Tag Archives: missing in the margins

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?

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Resource Allocation

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. In this concluding third blog in a series, we expand upon our updated practice and policy recommendations for 2021 by focusing the necessary resources to fund these changes.

Sufficient funding is key in order for schools to implement effective practices to meet the needs of students with disrupted learning experiences. Additional funding is also a key component of implementing significant policy change. As leaders and policymakers seek to encourage and implement new practices and policies, they must also allocate sufficient, sustainable resources to support the work underway. 

Thankfully, flexible federal stimulus funds of more than $120 billion, directed at districts and states based on the low-income students they serve, could go a long way toward meeting that funding need. To put this amount of money in context, this infusion of federal funds represents almost 16% of pre-pandemic annual nationwide K-12 education expenditures.* 

Some of the few requirements for district spending of federal stimulus funds include:

  • At least 20% must be used to address learning loss, including academic, social, and emotional needs.
  • Funding should especially target subgroups of students who are more likely to be deeply affected by COVID-19 disruptions, such as students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care. 

Although stimulus funds might make districts feel flush in the short term, there are still reasons to be concerned in the longer term. There are many competing priorities for using these funds, like expanding technological capacity for remote learning or renovating facilities. Some districts are simply relying on stimulus funds to make up for shortfalls in state and local funding. And, in 2024, stimulus funds will expire

Also, using stimulus funds for direct student supports can be complicated because many of the best practices are people- and relationship-driven, which might require investments in new staff and more staff time. Students with disrupted educational experiences benefit greatly from strong relationships with a caring adult with the means to help them navigate support services, but if districts fund new staff positions with time-limited federal funds, those positions could be at-risk when funding expires.

Providing the services students need, while still planning for a sustainable financial future, means that schools and districts should lean on collaborative models. Community-based organizations with complementary skill sets could help expand schools’ capacity for non-instructional support without expanding in-school staff. For example, a homeless-services organization could partner with a school district to make sure students and families experiencing homelessness have their basic needs met. Or a community-based college support organization can supplement the work of school-based counselors. These partnerships take work to be aligned and effective, but for students with deeper needs they can be transformational — particularly if they can evolve in response to changing student needs over time. 

As district leaders make school spending plans for learning recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal policymakers also have work to do. Many traditional state and federal funding streams are not as flexible as stimulus funds, and now could be the perfect time to re-examine state school funding policies with greater equity in mind. Meanwhile, advocates at the local and state level can help support students at the margins by demanding transparency about local and state spending to support learning recovery, and keeping the pressure on districts and states to put the needs of students with the greatest unmet needs front and center. Policymakers must plan now to help schools avoid a fiscal cliff as stimulus funds expire, to allocate resources where they can be most effective for students, and to keep effective local work going long after stimulus funds run out. 

To read the Revisiting Missing in the Margins blog series in its entirety, click here

*In 2017-18, total U.S. K-12 spending across local, state, and federal governments totaled over $760 billion annually.

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Policy

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the second in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, linking practices with policies.

In addition to school and district practices, policies play an important role in facilitating learning acceleration, especially for marginalized and underserved students. Policymakers have already responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by either providing flexibility to schools so that they can remain student-centered in their decision-making or by removing barriers that limit the ability of schools to better serve the needs of students. However, we know that additional policies are needed to ensure that schools and districts can better identify students who need more support. These policies should also ensure that students receive effective interventions that are personalized to their unique needs. Similar to school and district practices, students and their family or support unit should be at the center of every policymaking decision. In particular, four policy areas can support learning recovery efforts: 

1. Data Transparency
Most state and district policies related to enrollment, attendance, and engagement data have not kept up with the new demands of the COVID-19 era. These policies are typically set at the federal and state levels but local school districts should do more to collect these data at the student-level. Without more accurate and disaggregated data that are shared publicly, especially related to attendance and engagement, schools are at risk of not identifying the students who need the most support. 

2. Accountability
In response to the pandemic and its impact on student learning, states put in place “hold harmless” provisions around attendance, grade retention, and high school graduation, and amended accountability systems with federal waivers. Based on the lessons learned from the past two years, the federal government and states should conduct a comprehensive review of those temporary policies, make thoughtful decisions for the current and upcoming school years, and communicate clearly about their goals for students in order to create predictability for schools and encourage a focus on learning acceleration.

3. Comprehensive and Targeted Interventions
Since the start of the pandemic, the consequences of uneven local capacity to address ongoing national crises without effective policies and guidance have been clear. State and federal policies should enable every school and district to create an effective system of comprehensive and targeted learning interventions to meet the needs of each student. Importantly, this system should incentivize collaboration and partnership with other child-serving systems, organizations, agencies, and community partners.

4. Additional Time for Learning
One of the most important ways to make up for missed learning opportunities is through additional learning time. This could include extended school days and years, summer and out-of-school tutoring and supplementary learning, or extending time in school for older students before a transition to postsecondary learning. Any of these initiatives will require policy changes. For example, staffing for extended school days or years are likely to implicate collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, and transitional years or “year 13” high school opportunities will affect the reporting of graduation rates used for accountability purposes.

