Fear. Uncertainty. Frustration. Isolation.
In recent conversations with districts across the country and in analyses of surveys for clients, these words have come up a lot. Families, educators, and community members are feeling a whole lot of unpleasant things as we grapple with how - or if - we can simultaneously facilitate safety and high-quality learning experiences in our nation's schools.
Instead of shopping sprees at Staples (oh, how I wish!), we are experiencing back-to-school season like never before. Reopening plans change so quickly we can't keep up, and districts are scrambling to ensure that the safety protocols can be met and that all students can actually access and benefit from remote learning. My conversations and analyses lately have shown me how palpable and salient these fears and questions are for so many people.
The good news? While no one really knows what will happen with COVID, we do have some ways to alleviate the feelings I listed above. Think about these: Communication. Relationships. Empathy. Engagement.
Let's be honest: we have always needed these things. However, with most districts going fully or partially remote this fall, the role of families in children's education is even more prominent than before. For those of us who have long promoted the critical nature of family and community engagement, we've been saying to ourselves lately, "Now's our time."
It's time for family engagement to be a priority for all educators, community members, and policymakers, not an afterthought. We must lift up the voices of families, truly hear what they have to say, and use their feedback as a key driver for decisions moving forward.
It's time for us to leverage the wealth of resources in our communities to support families who are struggling right now. In my city, I was pleased to see that the City of Columbus and Columbus City Schools have agreed to spend $7 million of the CARES Act funds on providing Chromebooks for every student and wifi hotspots for families who lack internet access.
It's time to embrace partnerships with organizations who can help make learning fun, interactive, and accessible. Here's an example of how one of my favorite local institutions, the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), is facilitating the exploration of science for children in under-resourced communities.
It's time for us to focus our energy and public dollars on practices that have been proven effective and to put systems in place to begin tracking our progress. AttendanceWorks has done a great job of bringing data tracking to the forefront as we work to ensure that all students have an equitable school experience this fall.
More than anything, it's time for us to dismantle barriers created by historical and institutionalized racism and to embrace all children and families as our own. We need to be unafraid to check our privilege, acknowledge racist policies and practices, and work to rectify harm that has been done. If you're not sure where to get started, here is a free training on implicit bias for K-12 educators from the Kirwan Institute on the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State (I attended an incredibly powerful trainings with them this week.).
As we continue to weather the uncertainty from COVID, we need to remember that we all have the ability to communicate effectively, build meaningful relationships, empathize with others, and engage families in partnership. With these priorities and a plan for how to measure if we're doing them right, we will be able to help all children, families, and communities make the most of this unconventional back-to-school time.
How are institutions and organizations near you embracing engagement during this time?
I know I'm in good company when I say that I'm not sad to say goodbye to 2019. I also know that the challenges I faced this year pale in comparison to the experiences of so many others whom I have read or heard about throughout the year. Yet personally and professionally, this year seemed to have a never-ending supply of curveballs to throw my way. I am happy and thankful to report that 2019 has ended far better than it started, but looking back, I can admit that I learned a lot of important lessons over the past 12 months.
Lesson 1: I've got a lot of good people in my corner. Here's a short list of who I'm especially grateful for:
Lesson 2: Sometimes you need a different perspective on the problem. Transitioning my business from Baltimore, where I lived for over a decade, to Columbus, where I didn't know anyone, was more challenging than I anticipated. After a number of frustrating months, I realized that there were other ways to run my business than the few tried and true strategies I was using. I started reaching out to people from different fields and points in their career for new insights.
I learned about search engine optimization, value-based marketing, and customer relationship management software. I joined the Ohio Program Evaluators Group (OPEG) and went to my first American Evaluation Association Conference. I gained a huge network of like-minded and supportive people who have opened up a world of ideas and opportunities for me. I learned that there is always something I can try to reach new potential clients, expand my impact on schools and communities, and grow my business. These experiences lit a fire under me to continue trying new things to make Structured Solutions better than ever.
