also know that this year, most of America’s school communities had a dramatically different type of start. 

Over the summer, in response to the unprecedented challenges leaders and schools were facing due to the coronavirus pandemic, the teams of Transcend and Bellwether began brainstorming opportunities to combine our respective organizations’ expertise and resources (see, for example, Bellwether’s COVID resource page and Transcend’s COVID resource Library). 

In this blog post, our two organizations share insights from our experiences working closely with schools on how three common back-to-school priorities (relationship-building, routine creation, and teacher supports) have looked for their school-based partners during the COVID-19 crisis, and consider how these real-time innovations might help us rethink the way we do things in school moving forward.

Here are more details on these three priorities, with concrete examples and lessons for the future:

Relationship building with students and families

Students need to feel known and seen before they can learn effectively. Because of this, relationship building has always been a priority for the first several weeks of school.

How it looks during COVID-19

  • One-on-one meet ups with students outside of the building or via Zoom
  • Facilitated e-intros between last year’s teacher and this year’s
  • “Looping” with the same students from one year to the next (i.e. teachers stick with the same students they had last year)
  • Every student receives regular, one-on-one touchpoints from an assigned staff member
  • Targeted outreach to students who miss class to troubleshoot barriers early on
  • Virtual, daily student advisories (adult-facilitated small groups for students)

Exemplar from the field

Statesman College Prep Academy for Boys in Washington, D.C, is ensuring no student falls through the cracks by using daily 1:1 check-ins with students and families to build relationships, support well-being, and foster engagement in virtual learning. 

Considerations for the future 

Is relationship-building in schools too confined by traditional structures like the academic calendar year, grade bands, and staff organizational charts? Moving forward, how might we move past these constraints to make sure every student feels supported by a trusted adult at school?

Routine setting with students and families

The first six weeks of school are essential for establishing schedules, routines, and procedures that help classrooms run efficiently and effectively throughout the year. 

How it looks during COVID-19

  • Increased student agency to determine routines around when, where, and how to learn
  • User-friendly, visual schedules to orient students and families to expectations
  • Pre-recorded videos of how to use online platforms, submit work, etc.
  • Regular office hours to troubleshoot/answer questions
  • Daily morning and end-of-day emails to students and families sharing all relevant links and assignments from the day’s lessons 
  • Differentiated expectations (i.e. multiple schedules, flexible timelines for work completion) based on family and student needs 

Exemplar from the field

Van Ness Elementary, a DC Public School and an exemplar in integrating social-emotional learning, has seen great success in translating many of its practices into a virtual setting. Van Ness’ Strong Start Rituals and their First Weeks of School Virtual Learning tools can readily be adopted by teachers.

Considerations for the future

To what extent are our traditional routines and expectations designed for compliance rather than the creation of a strong learning community? Moving forward, how might we reimagine routines and expectation-settings to be more student-centered, inclusive of families, and differentiated by need?  

Holistic staff supports

Teachers and staff (like employees everywhere) must feel supported as people and professionals in order to perform at the highest level and meet the diverse needs of young people. In the current context, even more attention must be paid to supporting adults who are dealing with added stress and trauma and are working under entirely new job expectations and conditions. 

How it looks during COVID-19 

  • Connections to peer counseling and advising for staff, as needed
  • Small-group adult mindfulness activities 
  • Professional development that is responsive to teachers’ real-time needs, and which often utilizes teachers with in-house expertise as leaders 
  • A bank of rotating “off time” to provide days off for rest and recovery 
  • Differentiated staff schedules and expectations to accommodate demands of personal life during a pandemic
  • Innovative staffing models that allow for increased efficiency and specialization

Exemplar from the field

Pop Consulting has partnered with Transcend to put out a Trauma & Recovery Series designed to support teachers holistically. 

Considerations for the future

Where are there opportunities to rethink teacher roles to increase flexibility, autonomy, and innovation? Moving forward, how might we structure supports that create space for sustainability and self care and allow teachers to be the best professionals they can be?

– – –

The innovations we have observed during this unusual back-to-school season are both inspiring and a call to action. As school leaders and teachers continue to navigate this ongoing crisis, it is imperative that the broader field find ways to create the time, space, and resources for these practitioners to capture lessons learned and consider what those lessons might mean for the future of school. 

During this pandemic, the Bellwether and Transcend teams have partnered to bring the best expertise of our two organizations to support leaders thinking about school differently. If you are interested in supporting further collaboration between our organizations, please email Tresha Ward (tresha.ward@bellwethereducation.org) and Jeff Wetzler (jeff@transcendeducation.org)


September 30, 2020

FAQs for Future Applicants to the Federal Charter School Program Grant

As applicants anxiously await the results of the FY2020 Charter School Program (CSP) State Entities grant competition, we want to offer some tips for prospective future applicants. As my Bellwether colleagues recently wrote, the CSP is a discretionary grant that provides federal resources to create, replicate, and support high-quality public charter schools. Developing a strong CSP application takes significant time and forethought. Although future funding of the CSP hangs in the balance, charter networks thinking about applying should plan far in advance to develop a strong application. 

Bellwether has partnered with a number of charter management organizations to develop winning federal education grant proposals, including CSP Replication and Expansion grants. The Frequently Asked Questions below explain what differentiates a successful application and provide advice on developing a winning proposal. 

Logistics of applying 

When should I start thinking about applying for a CSP grant? 

