Author Archives: Hailly Korman and Justin Trinidad

“I Wanted Their Education to Be as Strong as it Could Be”: Q&A With Antoneia (Toni) Jackson, Foster Parent In Washington, D.C.

Antoneia (Toni) Jackson has been a foster parent for five kids in Washington, DC, and has navigated between charter schools, traditional district schools, and different daycare options for her foster and adopted children.

How has she navigated school choice options with children in foster care? We recently published a first-of-its-kind report on the obstacles that youth in foster care and their families experience in accessing school choice options, so we spoke with Toni about her experiences and lessons.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How did you choose the school your children are currently enrolled in?

I knew I didn’t know everything. I wanted to make sure I had all the help I needed in getting information for my kids’ education. I wanted their education to be as strong as it could be, so I talked with other parents at the daycare where my kids attended. I admired the other parents: we come from similar social, economic, and educational backgrounds, and we just connected. For example, I found that other parents were parents of adopted children. Everyone was in search of information. I was able to get a variety of perspectives from a diverse population of folks from people whose opinions I valued. Continue reading

A New Way to Classify — and Learn From — “Alternative” Schools

Nearly every district in the country uses the term “alternative” to describe a broad swath of schools, including those that serve students who are pregnant and parenting, students who are new arrivals to the United States, adult learners, youth in foster care, students experiencing homelessness, or students who have previously dropped out. In short, it’s a way to classify schools that serve students who have needs that are not met or addressed by typical K-12 learning environments.

These and many other “alternative” schools meet student needs that are not going away. In the wake of COVID-19, in fact, these needs are more acute than ever. But because these schools are poorly understood by many sector leaders, their distinct strengths are at risk of going unnoticed and untapped. Rather than remaining the quirky outliers, these schools should become models for modern ways of learning, especially when flexible, hybrid, part-time, and distance learning programs are more relevant than ever. 

The reality is that within the big bucket of “alternative schools,” programs differ widely: some may be quasi-virtual or residential programs while others offer evening classes or deliver two-generation support for parents and young children. Ultimately, the big label of “alternative” obscures more than it illuminates. I would like to offer a more sophisticated definition and challenge the idea that these schools are fungible alternatives to conventional education opportunities. 

I have identified three defining features of alternative schools based on my research and experience, including many visits to schools across the country:

  1. They align to an otherwise unmet need for services. For the most part, the alternative to many of these schools is not attending school at all. 
  2. They are intentionally designed to meet a set of specific student needs. This may be a complex constellation of needs, but the designers of the school’s programs and services are guided by the needs, wants, and constraints of the young people that they serve. As a result, they may look much different operationally from a traditional school.
  3. They set mission-aligned learning and outcome objectives (e.g., improved parenting skills, increased school attendance, or developmental milestones of social and emotional learning) and may adjust the thresholds or timelines for traditional metrics of school success (for example, using a six-year graduation rate rather than a four-year measurement).

I believe that schools meeting all these criteria can safely be called “alternative,” but even within that category, I’ve discovered further useful distinctions. Below I offer an overview of three common types of programs, each with its own real-world illustration. 

Schools that offer intensive in-person services

Although many charter models tout their unique in-person school culture and the intangible learning experiences that they create in their buildings, few programs offer the kind of in-person service delivery that a school like Monument Academy, a five-day-a-week boarding school in Washington DC, delivers. With a weekday boarding program for nearly 100 youth, many of whom are in formal foster care or informal kinship care, the physical aspect of the program model is foundational.

Continue reading

It’s Time For a National Teachers’ Strike

Schools closed in March in order to give federal and state governments the time to implement a public health response to COVID-19. They have failed miserably to do so. With case counts exceeding three million and deaths approaching 150,000, the United States is unique in the world for its near-total abdication of responsibility for its people in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century. And now, in the face of rising case numbers, uncontrolled community transmission, and a culture growing increasingly numb to six-figure death rates, people are clamoring for school buildings to reopen

This is an absurd proposition. No teacher should risk their life because the government refuses to address a solvable problem.

Arlington County (VA) signage during COVID-19 outbreak — photo via dmbosstone on Flickr

School districts’ plans for the fall are a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online learning plans —- with heated debate about which approach is best. But this debate is fundamentally misplaced: We do not have a learning problem, we have a public health problem. Schools were closed because the world confronted a lethal and highly transmissible virus with no vaccine and few effective treatments, and that problem still exists.

There was a time, back in March, when doctors and nurses across the country were forced to treat patients without adequate PPE. They protested and they complained, but the few who flat-out refused found themselves out of jobs. What would have happened if they’d all refused? How quickly would the federal government have marshalled its resources and authority to manufacture and distribute all needed PPE if medical professionals decided that without it, they would strike?

Teachers (and other school-based staff) are now facing that same question. What would happen if they simply refused to go into school buildings until the federal government created a school reopening plan aligned with CDC guidance? What if teachers only offered virtual schooling until districts committed to allowing public health experts to guide reopening decisions? Even regions where the virus appears to be “under control” for the moment are always at risk of outbreaks in a country with porous borders. Take Hawaii, for example: It is the most remote population center in the world and it cannot get its infection rates to 0. This is a national problem in need of a national response.

Schools can still plan for instruction using imperfect remote learning models, and teachers will still do their much-needed jobs. But it is time for a national teachers’ strike against in-person programming. No teacher should go back into a school building anywhere in the country until the federal government adopts a meaningful public health plan to address the real problem that we’re all facing: the unchecked spread of a deadly virus.

Media: “What the Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Empathy and Equity in Schools” in Education Post

We’re learning a whole lot of lessons in this public health crisis, but there are some overlooked things to learn about empathy and equity. I wrote a bit about them for Education Post:

The widespread disruptions to our country’s entire education system are a momentary step into the shoes of students who have lived fragile lives for a long time. The difference is that many of us will eventually be able to step out of those shoes and into a world that will plan for and accommodate this big disruption.

Check out the piece for the two empathy “switches” you can flip to turn that feeling into action.

Education in Juvenile Detention Centers: A Q&A with School Leader Randy Farmer

Earlier this week, we released a publication looking at the education opportunities provided to the thousands of young people detained in juvenile detention each year. We found that as a general rule, the poor quality of education provided in most of these institutions makes it even harder for young people to get back on track.

That said, we acknowledge the serious research limitations surrounding juvenile facilities, including little survey data and outdated information. We could not even determine conclusively how many young people are sent to juvenile detention centers each year. So it is extremely difficult to understand any one young person’s education experience in these centers, and nearly impossible to confidently identify those detention centers that are providing high-quality services to young people and achieving positive outcomes.

We spoke with Randy Farmer, a long-time educator working in a juvenile detention facility, to paint a more complete picture of what happens in these centers and identify the good work going on that cannot be captured in a national aggregate analysis. (We also spoke with Randy in January of 2018.) There are many educators and school leaders deeply devoted to serving this population of students, and they too are frustrated by the limitations and challenges to providing high-quality education in detention centers.

Randy Farmer quote: "that for most youth in detention, the traditional classroom setting simply wasn’t working. We need to provide them with a different kind of support that then opens up the possibility of meaningful educational experiences and future success in a typical classroom."

The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Hailly: What is your high-level reaction to our newest report?

Randy: Generally speaking, the points you raise are spot on, but it’s really hard to talk about this very complicated issue, especially with an audience that might not be familiar with some of the challenges we face. There are important details that can be hard to see without working in a detention center and with these young people day in and day out. For example, it is not as though these young people just show up ready to learn and jump right back into a traditional school. They come with complex, often traumatic, personal histories, and many of them haven’t been going to school for years. Continue reading