These policy recommendations, in combination with effective school and district practices, can help students accelerate their learning. However, these policy recommendations also rely on adequate resource allocations, up next in this series. You can catch up here

Revisiting Missing in the Margins: Recommendations for Practice

In October 2020, Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis estimated that as many as 3 million K-12 students across the country were at high risk of experiencing minimal or no educational access from spring through fall 2020 as a result of the pandemic. Fast-forward one year later, and available data on 2020-21 enrollment, attendance, and engagement suggest massive missed learning opportunities, especially among the most marginalized students.

Changes to practices, policies, and resource allocation can help support all students — especially those with limited access to learning opportunities in 2020-21. This blog post is the first in a series for 2021 where we will expand upon our recommendations, beginning with practices.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, young people across the country have experienced profound disruptions to their educational trajectories. This is particularly true for young people furthest from opportunity, including undocumented students and those in foster care or who are experiencing homelesness. These young people need intensive support from their schools in order to accelerate their learning and address their socio-emotional needs. How can schools, community partners, and child-serving systems work together to implement practices at a local school and community level that can accelerate learning for students with differing needs and experiences over the past year and a half?

In order to determine the most appropriate support, schools, districts, and community partners must listen to and center the needs of young people and their families, with the goal of more effective coordination of services and practices. While an individualized, collaborative case management approach for students would be resource intensive, there must be a focus on practical and innovative supports that are developed in partnership with each student’s family or support unit. 

In addition to a case management approach, schools should also supplement in-person instruction with strategies that combine additional staff and resources including: 

  • Support outside of the traditional school day, like evening and weekend high-impact tutoring or instructional time. When designing additional instructional time, schools should consider an appropriate frequency and length of time, in addition to adequate professional development for tutors.
  • Small, cohort-based intensive acceleration academies to focus on large skill gaps. As part of this strategy, small groups of students would receive support in a cohort model, typically during holiday and summer breaks and weekends. 
  • Structured partnerships with families to collaboratively set annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. Such a partnership is similar to the case management model for students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) or young adults receiving intensive counseling. As part of the partnership, these goals would align to a personalized learning plan that is based on the needs of the student. The benefits of such a plan include student ownership, more flexible content, and data-driven decisions.
  • Evidence-based literacy instruction, especially for younger students and English language learners. This can also be coupled with effective parent empowerment resources and tools. 
  • Leveraging innovative instructional models, such as blended learning models, flipped classrooms, or project-based learning models.

While a safe return to in-person school will support the needs of many young people, there may also be opportunities to provide interventions outside a traditional classroom. Some of these interventions could include alternative high schools, high-quality virtual learning, mastery or competency-based learning models, learning pods, and micro-schools or homeschooling. These interventions would be especially beneficial for students whose needs were not being met by traditional in-person school prior to the pandemic. 

In the coming months and years, schools, districts, and other partners must ensure that they center the needs of all students, especially the most marginalized students, when making instructional decisions. These practice-based decisions should be supported by coherent policy recommendations, up next in this series.

Designing From the Margins Toolkit: Three Ways to Solve Problems Facing Young People

Young people facing disruptions to their education need support and guidance to meet their goals. But too often, the systems meant to support young people at the toughest moments of their lives end up frustrating and burdening them as they navigate a complex bureaucracy. Leaders working within these systems can see the challenges young people face, but they get stuck, because creating change within and across large organizations is difficult.   

A different approach to problem solving can help communities get unstuck within and across schools, nonprofits, and other child-serving organizations. This week, Bellwether released Designing From the Margins: Tools and Examples for Practitioners to Address Fragmentation and Build Equity Into Systems Design. The downloadable toolkit draws on Design Methods for Education Policy and is aligned with our Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook, but is created specifically for local leaders who might be new to tackling human-centered design from start to finish. It includes tangible examples and facilitation strategies for collaborative problem-solving processes based on our work with communities across the country. 

Designing From the Margins centers young people and families with the most serious and concentrated needs to make inclusive solutions for everyone. By taking this approach, problem solvers focus on equity from the start, and focus on the voices and perspectives of those experiencing problems directly. 

Here are three ways schools, foster care systems, homeless shelters, and health care providers, among others, can use the toolkit:

1. Engage Young People and Families in Identifying Problems

What problems need solving right now? In order to answer this question, you should go to the people experiencing issues directly. This toolkit focuses on improving systems serving young people. In our work, we used techniques like empathy interviews to hear from young people about their experiences and unmet needs. We prioritized young people with severe disruptions in their lives and education, such as incarceration or homelessness, in order to hear how systems served (or failed) those with the greatest needs. The toolkit can help you create a plan to collect these perspectives and reflect on them in a structured and coherent way. 

2. Structure a Collaborative Problem-Solving Process

Organizations serving young people often operate under great stress and uncertainty. This can make collaboration difficult. For example, a leader of a community nonprofit might consider another organization to be a competitor for funding or enrollment, rather than a potential collaborator serving overlapping groups of young people and families. The Designing From the Margins Toolkit gives tangible examples of ways to build a productive, cross-organizational working group that centers on the needs of young people, which includes building relationships among participants who might not work together frequently. 

3. Plan for Better Implementation Through Monitoring and Continuous Improvement 

Even great plans can fall victim to incomplete or insufficient implementation. The problem-solving cycle described in Designing From the Margins includes an emphasis on concrete implementation plans, with clear metrics and owners each step of the way, along with a framework for implementing continuous improvement cycles of monitoring and evaluation once solutions are put in place. 

Click here to read and download Bellwether’s Designing From the Margins Toolkit, and visit Bellwether’s Lost by Design website to learn more.