Lesson 3: It's never ALL bad. I can't even tell you how many rejections I got this year. I felt so defeated and unclear about how to move forward. However, a lot of great things happened in 2019 too - they just get clouded by the discouraging events of this year. Here are some awesome things that happened for Structured Solutions in 2019:
I'm glad to put 2019 behind me, but like all challenging experiences, I know that it has helped me grow as a person and as a business owner. I am optimistic that 2020 will be a better year (hopefully for everyone else too!), but I aim to continue the spirit of character-building, self-improvement, and continuous learning that 2019 necessitated.
Happy New Year!
It's funny where the most interesting and engaging conversations can happen. At the gym last week, I had a few random, but passionate conversations with other members of the educational (and martial arts!) community about youth experiencing trauma and how it impacts their ability to participate in school, learn effectively, and handle their emotions.
Trauma is something I wish I had learned about when I became a teacher over ten years ago. Like many new teachers, I struggled with classroom management. It is probably not surprising to learn that as a 5'2", 22 year-old woman, I did not have a natural authoritative presence. However, there were many other reasons for the challenges I faced -- ineffective and harmful administrators, a lack of shared expectations among our middle school team, and my own battle with anxiety. These all contributed to what often felt like turmoil in my classroom. While I always empathized with the challenges my students faced in their own lives, I never fully understood the ramifications of the trauma and hardship they experienced -- nor did I know where to connect them or their families for additional support.
I was lucky because the school had a wonderful social worker and part-time psychologist to whom I could refer students. They also served as great supports and sources of advice and knowledge for me as a new educator. Yet, there was little capacity and no infrastructure at the school for understanding and responding to trauma. I remember being told that students were experiencing homelessness, hearing stories about families who were involved in gangs, and seeing that students were extremely impoverished, but I had no tools to process these situations or fully support my students. I felt anguish about the situations they were experiencing, but I know I did not always respond effectively.
Years later, after working in a community school and supporting many others, I know what more effective and comprehensive supports can look like. I have seen the benefits of wraparound services for students and families, including a full mental health team; meaningful enrichment and engagement opportunities for students and adults; connections to resources for basic needs such as housing, food, clothing, and adult education; efforts to track and review data on engagement, attendance, and supports provided; and most importantly, a loving and affirming approach to working with students and families with the greatest needs. Community schools -- schools that become a hub of the surrounding community and provide these wraparound services for students, families, and community members -- are well-supported by research. This model has been shown to be beneficial in reducing chronic absenteeism, improving school climate, increasing student achievement, and more. One of the findings from a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report states that:
"The evidence base provides a strong warrant for using community schools to meet the needs of low-achieving students in high-poverty schools and to help close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, and students with disabilities."
So when my friend at the gym, a high school guidance counselor, told me that his school effectively did not have any mental health clinicians available to students, I was taken aback. I talk to him frequently about his school and the amazing ways in which he supports his students, so I was shocked to learn that this large high school was so under-resourced in this area. The school seems to be on its way toward providing wraparound services, with a brand new food pantry and the dedication of counselors like my friend. Yet this conversation made me realize that the services I took for granted in Baltimore City schools -- which were still often insufficient to meet the high level of need -- did not exist everywhere.
This was a critical and humbling realization. Of course, if we could make students' barriers disappear -- or at least provide them with the resources that they need to overcome these barriers and thrive -- we would. But in the absence of a magic wand, what can we do? From my lens, this is where needs assessments and data tracking can play a huge role. Imagine if we collected stories from students, families, and staff about the challenges faced by the school community, each stakeholder group's perceived needs, and their recommendations for meeting those needs. Now think about if we used factual data about the community and student population to support those stories. What we would get is an intensely compelling, collective narrative about what this community needs and how its members feel those needs could be met.
Could a needs assessment or set of data instantly bring on a full slate of mental health workers at this school? Of course not. But when we tell our story effectively, people (read: funders, decision-makers, influencers) listen. And when people start listening, we can inspire them to make change.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the second post of the new blog.
Most of us have been raised to believe that school is the great equalizer, the ticket to success in life, or the escape from the circumstances into which you were born. For many people, this adage has undoubtedly been true. This principle is what drew me into education -- that providing high-quality educational opportunities could help those who had fewer advantages given to them in life and could thereby inspire and uplift future generations. I have worked to provide direct educational and wrap-around services to students and families and supported and coached school teams trying to do the same for their communities.
