Author Archives: Hailly Korman

We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?

What could have happened to Richard Solitro Jr.?

Photo courtesy of Kat Wilcox for Pexels

At Bellwether Education Partners, my work focuses primarily on the places in which schools come into contact with other child-serving systems. In doing so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how schools can better support students who have come into contact with these systems, including the courts and law enforcement.

Four weeks ago, I watched the police shoot and kill a man. 

I am a civil rights attorney by training and education advocate by trade. I have spent much of my professional life examining systemic inequity for young people who are farthest from opportunity: those who experience disruptions to their education pathways because of experiences like a placement in foster care, an experience with homelessness, or an incarceration. Many of the students I talk to have experienced the negative consequences of policing in their own lives.

I can rattle off statistics about the effects of aggressive policing and police violence shootings in America. And I can point you to the research that demonstrates that this approach — an approach that does not keep anyone any safer — comes at a huge cost. It is just one slice of the violent pie in America’s punitive systems.

I have also experienced the consequences of gun violence in my own family. Both my father and my godson were shot and killed in separate incidents, decades apart.

But none of this prepared me for what I saw on the afternoon of April 24. 

I was driving home from an errand and found myself suddenly stopped behind a police car as two officers confronted another driver less than a block ahead of me. Within seconds, I watched as the police fired three shots at an unarmed man in distress and killed him. To be clear, I am not the important part of this story, I am just the one who is here to tell it. 

And race is also part of this story, even though it is rendered invisible: While white people have been able to remain largely insulated from the direct effects of police violence, Richard Solitro Jr., the man the police killed, was white, as am I. If he had been Black, as many victims of police violence are, this would not be any less awful. And it is not less significant because he was white.

It was a destabilizing, traumatic event to witness but, of course, not an uncommon one. On average, police in America kill three men a day. Each one of those people has a family and most of those events have witnesses. The twin horrors of what I saw are both the tragic and unnecessary loss of Richard Solitro Jr. and the unavoidable acceptance of the fact that my experience of having seen it happen is nothing special. The police kill an average of a thousand people a year and so I probably did not even witness the only fatal police shooting in the U.S. that day.

For white people, for professionals with degrees and laptop jobs, nice cars, or comfortable homes in “good” neighborhoods, it is always tempting to take a detached view of horrible things, that they are tragedies happening somewhere else. The reality is quite different and much less reassuring: We are all at risk of experiencing police violence and unless we actively work against it, we are all implicated in its perpetuation. People of color (especially Black men) and trans people have been saying this for years. A “community affected by police violence” is no outlier when the risk of it happening to you — or in front of you — is inescapable no matter where you are. When police have lethal power that is effectively unchecked, some of us can be safer than others, but no one can be completely safe. If the police decide to kill someone in front of you, they will. If the police decide to kill you, they will. And with rare exception, they will get away with it.

Two days after this happened, we published “Investing in Healthy Transitions to Adulthood: The Role of Schools.” This piece was long in the works but it took on renewed urgency for me. Richard Solitro Jr. was in desperate need of mental health services. His family had been asking for help for years but none ever came, and all he got was the barrel of a gun. 

This story is not new. What we can ask now is what could have happened if Richard Solitro Jr. had lived in a country where we put needs first, rather than consequences, and focused our investments on the evidence-based programs that we know work? 

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

“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