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#PandemictoProgress: Lessons for Districts to Carry Forward on Community Outreach and Operations

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part district webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss the 2021-22 school year ahead. Read our summary and see the video of Part 1: Policy and Planning, here.  

Since first shutting their doors to in-person learning in March 2020, school districts and community partners have had to work harder and smarter in order to communicate and collaborate with students, families, and other stakeholders. Even as more schools transition back to in-person learning this spring or fall, millions of students nationally may have had minimal or no engagement with virtual learning over the past year. What has the 2020-21 academic year taught district and community leaders about family engagement, and how might school operations change as students make a safe return to classrooms? 

Part 2 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on operations and outreach to tackle these fundamental questions. Panelists included:

  • Amanda Fernández, CEO and Founder of Latinos for Education and Partner in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, Massachusetts. 
  • Peter Hilts, CEO, District 49, Colorado.
  • Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim Union High School District, California.
  • Facilitator: Mary K. Wells, Managing Partner and Co-Founder, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) led to three key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Districts should recognize the essential role community-based organizations can play in connecting schools with families and communities, and in expanding district capacity

The pandemic, “Unmasked the illusion of independence,” within Hilts’ district that stretches across suburban and rural communities near Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We thought we operated pretty independently…but in a crisis we needed to increase the tempo of our collaboration,” and work with neighboring school districts and community organizations to execute on initiatives like a regional free meal distribution strategy, he noted. 

Similarly, Matsuda highlighted the value of community partnerships over the past year, which have helped his district build relationships with families in new settings and get the word out about community public health initiatives such as COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. “We need our faith-based communities, our nonprofits, and our schools working together to build trust,” especially with communities of color and immigrant communities, according to Matsuda. He noted that these new partnerships shouldn’t just be temporary, “And will make us much stronger as institutions.” 

Fernández saw these dynamics play out from a different angle in Boston, where her organization is one of the leading partners in a community-based effort to launch more than a dozen free, in-person, small-group learning pods serving mostly Black and Latino children. “The pandemic has surfaced a need for equal partnership at the table between families, community-based organizations, and schools, which will contribute to better outcomes for students.” 

Each of the organizations in the Community Learning Collaborative built trusting relationships with different groups of families over the years. These existing relationships served as a foundation for recruiting families into the pods and providing a safe, supportive learning environment. According to Fernández, “Trust, collaboration, and centering students and families have all been consistent in the approach we’re taking,” to running the pods.  

Takeaway 2: Inclusivity and equity are essential to successful outreach efforts

As learning conditions and district offerings evolved rapidly over the last year, it was essential to keep families in the loop and informed. However, traditional venues for communication like parent-teacher nights, flyers in backpacks, or in-person conversations were off the table. Successful communication strategies in this new environment prioritized inclusivity and equity, multiple modes of communication to reach families wherever they were, and a focus on listening to families’ needs and priorities. 

Matsuda noted that families in his district speak more than 40 languages. Beyond translating communications, his district also worked to anticipate and facilitate two-way conversations with families in their preferred language. 

One of the ingredients for success in the Boston Community Learning Collaborative, according to Fernández, was intentionally recruiting mostly Latino and Black educators and staff to supervise the pods. These team members often came from the same communities as the children they served and were well-positioned to quickly build communicative, trusting relationships with students and families.

Takeaway 3: What families and students are looking for from school may have shifted permanently

Experiences of the past year, both positive and negative, have changed many students’ and families’ goals and expectations from schools. Panelists were optimistic about near-term opportunities to bring a renewed sense of urgency to educational innovation. They also agreed on the importance of partnerships among districts, higher-education entities, employers, and community-based organizations to meet students’ needs in new and better ways.

For example, Hilts anticipated that an increasing number of districts would offer, “A mix of online learning and flexible schedule options, because it serves our students, their life circumstances, and their personal preferences,” especially at the high school level. “We have to be better about providing culturally and technically responsive learning options that provide access to more students.” Matsuda was also excited about this possibility, adding, “It’s not going to be easy to innovate, but the comfort level among families and students [with online learning], particularly at the high school level, has grown.” Both Hilts and Matsuda agreed that well-designed, flexible academic learning environments might increase student engagement in learning and develop deeper life skills such as self-directed time management. But they underscored that policy barriers in many states could be an impediment to these kinds of innovative offerings.  

Each panelist noted that the isolating and traumatizing effects of the pandemic have made students’ mental health and social-emotional learning urgent priorities. “Families are concerned about social, emotional, and mental health,” said Matsuda, and are looking to schools to help assess, monitor, and meet those needs. Fernández reported hearing from families that mental health is a top concern and urged districts to, “Continue that kind of support and balance it with any academic support that might be needed.” All three panelists agreed that, by keeping community partners at the table, districts can deepen the web of academic and non-academic supports for students and families. 

