Back to School Leader Q&A: Dr. Caprice Young on the Value of Building Relationships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Dr. Caprice Young* is no stranger to the education sector. A longtime education leader and school choice advocate, Young started her career in finance before transitioning into education as a member and president of the elected Los Angeles Unified School Board for four years. She also founded the California Charter Schools Association and served as its CEO from 2003 to 2008. Currently, Young is the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning and provides advisory services to its education partners, including the Learn4Life network of nonprofit high schools, FLEX, Mission Academy, and its new accredited online private STEAM school, Stanza International Academy. Lifelong Learning offers a proprietary personalized learning model and administrative services — ranging from operations, financial, and people services, to communications, legal, compliance, and education services — enabling teachers and schools to focus solely on their students.

I recently caught up with Young in an expansive conversation on the state of play in education, Lifelong Learning’s COVID-19 plan, new initiatives grounded in trauma-responsive and relationship-based approaches, and more.

Katie Rouse:
Tell us about Lifelong Learning, your work, and your role within the organization.

Dr. Caprice Young:
Lifelong Learning is an educational service nonprofit that focuses on supporting students disconnected from traditional public schools. We serve students ranging in age from 14 to 24 who have been impacted by experiences with houselessness, the foster system, undiagnosed special education needs, physical and mental health issues, having to work to feed their families, early pregnancy, and more.

Lifelong Learning supports their diverse needs as a provider to schools. One anchor of this work is our Trauma Responsive Education Communities, our codified approach to building a trauma-informed school community that supports everyone teachers, staff, and young people. As the national superintendent of Lifelong Learning, my role is to provide educational coaching, guidance, and strategic planning to our client schools. 

KR:
What’s unique about your background in education? What brought you to your current role?

CY:
I grew up in a host foster family, so I have 36 brothers and sisters. It’s an important part of my life and upbringing. My mother was a teacher and my dad worked in the juvenile justice system and as a Unitarian pastor. My childhood was rooted in giving back, and that’s the lens and orientation I bring to my everyday work.

I spent my early career in public finance before serving as the assistant deputy mayor for the City of Los Angeles. I won a school board race in 1999 and spent four years on the Los Angeles Unified School Board the second-largest school district in the U.S. My time on the school board made me fall in love with educators and I knew I wanted to spend my career with them. I think I read somewhere that you spend roughly one-third to one-half of your life with people in your professional industry…so you better like them. I love the collective mission I share with teachers and school leaders. 

I left the Los Angeles Unified School Board to found and lead the California Charter Schools Association, then earned my doctorate and worked on turnarounds in charter school organizations, nonprofits, for-profits, and served as a foundation vice president. Three years ago, I joined Lifelong Learning as its national superintendent. 

KR:
Looking back, how did Lifelong Learning and Learn4Life show up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well? What was particularly challenging?

CY:
The heroism of the women and men leading our schools — and working in them every day throughout the ups and downs of the pandemic — has been incredible. I distinctly remember a Friday the 13th in March 2020 because I spent that morning trying to convince a current Los Angeles Unified School Board member to allow me to move a charter school into her district. By the end of that same day, we weren’t moving anywhere — the state-mandated school facility closures forced us to shift to remote learning.

We did an amazing pivot. And I think it worked due to a few key factors. 

  • First, our educational model, which is grounded in relationship-building and a 1:1 approach to learning, meant that students and teachers had preexisting, deep relationships before the pandemic. Each supervising teacher had 25-35 students already, and so that depth of relationship and trust were connective tissues tying everyone together. 
  • Second, we made critical investments in technology before COVID-19 closed school facilities. In February 2020, we ordered Chromebooks for more than 23,000 students because we decided to go to 1:1 computing before the pandemic required it; it was already part of a planned rollout, which in retrospect felt like providence. 
  • Third, we really listened to our young people to find out what was going on with them and to plug in and support. We quickly realized that students had varying degrees of access to reliable WiFi, so we issued nearly 18,000 hotspots to get the technology into students’ hands. We also provided food and, for our 2,400 pregnant and parenting students, we supplemented diapers and food.
  • Fourth, we invested in staff wellbeing by launching health and wellness webinars and by immediately issuing 21 days of paid sick time with a more expansive sick time policy. Just like our students, we wanted staff to feel supported and prioritized showing up for them in ways large and small. We also implemented flexible work schedules for teachers.

These measures contributed to a 7% increase in our re-enrollment rate from SY2019-20 to 2020-21. 

KR:
As you look ahead to SY2021-22, what issues are top of mind as you lead through it? How do you think about systemic supports for your team and students?

CY:
Our No. 1 issue is keeping staff, families, and students safe. Period. We’ve retrofitted all of our school sites with enhanced ventilation systems, plexiglass barriers, sanitation standards, and ample supplies of masks and hand sanitizers. As we adhere to the new California vaccination and testing mandate, we will support time off for vaccinations and provide self-collection PCR test kits from the school site. 

We’ve also seen, and I expect will continue to see, a significant portion of our school communities experience profound grief, whether manifested as severe illness and death in families or even movement from dual to single incomes. A lot more of our students are in the workforce than were pre-COVID. We’re offering even more flexibility with student and teacher schedules to better accommodate life circumstances as well. We found that by training teachers to support students coping with grief, we’re also helping support teachers in their grief. These are all top-of-mind issues. 

Another critical issue in the school year ahead is how we can locate and support students who, for whatever reason, can’t return to traditional public schools. Most of our students are 17 or 18 years old when they enroll with us. They’ve dropped out for various reasons, then — once they’ve decided to re-engage — have found themselves aged out of traditional school. Without a high school diploma, their ability to get a well-paying job is slim. Providing a school option for these youth — Opportunity Youth — is critical to the student’s success in life, a thriving community, and more. We can’t separate school completion from the rest of society. It’s pivotal to a healthy individual, community, and economy.

KR:
What’s an ongoing source of unexpected heartburn for you in the pandemic?

CY:
COVID-19 has derailed our ability to track student efficacy data. We’ve had to rely on more basic measures of success (e.g., volume of students’ work completion vs. summative assessments). It keeps me up at night because the ability to provide substantial data means more funding to serve students most in need. And it’s important now more than ever after 18 months of learning loss.

KR:
In closing, I want to reflect on you as a leader and as a human being. What’s sustaining you right now as you continue to lead? 

CY:
I’m relying on female friends — we’re all leaning on each other. Personal connections are sustaining. Professionally, I’m continually making sure my team knows how important they are and how vital their work is for young people. When they ask for things, I figure out how to make it happen.

(*Editorial note: Dr. Caprice Young and Lifelong Learning are past Bellwether clients.)