Opinion

Commentary: Not Just Recovery, But Reinvention — 3 Lessons from Schools Where COVID Innovations Offer New Solutions

By Jenny Curtin and Melanie Dukes and Saskia Levy Thompson | November 2, 2021

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As educators work through another unpredictable year, schools must lean into reinvention. The sudden onset of COVID-19 forced schools and systems to change on the fly, required teachers, families and students to develop new ways of teaching and learning, and proved schools are capable of rapid and significant change. The old, familiar ways of doing school left too many behind, and as the country continues to face new challenges, we should embrace this opportunity to develop approaches that more equitably serve students — especially those who have been historically marginalized, such as students of color. 

The Canopy Project, which our foundations support, tracked how hundreds of schools across the country adapted and innovated last year in student-centered ways. The adaptations these schools developed hold enormous potential to address longstanding inequities. Here are some examples from public schools in New York; Massachusetts; Washington, D.C.; Maine; Connecticut; and North Carolina.

Strengthening communication and partnership with families

During the pandemic, many schools enhanced their communications to build stronger relationships between educators and students’ families. At Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx, communication with families had been done mostly as needed, and the principal feared parents didn’t really want to talk to the school. During COVID-19, the school began a weekly electronic survey to check in with families — first about their technology needs, then, increasingly, about mental health, food security, and other challenges. Families could report positive COVID diagnoses, request assistance with food or technology or share other pertinent information. This fall, school staff built on that experience by designing a more comprehensive family communications plan, including monthly surveys, regular followup phone calls and virtual visits. School staff have a much better understanding of families’ situations, and families feel cared for and respected. 

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At Uxbridge High School in Massachusetts, failure rates were ticking up at alarming rates during COVID. This accelerated the school’s progress toward creating a system of individualized conferences with counselors, teachers and families to strategize about custom supports for struggling students. Virtual meetings made it easy for teachers to have quick check-ins with families. The school expects that transparency around learning gaps, and an expanded, multi-tiered system of support, will lead to more student progress and more equitable outcomes. 

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During remote learning last spring, it became clear to the leadership and staff at Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, that traditional A-F grades didn’t help families understand what students had, or hadn’t, learned. Educators spent the summer developing detailed rubrics for each class, and this fall the school switched to a standards-based grading system to make learning targets clearer and ensure families could understand their children’s successes and areas for growth.

Personalizing supports to ensure all students get the opportunity they need

To give students and families personalized sources of support, Washington’s Anacostia High School expanded its Dream Team program during the pandemic from ninth graders to the whole school. The program matches each student with an adult responsible for his or her development and learning. Non-teaching staff members and the principal participated to ensure there was an adult for each student. Students got extra support, while every family had a direct point of contact at the school and every staff member demonstrated the capacity to build meaningful, individual relationships with students.

At Common Ground High School in New Haven, Connecticut, student feedback inspired “What you need Wednesdays.” Students use part of each Wednesday however they need or want to — including holding one-on-one meetings with teachers, doing small-group work, joining peer coaching sessions or simply catching up, resting and recharging. This change built on Common Ground’s commitment to develop student agency and respond to feedback about needs and interests through avenues such as a student leadership group and internships to support school transformation. 

Expanding the idea of where learning can happen

Students across the country experienced learning in new ways and different settings, and while many online experiences were low-quality, there were bright spots where virtual and non-traditional learning models responded to previously unmet needs. 

At Chelsea Opportunity Academy in Massachusetts, over half the students were working full time to support their households during the pandemic. This limited their ability to participate in required courses and progress toward gaining skills necessary for graduation. In response, school leaders are piloting courses that tie learning outside the school walls to core graduation requirements. Instead of earning traditional elective credits for their jobs, students can demonstrate graduation competencies through assignments that reflect what they are experiencing at their jobs.

At Nokomis High School in Maine, the pandemic expanded students’ and families’ vision for what school can be, increasing demand for more relevant learning experiences. So the school created virtual career development opportunities to replace traditional in-person job shadowing and internships. These will continue to benefit students post-pandemic by providing access to experiences beyond their rural setting. Additionally, 11th graders can now take their English class entirely outdoors. The class was designed to support physical and mental health, with a revised curriculum and instruction to complement the outdoor classroom. Over half the students selected this option.

These practices may have arisen during a pandemic but would be powerful in any context. What would it look like to fundamentally reinvent school to break down barriers among staff, students and families; prioritize self-direction; and create learning experiences outside the four walls of a school? These innovative communities are showing how it can be done.

Jenny Curtin is senior program officer in Education at the Barr Foundation. Melanie Dukes is senior program officer at the Overdeck Family Foundation. Saskia Levy Thompson is program director for new designs to advance student learning at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Disclosure: The Overdeck Family Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York provide financial support to The 74.

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