Find a video and summary of Part 1 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series by clicking here, and stay tuned for a summary of key takeaways from the Part 3 discussion on academics and instruction.

#PandemictoProgress: School District Leaders Reflect on Four Key Policy and Planning Takeaways Amid COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how school districts do their work. Navigating sudden changes in large school systems is not easy but, as we’ve seen in our work across every layer of the education system this year, leaders have pushed forward innovations, created interventions, and learned invaluable lessons to reshape how districts and schools operate in the future.

In Bellwether’s recent From Pandemic to Progress three-part webinar series, leaders of school districts and community-based educational initiatives joined our team to discuss district-level planning and the pandemic’s impact on students in the upcoming 2021-22 school year. 

Part 1 of Bellwether’s From Pandemic to Progress webinar series focused on issues in policy and planning. Panelists shared what they’ve learned about planning and adaptability this year, their plans for next year, and how policies and funding like the recent federal stimulus package might affect those plans. Panelists included:

  • Dr. Adrienne Battle, Director of Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee.
  • Dr. Tony Watlington, Superintendent, Rowan-Salisbury Schools, North Carolina.
  • Facilitator: Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, Policy and Evaluation Partner, Bellwether Education Partners.

The discussion (video above) revealed four key takeaways:

Takeaway 1: Plans for 2021-22 must be adaptable and include contingencies for different modes of operation

As Drs. Battle and Watlington plan for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, both emphasized the need for flexibility, adaptability, and contingency planning built into any operational or learning plans. “We still don’t know where we will be by August 2021, so all of the contingency planning will continue,” said Battle. Creating nimble, adaptable plans for tens of thousands of students is no easy task, and Watlington compared it to, “Turning a supertanker around in a small lake.”

These plans will include options for students and families who prefer to continue learning virtually. Although both Nashville and Rowan-Salisbury had virtual schools before the pandemic, lessons from the past year will reshape existing offerings. Watlington noted changes in how his district plans to recruit and train teachers for virtual instruction and support students to be successful in virtual learning environments. The virtual school offering in Nashville, “Will look very different than it has looked in years past, because we’ve learned a lot about educating our students in a virtual space, through the lens of equity, academics, and social-emotional learning,” said Battle. However, she went on to caveat that state policy in Tennessee prevents her district from offering hybrid or virtual options for students enrolled at traditional schools once the pandemic state of emergency concludes. 

Takeaway 2: Districts are looking for ways to maximize their time with students and to use time in new ways

Both district leaders discussed how they’re reframing and refocusing efforts to spend meaningful time with students. After a year in which in-person and virtual time was scarce, how can schools and districts more effectively support learning and build stronger relationships? Potential strategies to increase learning time include summer school, tutoring, and before/after school learning opportunities, all of which might involve new collaborations with community-based organizations and partners. 

As a state-designated Renewal School District, Rowan-Salisbury Schools have greater flexibility over their calendar and curriculum than other North Carolina districts, and are moving towards a flexible competency-based learning model to emphasize student mastery. According to Watlington, “We are thinking differently about time and these artificial beginning and end points of 180 days per year in each grade,” and are instead considering ways to overhaul their approach to student time in a class or in a particular grade level.

Both leaders also spoke about allocating time to intentionally focus on social and emotional learning and student mental health as school communities cope with the disruptions and traumas of the past year. According to Battle, “If there’s anything that I’ve taken away from this pandemic and what our parents are demanding from us, and what our staff is capable of providing, it’s making sure that every MNPS student is known, that they’re cared for, and that we’re serving their needs properly.” Echoing that theme, Watlington said, “I am certain that this pandemic is going to fundamentally change our orientation to be more focused on social and emotional learning, and not to see it as ‘fluff’ or less than ‘academic’ learning.”

Takeaway 3: Federal stimulus money offers opportunities to fund innovative approaches or amp up resources for work already underway

K-12 school systems stand to receive $123 billion in federal funds through the American Rescue Plan. Of that, at least 20% of the funds allocated to school districts must be dedicated to addressing what the federal law calls “learning loss,” especially for subgroups of students who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. 

How to use this money effectively for both pandemic recovery and educational innovation was top of mind for panelists. “We’re not going to go backwards. We’re not going to be status quo. We’re going to continue a culture of innovation,” said Watlington, adding later on, “I think it’s really important that we not squander these resources away and do the same thing we’ve done for 100 years, just because that’s the way we’ve done it.”

Federal stimulus funds will allow districts to expand and continue pre-existing programs aimed at accelerating learning, such as summer school and tutoring, and could also provide resources for big bets on innovation.