However, the more time I spend in urban education, and the more I read about and study the history of it, the less I am convinced of this idealism. Certainly, I still believe that schools have the potential to be incredible hubs of learning, caring, and growing -- for students, staff, and families alike. However, for communities and populations whose opportunity to take advantage of "the great equalizer" has been quietly and systematically squandered by discriminatory and self-serving policies (For a primer, read James Ryan's Five Miles Away, A World Apart), schools simply cannot overcome the influence of these social and political forces and their resultant effects alone. Of course, I still wholeheartedly believe in the power of family and community engagement, in the promise of community schools, and in the hope that dedicated and compassionate professionals bring to the students and families they serve. Yet, we must address the root causes of the challenges faced in order to see systemic change in our educational systems across the country.
Yesterday, basketball star LeBron James made a landmark announcement that works to address these root causes for students at his I Promise School here in Ohio. In partnership with a boutique hotel chain, the Lebron James Family Foundation will be renovating a historic building near the school's campus in order to provide transitional housing for families of students at I Promise who are experiencing homelessness. For those families, this is a game-changer.
In the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the definition of homelessness has a much wider reach than some could imagine. According to the law, those designated as "homeless" refers to "... individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This could include:
Due to the wide variety of conditions that could qualify a person or family as homeless, it is often difficult to get an accurate estimate of the scope of the problem. A report from HUD estimated that on a single night in early 2018, over 552,000 people experienced homelessness, an increase from the previous year. One-third of this identified homeless population consisted of families with children. However, it is likely that this estimate was unable to capture the full range of individuals and families without safe, permanent housing, especially those who are staying with friends or family.
The effects of being homeless on children and youth are numerous and significant. Julianelle and Foscarinis (2003) write that the McKinney-Vento Act works to protect these students from unnecessary disruption and mobility, which can lead to inconsistent social connections and educational supports. We know that students who are homeless are also likely to live in poverty, and this combination of traumatic situations can only amplify their effects; Murphy and Tobin (2011) discuss the wide range of effects that homeless students experience. These include: health issues from less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and environments, reduced access to proper medical care, or an inadequate food supply; mental health issues stemming from an increase risk of being a victim of violence, a lack of stable social supports, and the stress of not having a stable or permanent home; and academic issues as a result of potential developmental delays; frequently changing schools; and high rates of chronic absenteeism.
To mitigate some of these many risk factors, McKinney-Vento enables homeless students to stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they are temporarily living in a different area; receive transportation to and from their temporary residence to that school; enroll into school right away, even if they do not have all of the necessary documents; and access supports at the school level, such as a designated liaison. Certainly, schools and districts have some control over the extent to which the McKinney-Vento regulations are implemented, and we can only hope that they err on the side of increased supports to this vulnerable population.
The Community Schools movement is another effort to help stabilize families and students in order to facilitate greater access to and success with educational opportunities. Partnerships with community organizations and agencies, as well as rich and mutual home-school relationships are ways in which community schools work to mitigate challenges and support students and families. For example, school-based coordinators can partner with and connect families to local organizations that focus on issues of housing and family stability, or they could spearhead efforts within the school to provide extra supports to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness.
All of these efforts are admirable and helpful. Yet, I still ask, "What more could schools possibly do?" Although schools can support their students and families and connect them to community resources, it is very difficult for schools to address root causes of complex issues like poverty or homelessness. I have seen some criticism that LeBron is being hailed as a hero while school districts that may want to support their students more comprehensively often do not have the funds to do so. I argue instead that no matter how much funding schools get, it is unlikely that they could ever provide a stabilizing intervention like the one that LeBron James just promised to the most vulnerable families at the I Promise School.
We should use this initiative of an example of what could happen if agencies worked together more effectively, if true efforts were made to alleviate the damages done by years of discriminatory policy, and if compassion -- not politics -- was what ruled collective decision-making in education and society. From an evaluator standpoint, LeBron has created a beautiful natural experiment. I do hope that there is research done to study the trajectories of these students and families, as they get settled in their new homes and later on in their lives. From a human standpoint, I am simply thankful that LeBron has chosen to use his personal money to make what I know is an immeasurable impact on the lives of these young people and their families.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.