Six-to-eight-week turnarounds are fairly common: in 2019, the notice inviting applications appeared on November 26, 2019 and the deadline for transmittal of applications was January 10, 2020. Because the turnaround is pretty quick, occurs at a time of year when many staff may be planning time off, and the applications themselves are often over sixty pages long, preparing in advance is very helpful. 

As you think about applying, consider your network’s readiness to grow and increase impact. Indicators of readiness to grow can cross multiple dimensions, such as quality of programming, strength of student outcomes, clarity of instructional and cultural visions, student and staff retention and satisfaction, and financial health and sustainability. Bellwether offers a “Readiness to Grow” diagnostic tool that can help organizations assess their strengths and areas for focus before or during a growth process (see case study that used this tool here).  Continue reading


September 29, 2020

States Should Keep Pushing for College and Career Readiness, Even Under a Pandemic

As graduation rates have continued to rise across the nation, students increasingly require remediation at the next level. One study found that 50% of two-year college students and 20% of four-year college students required remedial classes, in some cases discouraging those students from persisting in higher education. 

Combined with recent reports of student disengagement during COVID-19 remote learning and concern that high school dropout rates will rise, states must consider how best to provide the support and learning opportunities for their students to graduate college and career ready, even in the midst of a pandemic. Students need to be prepared to pursue economically stable postsecondary pathways in these tenuous times. This demands a variety of opportunities, with the goal of graduation as a starting point for postsecondary success, not simply the finish line of a high school journey. 

In our paper released earlier this month, Chad Aldeman and I look at the data states are collecting around college and career pathways. One encouraging trend is that states have changed their formal high school rating systems beyond graduation rates and test scores to include a host of college- and career-readiness measures. By our count, 34 states plus DC have some form of indicator along these lines. Another 12 states are tracking one of these measures but do not yet hold schools accountable for them. Measuring postsecondary readiness is a crucial step for preparing students to succeed beyond high school and supporting the skills and content knowledge necessary for students so that they don’t require remediation at the next level.

Yet how do you establish high expectations during a pandemic when just getting through the school year seems challenging? One approach might include maintaining a focus on readiness measures, even as graduation criteria shift.

Due to the pandemic, many students in the class of 2020 were permitted to graduate from high school with requirements loosened or waived completely. For example, four midwestern states we reviewed — Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota — eased graduation requirements last spring. These changes are representative of similar measures taken by states across the country. 

Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota all had adjusted cohort graduation rates above 80% in the 2017-18 school year. Presumably, with relaxed standards, their graduation rates for the class of 2020 will be the same or higher. Some of the adjustments they made for easing graduation last spring are noted below: Continue reading


September 28, 2020

Student Absences Get Worse When Juvenile Justice Systems Step In: A Q&A With Josh Weber

The Council of State Governments Justice Center recently published a new report sharing their findings from a study of South Carolina’s probation system and probation’s negative effect on student attendance. I asked the report’s author, Josh Weber, a few questions about the goals of the study and what he thinks it means for schools. I also asked his thoughts about the impact of distance learning in light of the recent news about young people being referred to law enforcement for not attending online classes. 

What motivated the research behind this report? What were you hoping to better understand?

Nationwide, juvenile arrests and court referrals have declined substantially over the last decade, but referrals for truancy have remained largely stable and actually increased to over 60,000 in 2018. In addition, over 288,000 young people are placed on some form of probation every year, at least some of whom are placed under system supervision primarily due to concerns about their school attendance. Likewise, for almost all youth placed on probation, daily school attendance is a mandatory condition of their supervision, and youth can be incarcerated for their failure to comply. 

We conducted this study because we felt that most jurisdictions were not questioning whether the use of the juvenile justice system to intervene in youth’s education in these ways is an effective approach. We wanted to understand whether being placed on probation actually led to improvements in youth’s school attendance.   

What is the key takeaway for schools and educators? Is there something they should be doing differently? Continue reading


September 22, 2020

“Making Sure Every Student is Seen and Heard:” A Q&A with Executive Director/Principal Ayanna Gore

Ayanna Gore is the Executive Director/Principal of Summit Sierra High School in Seattle, Washington. We interviewed her as part of our Promise in the Time of Quarantine: Exploring Schools Responses to COVID-19 case studies, released today. Unlike many schools that hoped to open their doors for hybrid schooling this year, Summit Sierra made the early decision to open fully virtually. I spoke with Ayanna about what they learned from virtual school last year and how they’re improving upon it now.

When did you know you would be fully virtual and how did that shape planning for this school year?

By the third week of June, we shared with our families that we were planning for a fully virtual online experience. If things changed (due to a vaccine or the governor’s recommendation to reopen), we would set up workstations where families could come in and get in-person support, while learning still occurred virtually. But we committed to a 100% virtual model for consistency.

This meant reshaping our entire new-student and all-student orientation. And for onboarding new faculty, we connected with them a little earlier than we normally do. We had conversations about things like computer/Zoom fatigue, so we built in natural breaks for a schedule that still meets our academic goals. 

It’s about community and making sure every student is seen and heard. That’s how we started our new student orientation. We flipped it from the traditional “here is your schedule, these are your teachers.” We started with every student hearing from our leadership team on our mission and our individual journeys and stories. New and returning students all got interviewed and had time to share their journey and their story. 

Can you share more details of that orientation? Continue reading