Takeaway 4: School systems must engage students, families, and educators in new ways, through an equitable lens

Panelists emphasized the resiliency of students, families, and teachers and described methods of student and family engagement that they plan to continue in the school year ahead. 

For example, Nashville’s Navigator program groups students into small cohorts led by a teacher or a school/district staff member. Each Navigator maintains frequent communication with their cohort, builds relationships, and connects students to in- or out-of-school supports, as needed.

Panelists discussed ways in which the pandemic revealed inequities among students and families. Home circumstances such as internet/technology access, access to reliable health care, and parent flexibility to supervise remote learning intersected with race and class, impacting students’ opportunities to learn and engage. 

District leaders pledged to carry these equity lessons into the year ahead. As his district embarked on a new strategic plan, Watlington asked himself a series of equity-related questions, including, “How do you make sure that equity is hard wired into policy? Do we have a common definition of equity? And how do you know when it’s occurring?” Similarly, Battle emphasized understanding and meeting each students’ individual needs, “We need to be able to adapt and adjust our services our supports specifically to the individual needs of our students, and the various communities of students that we serve.” 

Stay tuned for additional summaries and videos of Parts 2 and 3 in our From Pandemic to Progress webinar series, focused on operations and outreach as well as academics and instruction.

Schools Planning to Implement Strategic “Just In Time” Intervention Need to have the Mindset of a Race Car Pit Crew, and Four Enabling Conditions

Nationwide, students face the prospect of up to 10 months of learning loss due to the pandemic. For students of color, that learning loss is even higher (12 to 16 months).  

How can educators and school leaders help students recover missed learning due to COVID-19? Traditional intervention approaches include giving students work from previous grades or subject areas that they haven’t mastered before students are given increasingly challenging material. This practice is actually remediation, and it will be insufficient to help students make up lost ground.

Instead, “just in time” (JIT) intervention, a proven strategy for helping students efficiently close learning gaps so they can quickly access rigorous grade-level content, takes a more focused approach. By identifying the narrow set of prerequisite skills students need to master in order to be ready for grade level content, JIT gives students a “dose” of intervention to teach them those missing prerequisite skills so they can be ready to access grade-level material quickly. This allows students and teachers to chip away at learning gaps with intentionality and relevance over time, versus holding kids back until they have mastered all of their missed learning. 

JIT is at the top of most recommended academic acceleration strategies, and rightly so.

But JIT can be challenging to implement well because it requires both a different mindset than typically used to catch students up and it requires the coordinated use of school resources. Implementation requires school teams to adopt the mindset of a race car pit crew and ensure four key enabling conditions are in place. 

Like a great race car pit crew, the JIT approach to intervention requires educators to:

  • Pinpoint the most critical interventions 
  • Ruthlessly prioritize where to start
  • Focus on getting the driver (or in this case, the student) back on the track quickly

In contrast, like a mediocre auto mechanic, traditional remediation approaches: 

  • Run unnecessary tests
  • Require addressing everything at once
  • Result in lots of time off the road (or in this case, time not spent on rigorous grade-level content)

JIT intervention includes four key steps to implement, and four enabling school conditions to implement well. 

Four key steps of JIT intervention cycles:

  1. Identify: Identify prerequisite skill gaps for upcoming grade-level content using a diagnostic. 
  2. Plan: Plan to use high quality curricular materials to address prerequisite skill gaps before teaching the grade-level content. 
  3. Teach: Provide targeted instruction to students in prerequisite skills, leveraging various configurations (whole group, small group, 1:1). 
  4. Assess: After grade-level lessons have been taught, reassess students to determine mastery/readiness for grade level content and ongoing intervention needs.

While there is more than one “right way” to do JIT intervention, we have found these four enabling school conditions necessary for schools to have in place in order to do this work effectively:

  • Right materials: Schools will need high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum materials for core lessons and intervention lessons. They will also need diagnostics aligned to their curriculum that can be used to identify key prerequisite knowledge and skills prior to a unit of instruction.
  • Right data: Schools will need to regularly collect and analyze diagnostic data, including having a process, and dedicated time, for data analysis.
  • Right schedule: Teachers will need sufficient time to analyze data and plan for intervention. There will also need to be dedicated time for students to receive the targeted intervention on the prerequisite skills prior to the upcoming unit.  
  • Right people: Schools will need clear instructional leadership responsible for ensuring intervention happens effectively. Leadership will also be critical in coordinating resources, schedules, data, and teachers in support of interventions. (Additional teachers and interventionists to support with instruction are great to have if possible, but are not essential to do JIT intervention well.)

To help leaders and educators looking to implement JIT intervention into their program this fall, our team has created a simple tool to help assess readiness and provide guidance on implementation. 

With limited time, energy and resources, educators will need to get more strategic and efficient about identifying and supporting students’ most critical needs. Bellwether’s “Just in Time” Intervention Planning Toolkit can provide a helpful roadmap on how to do that.

How to build a resilient system so students can get to and through college

The path to college, prior to the onset of COVID-19, was already a long, hard trek for many first-generation college goers. Add in a global pandemic that upended schooling and lives, and the goal of a college degree feels even further away for many. In Reimagining the Road to Graduation: The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College, the Bellwether team offers 34 recommendations to build a better system that will help more young people get to and through college — all in light of the stresses and pressure points that COVID-19 has added to the challenge.

Three overarching imperatives, taken together, can address the current crisis and build toward a more resilient system in the long term:

    • Meet the basic needs of students experiencing disruption: Adults must meet students’ basic financial, physical, and social-emotional needs, all of which are fundamental precursors to engaging in learning. This is a foundational step in supporting students’ postsecondary aims. 
    • Build awareness of the student experience and systems fragmentation so adults understand the needs of young people and the impact of COVID-19: Education leaders, program providers, and policymakers need a deeper understanding of the magnitude of the impact of COVID-19 on student experience — and awareness that some ripple effects may take years to come to the surface.
    • Reimagine and implement supports that can be delivered with coherence and coordination: Support for students must be implemented with renewed purpose and, in some cases, entirely reimagined in response to COVID-19.  

The recommendations most likely to make an impact for students in the short term, include:

  1. Provide and distribute emergency financial assistance to college students
  2. Prioritize access to physical space (e.g., unused gyms, cafeterias, classrooms, office space) for students who need a quiet place to study and/or access the internet
  3. Ensure all students, especially those learning virtually, have access to devices and internet connections that facilitate their ability to learn remotely
  4. Foster peer support models, social activities, and affinity groups for students to build friendships, mentor each other, and provide social-emotional support
  5. Provide expanded mental health services and proactively reach out to students so the onus is not only on them to initiate a conversation about their overall well-being
  6. Develop communication plans to reach out to students who paused their schooling due to COVID-19 and design program supports to get them back into school (e.g., texting reminders, counseling on financial aid forms, etc.)
  7. Adapt college and career advising models to center on the student experience (e.g., including meeting basic needs, social-emotional supports, and family engagement) and integrate more than just college/career planning and navigation
  8. Train teachers, professors, counselors, and other providers to implement new approaches that center on student relationships and leverage remote technologies
  9. Extend test-optional admission policies
  10. Revise and standardize policies (e.g., application cycle deadlines, tuition deadlines, courseload requirements, etc.) to provide additional grace periods for cohorts impacted by COVID-19
  11. Streamline FAFSA, including standardizing the “award appeal” process

Read all of the recommendations here and visit www.bellwethereducation.org/roadtograduation to learn more.

It’s Time to Reimagine the Road to Graduation

Meet Mel. Mel is a junior in high school in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Her older sister started at a two-year college to avoid taking on excessive debt, and now Mel is wondering if she should follow the same path especially now that COVID-19 has created even more financial pressure on her family:

“I was planning to go to a four-year school but now I’m reconsidering,” says Mel. “If I have to learn online at a four-year school it’s going to be additional stress. And a two-year school will be financially better, too.”

One challenge Mel has faced in the wake of COVID-19 is the switch to online coursework. Sometimes she doesn’t realize when her assignments are due, and it’s hard to keep on top of everything. “COVID-19 is like a reset,” says Mel. “I need to find new ways of studying. It’s like an uphill battle but there is nothing I can do.”

Mel is also grappling with the unrest in her community following George Floyd’s death. Tensions and violence have intensified, and many students fear for their physical safety. “I was interested in criminology before, but the death of George Floyd reinforced that. My mom worries about the police and the justice system. But to start the change you have to be involved and be educated.”

As Mel tries to balance the competing demands of school, work, family, and life, she must also figure out her path to college. The biggest question on her mind is: “How can I find a college that is affordable and will set me up for my long-term goals to serve my community?”

Millions of students across the country are just like Mel: grappling with the unique responsibilities and challenges of their daily lives while trying to make choices around attending college — often with limited support. This is especially true for low-income students, first-generation students, rural students, and students of color who face some of the greatest hurdles in navigating the postsecondary path.

In Reimagining the Road to Graduation: The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College, the Bellwether Education team spoke with dozens of young people and the adults in their lives to understand how students are making decisions to stay on a postsecondary pathway amid a global pandemic. Along with Mel, this new resource tells the stories of Anna, Xavier, Frankie, and Alejandro — and offers more than 30 recommendations for K-12 systems, colleges and universities, support organizations, and funders to work together to create a system where getting to and through college isn’t an extraordinary trek that young people have to make alone. 

Visit www.bellwethereducation.org/roadtograduation to learn more.